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Insider's hockey journey

by David Scott | January 9, 2014

Brian Conacher

He was on Western’s first intercollegiate hockey team in the 1960s. And on the last Maple Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. He’s witnessed and participated in some landmark hockey moments, like cocommentating the Russian Summit Series with legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt in 1972; becoming one of the first members of the National Hockey League Players Association (NHLPA) and even being an extra in the 1977 hockey cult classic movie SlapShot starring Paul Newman.

Aside from that, he’s a best-selling author, former GM of the Edmonton Oilers and former CEO of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton and Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, among other accomplishments in the world of hockey.

Some might think he had big shoes to fill but Brian Conacher, BA’68 (History, Huron), never felt the pressure to become a professional athlete or to match his father’s success. Sports were just something he and his brother Lionel Jr., HBA’60, took to naturally.

His father was Lionel Conacher Sr., voted Canada’s top athlete of the first half of the 20th century and MP for Toronto’s Trinity district. Nicknamed ‘The Big Train,’ he died tragically in 1954 when Brian was just 12, while playing a game of softball with fellow politicians versus parliamentary press gallery members on the front lawn of the House of Parliament.

Brian turned out to be, among other things, a pro hockey player, along with five other relatives who have their own place in NHL hockey lore, including the only three brothers (Charlie, Lionel & Roy) to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

From the age of 15, Brian was a member of the Marlies junior team (Toronto Marlboros) affiliated with the Maple Leafs. Sports rotated with the seasons for the young Conacher – football in the fall, hockey in the winter and track in the spring as a student at Upper Canada College (UCC) in Toronto.

“I was a terrible student. My favourite subjects were lunch and recess. I got A-pluses in them.”

He got into the preliminary program at Huron College, in 1962. Legendary Western football coach John Metras, LLD’75, knew Conacher had played high school football.

“He was sort of a mentor, as he was to a lot of players. Great respect and respectful fear.”

Conacher describes Metras as “a big, burly guy, who could scare the **** out of you, literally.”

His brother had been at Western and played for Metras. “Lionel was leaving the year I started to play football. Metras was always looking for players. He told Brian,

“In your first year, you’re going to come out and practice with the Colts but you’re not going to play. I’m going to keep an eye on you and you have to pass your first year or you’re out.”

Brian Conacher, member of Mustangs hockey team, far right, middle row.
Brian Conacher, member of Mustangs hockey team, far right, middle row.

Conacher realized he had to “buckle down” on his schoolwork to stay in sports. But as fate would have it, just before the season was about to start for the Mustangs, two of their running backs got hurt.

“My roommate was a guy called Ed Potomski from Windsor. He was a fullback and I was a halfback and we both played on the Colts. And probably because there wasn’t anybody else, we ended up getting called up to the Mustangs.”

Conacher admits the 1962-63 team was decent but not a great team. Personally, he exceeded expectations. “I ended up being an all-star that season. Sort of unexpected, not only to me but to everybody else.”

As soon as football was over, it was work for the rest of the year to pass his courses. There would be no time for hockey but, as it turns out, Western had not yet entered the intercollegiate hockey league with other Ontario universities.

The summer of 1963, Conacher was invited by coach Father David Bauer to be part of Canada’s first amateur National Hockey Team (Nats) to compete internationally at the 1964 Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.

Bauer, a former St. Michael’s Major coach, was given government money to establish this team of amateur hockey players, who would get a university education at UBC while training for the team to compete at the Innsbruck Olympics.

Bauer was an accomplished player himself and his brother Bobby had played a successful career with the Boston Bruins. Both brothers are in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

One of the deciding factors to join this program was his father had done everything in sports, except participate in the Olympic Games. “I remember my mother saying that one of his regrets was that he hadn’t gone to the Olympics. He had a chance to go to the Olympics but for whatever reason – whether he turned professional or whatever – he didn’t go.”

Conacher described Bauer as not only inspirational but a knowledgeable hockey coach. “It was a very unique program. It met with a lot of resistance from the NHL.” Conacher wrote about the experience in his first book, Hockey in Canada: The Way It Is. (1970) “It was a tribute to Father Bauer and that program because at that time, the NHL was and still is the primary focal point of hockey in Canada. In those days, the combination of going to school and becoming an NHLer just weren’t compatible.”

