x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Larger than life Lionel

Conacher was nicknamed 'Freight Train' but did he travel the journey to greatness?


Who do you think is sport's all-time best? Each week, we will profile a candidate, inviting you to decide who should top our list of 50. All participants will be entered into a draw for the weekly adidas prize and an end-of-contest Etihad Holidays four-day trip for two, including business class flights and accommodation, to a mystery location. We will reveal the full 50 at the end, but this week Neil Vorano looks at Canadian all-rounder Lionel Conacher.

In 1999, the Canadian Press voted Wayne Gretzky, the ice hockey player, Canada's top male athlete of the second half of the 20th century. But had the award encompassed the entire millennium, the Great One would have been passed over for an even greater one. Though Gretzky was arguably the best ice hockey player to lace up a pair of skates, he would have been overshadowed by a man whose domination in so many different sports would have made him an unimaginable superstar were he alive today.

As it was, Lionel Conacher enjoyed his glory years in the 1920s and 1930s, and, as a result, has fallen out of Canada's collective consciousness. But Conacher, or "Freight Train" as he had become known, reached the pinnacles of success at the highest echelons of ice hockey, rugby-style football, baseball, boxing, lacrosse and wrestling - a level of sportsmanship that has never been approached by anyone in the modern world before or since.

Lionel Conacher was born in Toronto in 1900, the oldest of 10 children. He quit school in Grade 8 to help support his family, and quickly realised his athleticism was the best way out of the slum he was raised in. He was quick (running the 100m in under 10 seconds), he was strong, and he had a coordination that made him an immediate natural in any sport. At 16, he won the Ontario 61kg wrestling championship. At this age he also taught himself to skate/

When he was 20, he became the Canadian light-heavyweight boxing champion. His ice hockey skills had progressed to a point where he was actually offered a contract with the Toronto St Pats of the National Hockey League for US$3,000 (Dh11,000) - about three times the average salary at the time. He was also asked to play baseball for the Detroit Tigers. But Conacher turned them down and took a job at a bank so he could continue to play lacrosse and football - at the time, a professional athlete was barred from playing amateur sport.

Conacher joined the Toronto Argonauts of the Ontario Rugby Football Union (a precursor to the professional Canadian Football League), and scored 23 of the team's 27 points in his first game. In 1921, the Argonauts made it to the Grey Cup, the first east-west game in Canadian football history. Against the Edmonton Eskimos, Conacher scored 15 of the Argonauts 23 points to help Toronto win the cup.

Incredibly, Conacher didn't even stick around to the end - he left the game in the third quarter to catch a taxi and help his Aura Lee team win the Ontario Hockey Assocation championship that same night. After turning down another professional ice hockey offer, Conacher moved to Pittsburgh, USA, to play football and ice hockey on a scholarship at Bellafonte Academy. On his departure, a newspaper stated it was "one of the Yankees' greatest victories since the War of Independence".

During this time, he fought and lost an exhibition match with world heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey. Conacher eventually realised he could make a good living with sport, so he signed a then-record contract of $7,500 with the Pittsburgh Pirates of the NHL in 1925. It was the start of a successful career in which Conacher played for four teams, won two Stanley Cups and was named an All-Star. He was a gritty player who often led the league in penalty minutes. Conacher began to ply his trades in other professional leagues.

In 1926, he played Triple-A baseball with the Toronto Maples Leafs and won the Little World Series. In 1930, he joined the International Indoor Lacrosse League and went on to become its top-scorer and win the championship. Then, in 1932, he added a fourth professional sport by becoming a wrestler, going undefeated in 26 matches. His victories were not contained to the playing arenas. Conacher had become an alcoholic, so much so that his brother Charlie observed Lionel "seemed bent on a literal interpretation of the soft drink slogan, 'Drink Canada Dry'."

But with a daughter on the way in 1930, Conacher faced his problem and, calling it his "hardest battle as an athlete", beat his addiction. In 1937, he retired from professional sport, battered with more than 600 stitches, a nose that had been broken eight times, and numerous other injuries. He went on to become a member of provincial parliament in Ontario, then a member of federal parliament in 1949.

The story of Lionel Conacher is so fantastical that, were it a work of fiction, would be dismissed as implausible, impossible, outrageous. And for a man so much larger than life, his end was fitting for such a legend. In 1954, playing in a softball game with members of parliament, he died of a massive heart attack - after reaching third base on a triple. Conacher was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.

In 1932 - while he was still playing sport - the Canadian Press began an annual award in his name that is still handed out today, given to Canada's top male athlete. In 1950, he was named Canada's best athlete of the first half of the century, but it would be a shame to not officially recognise Lionel Conacher as the country's greatest sportsman. nvorano@thenational.ae

Cast your vote and enter a draw for a weekly Dh500 adidas voucher and a dream trip with Etihad Holidays. If you think Conacher is the all-time best, text G26 to 2337 Texts cost Dh5 and voting will end at midnight on Thursday October 16.