Each day from now until the Winter Classic, Sportsnet will count down the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs of all time.
Watching old film footage of NHL games from the 1930s is funny. The ice looks like cement. There appear to be no lights on in the arena. The cameras can’t pick up the puck or the discrepancies in the uniforms, so determining who has possession and what team he plays for is mostly left to guesswork.
The playback jumps — seemingly at random — between slow motion, super-speed and choppy, dull tableaus. In one broadcast of a Toronto-Montreal matchup in 1933, Maple Leafs defenceman Andy Blair whacks an impossible-to-identify dark blob of a Montreal Canadien square in the temple with his stick, and all Foster Hewitt makes of it is: “Andy Blair just combed somebody’s head there with his stick.” Today they would call it an ugly attempt to injure. Outrage would ensue; suspensions would be called for. But this is 1933. So sure, “combed” will do.
But even the limitations of that day’s recording technology cannot stop one thing from absolutely leaping off the screen — the moment when Charlie Conacher and the rest of the “Kid Line” hop over the boards. Things instantly change whenever those three turn up. The arena comes to life with a whirl of energy as Conacher, Busher Jackson and Joe Primeau tear around the ice, racing past defenders and passing constantly.
With the game scoreless, Primeau wins the opening faceoff of the second period and pushes the puck to Conacher, who takes two strides past centre ice before winding up and unloading a low, hard shot that catches everyone in the rink by surprise, including Canadiens goalie Lorne Chabot as it bounces off his pads. Few fired from so far out in that day, but few had a shot like Conacher.
It was why the underprivileged kid who grew up on Davenport Road in Toronto’s west end was dubbed “The Big Bomber.” Radar guns hadn’t been invented yet, but if you asked any defenceman or goaltender at the time they would tell you Conacher had the hardest shot in hockey. And he liked nothing more than to use it, launching his bombs from all over the ice like he was playing the percentages. It worked; Conacher led the league in goals five times, scoring more than 30 in four separate seasons despite the fact that teams played just 48 games in his day. If you extrapolate his numbers from his prime to a full NHL season today, Conacher would be worth about 62 goals a year.
Anyone who saw Conacher play peewee never would have expected it. As a kid he struggled with his skating and was forced to play goalie because of it. This frustrated him so much that he spent any free time he had on the ice, trying to improve his speed. Eventually his determination paid off and Conacher was picked up by the Toronto Marlboros in 1927 when he was 18, leading the team in scoring and making it all the way to the Memorial Cup.
In his next junior season he scored 18 goals in just eight games as the Marlboros went back to the final and won. The Maple Leafs took notice and promoted Conacher to the NHL as a 19-year-old, where he immediately impressed with his shot and his skating.
It wasn’t that he was the smoothest skater or the most evasive; he simply didn’t have brakes. Conacher would get wound up in the neutral zone and paint a straight line toward the net, often stopping only when he crashed into it. At six feet and 200 lb. — sizable for that day — he was able to out-muscle defenders and cause all kinds of havoc as he tore through the crease. He also held his own when it came to hockey’s nastier arts, which earned the youngster the respect of Toronto veterans like Hap Day, Ace Bailey and King Clancy. Before long, Conacher was the veteran, and by the time he was 27 he was named the captain of the Maple Leafs for the 1937–38 season.
But his biggest contribution to the Buds was his prolific goal-scoring. Later in that same scoreless second period in Toronto, Jackson carried the puck out of the Maple Leafs end with all kinds of pace. He skated with Day on his immediate left and Conacher on the other side of Day, the three of them flying in horizontal formation toward the Canadiens zone.
As Jackson reached a Montreal defender he slid the puck over to Day, who carried it into the offensive zone and was met by another defender. Day stickhandled briefly before passing the puck to Conacher who was screeching along the left boards. Conacher, a right-handed shot on the wrong side of the ice, simply slapped at the puck with the backside of his stick blade, rifling it past Chabot.
Maple Leaf Gardens went nuts as men waved their hats in the air for Bomber. The play wasn’t anything fancy, but by the standards of that era, when end-to-end rushes were the primary offensive tactic, it was near poetic.
Conacher’s ability to find the back of the net fit perfectly on the Kid Line with Primeau, who was more gifted as a playmaker than a goal scorer, and Jackson, who most say could have led the league in goals himself, if not for the fact Conacher wasn’t terribly fond of passing the puck. Regardless, in three of the years that Conacher led the league in scoring, Primeau led the league in assists. The line’s chemistry spilled over into the playoffs where the trio combined for 34 goals and 71 points in 39 games from 1930–36.
None of those post-seasons was quite like 1931–32, the year the franchise opened Maple Leaf Gardens. Conacher scored the first goal in the new building on opening night and Toronto went on to set then–franchise records for wins (23) and points (53) in the regular season. Coach Dick Irvin rode the Kid Line all the way to the playoffs, with Conacher leading the league in goals with 34, Primeau leading the league in assists with 32 and Jackson leading the league in points with 53.
The team cruised to the Stanley Cup Final — losing just once on their way — where they swept the New York Rangers in three games. The Kid Line combined for eight goals in the Final alone and the 21-year-old Conacher led the playoffs with six in seven games. He cradled the Stanley Cup — you didn’t hoist it back then; it was only knee-high — at centre ice of Toronto’s new $1.5-million building, the first time the team had won it while named the Maple Leafs.
Conacher also beat his older brother Lionel, who had been in the league since 1925, to the Cup. Lionel eventually won two in 1934 and 1935, while Conacher’s younger brother Roy won a pair of his own in 1939 and 1941. All three siblings ended up in the Hall of Fame.
By the late ’30s, Conacher’s hell-bent style of play caught up with him. Over nine years as a Maple Leaf, he had suffered through a plethora of broken bones, blood poisoning from a cut on his hand and the removal of a kidney after he ruptured it crashing into the net. In the 1936–37 season he was able to play only 15 games due to a wrist injury and scored only three times. In ’37–38 he played just 19 games, sidelined for the rest with a dislocated shoulder.
Conacher simply burned out. So the Maple Leafs sold him — you could do that back then — to the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent a season before being shipped to the New York Americans. He played two campaigns then retired at 31.
He went on to coach the Oshawa Generals and Chicago Black Hawks, dabbling in the hotel and oil businesses in his spare time.
One of 10 Conacher children, the Big Bomber made the most of what life gave him. He used the exposure he garnered from his hockey prowess to boost his businesses, even opening a gas station with Lionel near their old stomping grounds, at the corner of Davenport and Yonge Street in Toronto. The cars were said to line up by the hundreds just for the chance to buy gas from an NHL superstar.
A week and a half after his 58th birthday Conacher was dead, quietly succumbing to throat cancer in a Toronto hospital. His body still rests in Toronto’s sprawling Mount Pleasant Cemetery — section 41, lot 351 — buried six feet deep under a massive grey headstone that simply reads “Charles W. Conacher” on the bottom. The stone stands out, just like Conacher did on the ice.