Many decades before the cannon blasts of Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber, and of Al MacInnis and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and other thunderous shooters before them, there was the man known as “The Big Bomber.”
Charlie Conacher, the second captain in Toronto Maple Leafs history after Clarence “Hap” Day, possessed the most fearsome shot of the 1930s, the rockets off his heavy wooden stick a terrifying sight for maskless, thinly padded goaltenders; that is, when the goalies saw the puck at all.
Conacher was a mountain of a man at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, a skater who was taller and heavier than almost every NHL player of his day. And when the right wing unloaded shots, which he did with great zeal from every part of the rink, the results usually weren’t pleasant for the goalie standing in the way.
The Toronto native was a massive star on Maple Leafs teams from 1929-30 through 1937-38, before he signed for a season with the Detroit Red Wings and played the final two seasons of his 459-game NHL career with the New York Americans.
Conacher was a member of the Stanley Cup-winning Maple Leafs team in 1931-32, and five times between 1930-31 and 1935-36 he was the NHL’s leader or co-leader in goals. Playing on Toronto’s legendary “Kid Line” with Joe Primeau and Harvey “Busher” Jackson, he twice led the League in points, more than a decade before the Art Ross Trophy was introduced to honor the feat.
In October 2016 Conacher was voted No. 11 on a list of the top 100 Maple Leafs, as chosen by a panel and a fan balloting, having been elected to the Hall of Fame in 1961, six years before he died of cancer at 58.
In his prime, what got fans, teammates and opposing goalies talking most about “The Big Bomber” was his shot, a heavy, wrist-flicked snap perfected two decades before the slap shot was popularized by Geoffrion of the Canadiens.
Never was Conacher’s shot more frightening than in the third and final game of the 1932 Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers, with Toronto steaming toward a sweep.
It was midway through the second period at Maple Leaf Gardens when Conacher unleashed a drive at Rangers goaltender John Ross Roach. Toronto Star sports editor Lou Marsh described the scene in the next day’s edition:
“It was a period that almost ended in tragedy,” Marsh wrote. “Young Chuck Conacher, 205 pounds of TNT, let one of his smoking shots go from away over the fence just inside the blue line.
“Roach, as game as a badger, threw himself in front of the sizzler and it hit him under the heart. The terrific impact drove him back into the nets, but he straightened up again and the puck was cleared.
“Then he slowly dropped his stick, struggled a second with his gloved hands at his throat, and silently folded up and dropped to the ice. He looked like a man shot through the heart.
“There was a moment’s awed silence and then a rippling groan as Roach stiffened out on the ice,” Marsh continued. “It looked as if the popular Port Perry (Ontario) netman had been killed for he lay without a move. It was a solar plexus blow – a shock to the big motor centre of the body. It took Roach five minutes to recover.
“When Roach staggered back to his feet, Conacher skated over to him. It’s reported he said to his rival and old friend, ‘Don’t worry, Johnny, that’s the last high shot you’ll see from me tonight.’ “
Charlie Conacher was born Dec. 10, 1909, in Toronto, one of 10 children – five boys and five girls – in one of Canada’s greatest sporting families, all of the siblings excellent in school athletics.
Charlie was a poor skater at first, a goaltender from the start because he was so weak on blades. But he worked fiercely to improve and was a promising junior when the Toronto Marlboros dressed him as a forward for the 1927-28 season.
Charlie saw light at the end of his tunnel after a childhood lived in poverty, saying, “I was born in one of Toronto’s high-class slums. We didn’t have a pretzel, we didn’t have enough money to buy toothpaste. … We were poor as church mice.”
Yet this did nothing to keep the children from thriving as athletes, most notably brothers who are the only three siblings immortalized in the Hockey Hall of Fame:
Lionel, the best athlete of the three, played for the NHL’s Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Americans, Montreal Maroons and Chicago Black Hawks, and Roy suited up for the Boston Bruins, Detroit and Chicago.
Lionel did well at any sport he tried – hockey, boxing, wrestling, lacrosse and baseball. In 1950 a panel of newspaper sports editors voted him greatest all-around athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
But it was Charlie, larger than life in Toronto, who most captured the imagination of Maple Leafs fans, arriving from the junior Marlboros in 1929-30 to score 20 goals in 38 games, with coach Dick Irvin putting Conacher on a line with center Primeau, 23, and left wing Jackson, 18, to form the “Kid Line.” During a seven-season span from 1929-36, the trio piled up nearly 800 points.
He was a priceless teammate to the men he played with, his sheer size a deterrent to those who wished to take liberties with smaller players.
“I never had a finer friend in Toronto than Charlie,” said diminutive defenseman Frank “King” Clancy, a teammate of Conacher’s with the Maple Leafs from 1930-37. “He was my protection as a Maple Leaf. He didn’t go looking for trouble, but if it came along, he would clear it up.”
Conacher was the brightest light on a team known through the 1930s as “The Gashouse Gang,” leading by deed and example. Barely out of his teens, he had fans and seasoned hockey men taking sharp notice.
“What amazed the veterans was the fact that 20-year-old Conacher not only could take it, but he could dish it out as well. They began to treat him with a respect seldom before afforded a newcomer,” wrote Ed Fitkin, a former Maple Leafs public relations man, in his 1953 book “The Gashouse Gang of Hockey.”
Growing with Conacher’s fame was his joie de vivre, a soaring spirit that often caught unsuspecting teammates in its crosshairs.
Two pranks of note:
One night in New York, fuming about being cast on Irvin’s checking line, Maple Leafs plugger Harold “Baldy” Cotton was rambling on to roommate Conacher about his lot in life, saying he’d never again pass the puck. Conacher listened for so long, then grabbed Cotton by the ankles and dangled him outside their hotel room upside down, many stories above Times Square.
“Do you think you could shut up if I let you back in?” Conacher called down to his howling teammate, according to former Maple Leafs general manager Frank Selke in his 1962 book “Behind the Cheering.”
Cotton, terrified of heights, zipped his lip but only after pleading for his life.
Then there was the time, Selke related, when Conacher and then-captain Day conspired to relieve the boredom of the road in Boston, offering Red Horner $25 if he’d swim fully clothed, his suitcase trailing behind him, across a hotel swimming pool. Horner made the swim but earned not a penny for it; Conacher said he’d forgotten to collect $1 from each player for the wager.
If his pranks were legendary, it was Conacher’s world-class talent and his trailblazing that made him a legend in Toronto. On Nov. 12, 1931, he scored the first Toronto goal at sparkling new Maple Leaf Gardens, and on Jan. 19, 1932, he became the first player in franchise history to score five goals in one game, in an 11-3 rout of the New York Americans.
He would miss plenty of playing time with injuries, but was so skilled that his spot in the lineup always was waiting when he returned.
Just as important to his fans was that “The Big Bomber” was a man of the people who never forgot his roots, either walking down the street or running a downtown Toronto gas station with Lionel in the mid-1930s, with drivers lining up around the block to fill up at his pumps.
“The fondest memories I have of Charlie were the ones that found us scrounging apples off other people’s trees or getting a freshly baked loaf of bread from Canada Bread,” wrote longtime Conacher friend Red Burnett, a Toronto Star columnist.
“There were card games in the park, pick-up sides, battles with gangs from other parks, all of it valuable in the learning the art of survival. That was Conacher, leader and champion of the poor sweats who knew what it was to be hungry and without a dime.”