The weird thing about a team as illustrious as the Toronto Maple Leafs was that, despite being only behind the Montreal Canadiens in the historical depth charts, they rarely had players that you could argue to be the best in the world, even in their role. They’d grab a Borje Salming, but Denis Potvin would be across the border ready to take him in Long Island. Mats Sundin was a first-ballot hall of famer, but played in the Gretzky-Lemieux-Jagr stretch generation, with even further talent overlapping him on any given year. Darryl Sittler would get out-shone by Guy Lafleur. Frank Mahovlich was no Gordie Howe. It goes on, and on.
But Charlie Conacher was the exception to that rule. Not only did he have his moment where he was the best, he had his better part of a decade. Charlie Conacher was the thirties, something no other Leaf could truly compare to.
Conacher lead the NHL in goals five times before his 27th birthday. To this day, only five other players have lead the league in goals five or more times, and those people are all in the Top-20 players of all time discussion: Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard, and Wayne Gretzky. Conacher was also the first player in NHL history to win the scoring title in back to back years; only Gordie Drillon (1938) has done it as a member of the Leafs since then.
What’s really amazing, though, is putting this success into context. Hockey-Reference’s adjusted points and goals system leads one to see Conacher’s peak as being some of the best hockey the sport has ever seen. Four of Conacher’s seasons rank in the top eighty single-season goal scoring performances in NHL history; his best year matches up to Teemu Selanne and Alexander Mogilny’s 76 goal seasons in 1992/93. He also had three seasons where he put up over 100 adjusted points; his five-year peak sees him average fifteen more adjusted points per year (96) than any other Leafs winger in history (recent departure Phil Kessel averaged 81 in his best stretch).
Most Memorable Moment
How about the time he dangled teammate Harry Cotton out of a window? I know some of you are going “how the hell?”, imagining Conacher deking left, Cotton juking right, stumbling and falling through glass, but this story is much more literal.
Cotton, annoyed that nobody fed him the puck in a game where he was frequently open, loudly proclaimed in his hotel room that he would never pass to a teammate in scoring position again. Conacher, who was trying to sleep, became annoyed, grabbed Cotton by the legs, and held him out the 20th story window. From The Hockey News’ look at Bill Roche’s “The Hockey Book”:
“He hung me, head-down, dangling 20 floors above the pavement,” Cotton said. “Everyone on the Leafs had known I had a fear of high places.”
Conacher, on the other hand – or foot as the case may be – had a fear of seditious teammates. He transmitted that feeling by swinging Cotton to and fro to the tune of, “Are you gonna pass the puck?” Then just to make his point, Conacher let Baldy drop another inch or two. Rather than count the pedestrians below, Cotton got the message. “I gave in,” he concluded, “and promised to pass the puck and be a good Maple Leaf.”
Convinced the punishment fit the crime, Conacher pulled his bud back to safety, and did what he started out to do in the first place – go to sleep. Cotton didn’t!
Coincidentally, this was the only year in a span of six where Conacher didn’t lead the league in goals.
- Most NHL goal-scoring titles as a Leaf (5)
- Most NHL scoring titles as a Leaf (2)
- 13th all time in goals (200, highest per game of all above him)
- 31st all time in points (324)
- Three time member of NHL First All Star Team
- Two time member of NHL Second All Star Team
- Hockey Hall of Fame, 1961
For a long time, Charlie Conacher was the Toronto Maple Leafs. While Busher Jackson and Joe Primeau were amazing talents, Conacher was the focal point of the Kid Line, arguably one of the best trios in NHL history. Conacher produced like few ever have, and made the Leafs into one of the best teams in the era.
He was bigger than his peers, skated faster, and shot harder, and was all around better. But he was also larger than life as a person; he parlayed his success on the ice into picking his family up from the proverbial ashes. Though he grew up in a rougher-than-most area of Toronto, he used his salary to invest in everything from gas stations to hotels, and often came out on top. He often used that money, along with his free time, to help with charitable and humanitarian causes, a tradition his friends continued when they raised the funds needed to create a hospital wing in his name.
While history will tend to lean in favour in those that we’ve seen on TV and have access to in-depth statistics for, one could definitely make a case that Conacher is the greatest Leafs player of all time; certainly the greatest winger, and probably the last Leaf to be the best player in the NHL.