In the History of North American Sports, there has been a fair share of multi-sport athletes going back for over a century. One of the most famous multi-sport athletes is a Native – American Jim Thorpe (Born 1887. Died 1953).
Jim Thorpe was primarily known for playing Running Back for the Canton Bulldogs, which is a defunct team going back to the pre–National Football League (NFL), which was called the American Professional Football Association (APFA).
Not only did Jim Thorpe play professional football, but also played baseball, track, lacrosse, hockey, tennis, boxing, handball, and even ballroom dancing.
But did you know that Canada has an athlete with the same accolades? Yes, you heard that correctly. Canada’s version of a multi-sport athlete is Lionel Conacher also known as “The Big Train”.
Lionel Conacher was born in Toronto on May 24th, 1900 in the Davenport section of Toronto to a very poor family. He was the eldest son, and 3rd oldest out of 10 children to Elizabeth and Benjamin Conacher.
His father was a Teamster Union Representative and struggled to support his family. At a young age in order to earn extra money to help out his family, Lionel would haul sod, along with plowing snow off of skating rinks in the winter.
While attending the Jesse Ketchum school, Lionel participated in multiple sports which was encouraged by the school principal at the time as a way of staying out of trouble. It was there that a young Lionel noticed his natural hidden talent in football. It was here where a young Lionel Conacher realized that sport could be a way out of poverty.
At the age of 16, Lionel Conacher won the Lightweight Ontario Championships in wrestling. At the age of 20, Lionel Conacher won the Canadian Amateur Light-Weight Boxing Championships. At the age of 21, Lionel Conacher took on the great Jack Dempsey in an exhibition boxing match in which he was knocked out by the Heavyweight Champion.
Rugby Football (Called back in those days) was Lionel’s first sport and favorite to play. He first began to play the sport at the age of 12 playing in the Toronto Rugby Football League (TRFL).
At the age of 20, Lionel made the jump to playing at a senior level where he was now playing in the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (IPRU) for the Toronto Rugby Club. It was there that his talents were noticed by the Toronto Argonauts, and signed with the Toronto Argonauts in 1921.
When 1921 came around, Lionel Conacher was already the team captain, and an instrumental part of the success of the Toronto Argonauts winning the Grey Cup over Edmonton 23-0. Lionel Conacher would play one more season in 1922 with the Toronto Argonauts before putting a pause on his football career for other sporting commitments.
During the 1921 Grey Cup game, Lionel Conacher would leave the game during the 3rd quarter. He would take a short cab ride from Varsity Stadiums and head further south to Arena Gardens, later called Mutual Street Arena (Home of the Toronto Arenas, later called the Toronto St. Pats, prior to being called the Maple Leafs and located to Maple Leaf Gardens). He would play an amateur hockey game at the Arena Gardens where he would score 2 goals. At day’s end, Lionel Conacher scored 2 touchdowns, and 2 goals in the same day.
Lionel did not learn how to skate until was 16 years old. A far cry from today’s standards, as a 16-year-old is already on his or her way to be playing the latter part of AAA and or on the verge of being selected into a Major Junior team for further development into the National Hockey League (NHL). For the most part, hockey has always been an expensive sport. This was no different for the Conacher family which was one of the last sports Lionel had embraced during his overall athletic development.
He played for the Toronto Century Rovers of the Aura Lee Athletic Club. Although he saw limited action coming from the bench, Lionel was determined to work on his skating ability and hockey fundamentals. And his hard work paid off.
During the 1918 – 1919 Season, and after only playing hockey for 3 years; Lionel joined the Toronto Canoe Club Paddlers. It was a team of all-star caliber players who had won the Memorial Cup as the top junior team in Canada.
With his success in junior hockey, and now receiving attention from the NHL, Lionel was offered a contract of $3,000.00 to play for the Toronto St. Pats for the 1920 – 1921 season. Lionel turned down the offer by the Toronto St. Pats, along with a $5000.00 a season offer from the Montreal Canadiens in 1921. At the time, Lionel did not want to go pro to continue his amateur status along with furthering his education.
The decision paid off in the long run, as he then attended Bellefonte Academy in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and later enrolled in Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when being discovered by Roy Schooley.
While in Pennsylvania, Lionel would play football for both schools in the fall, along with playing hockey for the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets of the United States Armature Hockey Association (USAHA). He also had a job working in the insurance business to help pay for his tuition.
To say Lionel’s time in Pennsylvania was great is an understatement. During his time, he was on the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets team winning back-to-back championships for the 1924 and 1925 seasons.
In 1925, the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets were re-named the Pittsburgh Pirates joining the (NHL).
