"Big Train" Lionel Conacher
If you didn't hear about Lionel Conacher's career from a reliable source, you'd swear it was too fantastic to be true. With apologies to Gene Kiniski and Iron Mike Sharpe, it is Conacher who was really "Canada's Greatest Athlete." He was a charter inductee in the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame (1951), and has been inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame (1963), the Hockey Hall of Fame (1994), and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (1955).
His wrestling career never reached hall-of-fame status. As an amateur, Conacher won the Ontario championship in the 125 pound weight class as a 16 year old in 1916. After training with Ali Hassan, he made his pro debut in May 1932 for Toronto promoter Ivan Mickailoff. Researcher John Murphy tells me that Conacher went 27-0 as a pro wrestler in Canada and the U.S. in 1933 and never lost a match in his career.
In football, Conacher played halfback for the Toronto Argonauts (1921-22) and won the Grey Cup in 1921. The Globe called him "one of the most feared ball-carriers in the game." The previous year, he had won hockey's Memorial Cup as a member of the Toronto Canoe Club Paddlers.
Conacher went on to a 12-year career in the NHL (1925-37), mostly with the Montreal Maroons, where he was a second-team all-star defenseman in 1932-33, and played on the Stanley Cup winning team of 1934-35. He first played on a Stanley Cup winner in his one season with the Chicago Blackhawks (1933-34), where Conacher was also a first-team all-star.
As a hockey player, not only was Conacher a solid defenseman, he was also known for his fighting. He was among the penalty-minutes leaders, and even had a fight with his younger brother Charlie, a leading goal scorer with the Maple Leafs.
Conacher was a member of the Toronto Maple Leaf baseball team that won the Triple-A championship in 1926. And, in addition to being one of the greatest lacrosse players in the country, he was also an undefeated light-heavyweight boxer (and fought an exhibition bout against Jack Dempsey in 1922).
After retiring from sports, Conacher was elected as a member of the Liberal party to the Ontario legislature in 1937 and to the Canadian House of Commons in 1949 and again in 1953. Conacher was voted Canada's Athlete of the Half Century by the Canadian Press in 1950.
He died in 1954, at age 53, suffering a heart attack after running out a triple in a softball game between MPs and the press corps at Parliament Hill.
"Lionel Conacher, known as Canada's greatest all-around athlete, will make his debut in professional wrestling at the Arena Gardens, Mutual St., to-night. Conacher has convinced Michailoff that he is "big league" timber, and the wily matchmaker avers that Conacher is the best newcomer he ever saw in action. It is safe to say that Toronto fans will be amazed when they see Conacher in action. He has never been a failure in any branch of sport."
(From THE TORONTO DAILY STAR, May 3, 1932)
"It looks as if Big Mike has a new ace in Conacher. To begin with, he is already the athletic symbol of Canada and he needs no ballyhoo. He knew something about wrestling before Mike put him to school and he has the speed, size and fighting heart to make him a great drawing card."
(From THE TORONTO DAILY STAR, May 4, 1932)
"Conacher, the greatest all-round athlete ever turned out by Canada, in addition to being one of the finest hockey players in history, also rated high in baseball, rugby, lacrosse, rowing and boxing. In his debut as a matman in Toronto, he threw Carl Pospeshil in straight falls."
(From THE RING, July 1932)