The Nats were a victim of international hockey politics at the 1964 Winter Olympics when Canada was the bronze medal winner prior to the medal ceremony when officials changed the rules at the last minute about qualifications based on goal difference and Czechoslovakia was awarded bronze. The move would mark a tumultuous road ahead in international hockey relations and led Canada to withdraw from International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) competition from 1970-76.

Conacher returned to Western for his second year in the fall of 1964, back to Huron College again. Western, under coach Bill L’Heureux, was now in the intercollegiate hockey league with Queen’s, McGill and other schools.

Halfway through hockey season Conacher hurt his knee. “I had bursitis very badly on my kneecap.” He was out of commission for a couple of weeks. While that was happening, Canada was going to go to the 1965 World Championships in Tampere, Finland, in March. Father Bauer wanted Conacher to be on the team. He told the coach about the injury but ended up going anyway.

“We didn’t do very well in that world championship. Then I came back and I really had to scramble for school. I had to work hard at it but I started to get good grades. In my second year at Western I had a B average. For me it was far beyond anything I thought I’d be able to attain.”

To complicate his future plans further, that spring the Calgary Stampeders offered to draft him. His brother had played a couple of years with the Montreal Alouettes.

“He was an all-star fullback in intercollegiate football but when you went into the CFL, most of the running backs in the backfield positions were occupied by Americans. As a lot of the CFL was and still is.” Conacher realized as a halfback, he wasn’t likely going to make the Stampeders – or end up being pushed out of his position to something unfamiliar like a wide receiver.

“To me, football is a game of collision (and a shorter career) and hockey was a game of avoidance. Although, that’s changed now.”

Instead, he chose to attend the Toronto Maple Leafs training camp in the fall of 1965. He was awarded a two-year contract with the Leafs’ American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate, the Rochester Americans. A few notable players were on the team at the time like Don Cherry and Al Arbour.

Conacher made his decision just as the 1965-66 school year was starting.

“I went and played for Rochester that year and we won the Calder Cup. We had a terrific hockey team. And the Leafs didn’t do very well that year. So, the transition was starting to take place between the older players that were sort of getting long in the tooth – they’d won three Cups in a row – and now the bubble had sort of burst and it was creating some potential opportunity for some younger players.”

Those younger players included Conacher, Mike Walton, Jim McKenny, Wayne Carleton, Jimmy Pappin, Pete Stemkowski and Ron Ellis.

“To me, to get paid $5,500 a year was something and to play hockey in the AHL or CHL and give up my education just didn’t seem to make sense.”

So, Conacher played that season and then returned to Western in summer school at Huron. With no time to waste or “time off” to enjoy he went back to Leafs training camp in the fall of ’66 and made the team. Even Conacher admits, it wasn’t a great season but that team came together at the end of the season.

The Leafs squeaked into the last playoff spot. They faced Chicago, the runaway first place team that year. They had some of the greats like Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glen Hall in goal.

“We ended up beating them and probably the highlight of my career was that in the sixth game in Toronto, I scored two goals, including the winning goal and that put us into the Stanley Cup final.”

It was a pinnacle year for hockey in Canada. Not only was 1967 Canada’s Centennial, it marked the last season of the Original Six. The final series was Toronto versus Montreal, where the 1967 World Expo was being held from April to October.

Both the series and final game was so close, that Conacher says it wasn’t until George Armstrong scored an empty net goal late in the game to make it 3-1, that the Leafs thought “we could win this.” Probably not the way most hockey players launched their careers but Conacher was fortunate to start his pro hockey experience by winning the Calder Cup in his first year and the Stanley Cup in his second.

“I played my best hockey in the playoffs. I scored three goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Two of them were winning goals (Game 6 vs. Chicago & Game 5 vs. Montreal). I wasn’t really a goal scorer. But I played better under those kinds of circumstances.”

In the meantime, in the spring of 1967, he got married on May 15, less than two weeks after winning the Stanley Cup. “Then I was back in summer school.” Conacher played for the Leafs for one final season “on a terrible team” and then it was back to summer school for a final time in 1968 to earn his degree in the fall of ’68.

“So, when people say ‘when did you go to Western?’, I say I went in the Sixties. I thought with my education I could do something better. I realized my brain was going to have to carry me a lot further than my legs were over the course of my life.”

To read about Brian Conacher’s views on violence in hockey today, his experience during the shooting of Slapshot, the Canada/Russian Series and his other hockey adventures, please go to:  More tales of hockey lore

This article appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Alumni Gazette
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