Lionel Conacher also came from a family of athletes. Lionel’s younger brothers Charlie (Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, and New York Americans) and Roy (Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, and Chicago Black Hawks) are also both in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Lionel’s son, Lionel Conacher Jr, was drafted by the Montreal Alouettes playing 1 season in 1960. Brian Conacher, another son of Lionel Conacher, played for the Toronto Maple Leafs winning a Stanley Cup in the 1966-1967 season.
From 1925 to 1937, Lionel Conacher played professionally in the NHL as a Defenseman. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates for 2 seasons during the 1925-1926 season, along with the 19226-1927 season. He was later traded to the New York Americans during the 1926-1927 season which he would play there till the end of the 1929-1930 season. He would later be traded to the Chicago Black Hawks for the 1933-1934 season. In only 1 season in Chicago, Lionel Conacher was traded again to the Montreal Maroons for the 1934-1935 season. He would play professionally in the NHL till the end of the 1936-1937 season.
During his NHL career, Lionel Conacher would win back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Chicago Black Hawks during the 1933-1934 season, followed by the 1934-1935 season with the Montreal Maroons.
During the end of the 1925-1926 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Lionel Conacher returned to Toronto where he would be part of the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team that would go on to win the International League beating the Louisville Colonels.
Simultaneously after the 1931 season while in Montreal, Lionel Conacher also played Lacrosse. The sport was noticed to have a decline in interest among various Canadian and American cities in the past few years. The most notable for the decline, was the growth of football, hockey, baseball, and boxing as fan favorites on both sides of the 49th Parallel. It was during the 1931 season that NHL owners wanted to fill the void in an empty arena during the offseason, along with promoting the game of lacrosse. The push came from the Montreal Canadiens which the formation of the International Professional Lacrosse League (IPLL) had now begun play. Lionel Conacher was now a member of the Montreal Maroons lacrosse team.
Back to Football
During the offseason with the Montreal Maroons in 1933, Lionel Conacher returned home to Toronto where he wanted to get back to playing football. In getting back to football, Lionel Conacher was part of a group effort to launch a professional football league that would feature teams from both Canada and the United States of America.
Although the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union was now branded as the Interprovincial Football Union (IPFU), it was still considered professional by talent. However, it was still considered amateur as there were little to no salaries during this era.
Lionel Conacher was on a Toronto-based team playing an exhibition game vs a team from Rochester. A crowd of 10,000 spectators arrived and witnessed Lione Conacher’s 1st game in Canada in 10 years. And he did not disappoint. He scored 2 touchdowns and nearly had a 3rd in an 18 – 15 loss.
After the 1934 season, and at the age of 34, Lionel Conacher played his last season of football. The wear and tear on Lionel Conacher were showing signs and leaning towards retirement from football, and sports in general.
In 1937 Lionel Conacher ran for the Liberal Party of Canada during the 1937 General Election. He would have a seat representing the now-defunct Bracondale section of Toronto. He would also become a Member of Parliament (MPP) that same year. He would represent Bracondale until 1943 when the district was dissolved and merged with another district.
Lionel would stay in politics for the Liberal Party of Canada losing in the 1945 General Election to the Progressive Conservative incumbent. Lionel would return home to Toronto where he would represent his riding.
In the spring of 1945, Lionel was in Ottawa conducting Parliament duties.
On May 6th, 1954 Members of Parliament got together to play a softball game. Lione was asked to play in the annual game.
During the game, Lionel stretched a single into a triple. When getting to 3rd base, he began to breathe heavily. He would later collapse and die of a heart attack.
Greatest Male Athlete of the Half of the Century, 1950.
Canadian Sports Hall of Fame, 1955.
Canadian Football Hall of Fame, 1963.
Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame, 1966.
Hockey Hall of Fame, 1994.
Lionel Conacher Award (Canadian Press Male Athlete of the Year).
Grey Cup Champion, 1921.
Stanley Cup Champion, 1933-1934, and 1934-1935.
When looking at past great athletes, there were many past and present that were and are multi-sport athletes. However, Lionel Conacher, just like Jim Thorpe stood the testament of time. No 2 athletes laid a foundation of excellence in excelling in multiple sports simultaneously. You can debate that the level of competition was not as great in any other era after their playing days, and rightfully so. However, you can also debate that raw talent, nutrition in those past eras, and equipment to nowhere near the level of today also play a big role. Can a quarterback now throw a football pre-lace era? It would be difficult to do into today’s game. Let’s just say if there were multi-sport athletes like both Jim Thorpe and Lionel Conacher playing today, it would be great to see live.