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Canada's Best Athlete – Modelled from a Book

For the week of Monday May 22, 2006

On May 24, 1900, Canada celebrated Queen Victoria’s 85th birthday and, on the same day, Lionel Pretoria Conacher was born in Toronto. He was named after the South African city of Pretoria, which was under siege during the South African War at this time and was evidence of his family’s allegiance to the British. The oldest in the large Conacher family, Lionel grew up in the poor and rough north end of Toronto to eventually become “Canada’s Best Athlete.”

Lionel Pretoria Conacher
© Archives of Ontario
As a youth, Conacher’s favourite book was Frank Merriwell’s Return to Yale by Burt L. Standish. Merriweel was a fictional character who was a hero in many sporting and social events. Ironically, Conacher would imitate Merriwell’s prowess. Growing up in a time when the sports industry was developing, Lionel saw that his ticket out of the rough north end was physical activity.

At 16, he was crowned the Ontario Wrestling Champion and a year later won the Light Heavyweight Boxing of Canada title. In 1919, both hockey teams he played on captured Canadian titles and the Toronto St. Pats of the National Hockey League offered him a contract worth $3500 - nearly three times a normal salary.He declined to maintain his amateur status and stay eligible for other sports. In June 1924, after hitting home the winning run for his Toronto baseball team, Lionel took a taxi across town to score the winning goal for his lacrosse team. Besides hockey, lacrosse and baseball, football was his best sport. He was dubbed “Big Train” for his size and speed. In 1921, he played his first game for the Toronto Argonauts and scored 23 of his team’s 27 points.

However, realizing that through hockey he could make more money, he turned professional in 1925. He played until 1937 with several teams including the Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, New York Americans, Chicago Blackhawks and Montréal Maroons and won numerous all-star awards and Stanley Cups with his rugged defensive play.

Conacher rushing for the Argos
© Toronto Argonauts Football Club Inc.
For family and health reasons – having accumulated 650 stitches and numerous fractures – Big Train retired from pro sports in 1937, and ran as the Liberal MPP in his hometown Bracondale riding. Several years later, first in 1949 and then in 1954, Big Train was elected as a federal Liberal MP for his Trinity riding. Sadly, during a Parliamentary softball game in 1954 while rounding the bases, Lionel Conacher collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 54 years of age.

In 1950, Canadian sports writers voted Lionel Pretoria Conacher Canada’s Male Athlete of the Half Century. He was also inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1994, and is a National Historic Person. For more information, please visit the website of the Toronto Argonauts.

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