Voted Canada’s top athlete for the first half of the 20th century, Conacher starred as halfback when the CFL was a rugby union. He helped the hometown Argos to the 1921 Grey Cup. Unable to afford playing hockey as a boy, he took up skating in his teens and through studying skilled players, became proficient enough to play on the Memorial Cup champion Toronto Canoe Club.
Unwilling at first to lose his amateur status, Conacher eventually turned pro in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Pirates and won Stanley Cups with Chicago in 1934 and the Montreal Maroons the following year. Though Conacher didn’t play for the Leafs, brother Charlie and son Brian won Cups in Toronto.
Forward Gerry James was a Leaf who played football in Winnipeg and Saskatchewan. The youngest player in the CFL when he broke in with the Bombers in 1952, the 17-year-old could run and kick and helped them to four Grey Cups, winning two Outstanding Canadian player awards. Leaf property from back in his teen years, he freely moved between the junior Marlies, Leafs and CFL throughout the 1950s.
Leaf enforcer Tie Domi had a brief career as an Argo placekicker.
When Leaf owner Conn Smythe ordered pudgy goalie Turk Broda to lose weight or lose his job, many saw it as an attempt to hijack publicity from the 1949 Grey Cup at Toronto’s Varsity Stadium. Between 1945-54, the Cup was played exclusively at Varsity. The Argos were not in contention, but ‘49 was the first appearance by the Montreal Alouettes.
Broda had already won three straight Cups, but Smythe made a big deal about him being out of shape so early in the season. He called up two goalies from the minors and ordered Broda to start shedding pounds. The media ate up the story as Broda went for runs around the Gardens with fan and reporters in tow and was weighed regularly. In the end, he got down to Smythe’s 190-pound target.
Up the road, more than 20,000 jammed into Varsity to watch Montreal score in every quarter and beat the Calgary Stampeders 28-15.
MAKING BALLARD BLUE
When Harold Ballard bought the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1978 — after failed attempts to buy the Argos and get a second CFL team for Toronto — the Leaf owner further tweaked the Double Blue by putting Ti-Cat emblems on the ice at the Gardens.
That didn’t go well when the Boston Bruins came to town, a team with a staunch group of Argo fans in its ranks that included club boss Harry Sinden.
“Ballard had that huge logo at centre ice,” Sinden told the Toronto Sun in 1998. “Bob Tindall, one of our scouts, said, ‘damn that makes me mad, we should do something’.
“So we got some Argos flags that stretched the length of our bench and had the trainers sew them together. I couldn’t ask the players to wave them, but my nephew, Robbie McKay, and Don Cherry’s son, Tim, held them up. I told Hockey Night In Canada to shoot our bench during the national anthems. Harold was mad at me for years about that.”
CRUMP TO THE RESCUE
A consequence of Ballard’s foray into the CFL was Gardens treasurer Donald Crump’s surprise appointment as football commissioner in 1990.
Weary of Ballard’s squabbles with family and business rivals, Crump walked into his introductory press conference brandishing a bullwhip, joking he was going to keep some of the rogue CFL owners in line.
“I have a great deal of experience in finding out how to tie down a loose cannon,” he said of working with Ballard.
His arrival was good timing for a struggling league in need of a savvy businessman. Crump had already cleared up the financial mess Ballard inherited in Hamilton, whose collapse might have had a domino effect in the Eastern Conference.
“No question that at the time the league was close to folding,” said Jo-Anne Polak, then the 29-year-old general manager of the Ottawa Rough Riders. “He was there when our team had a change of ownership from community to private, and he had to run things for a time. We had no proper TV deal. He was one of the reasons we still have a league today.”
RICHES, ROGUES AND ROUGES
There were other hockey men with eyes on the grid iron.
John Bassett owned the Argos for more than 20 years and also sat on the board of Maple Leaf Gardens. He almost forced Ballard out of power in 1971, but the wily Ballard did an end run, dumped Bassett and later as Hamilton owner, blocked Bassett from re-gaining the Boatmen.
Frugal St. Louis Blues owner Harry Ornest had the Argos for awhile and in 1991, turned the team over to Wayne Gretzky, then an L.A. King, his boss Bruce McNall and Toronto-born actor John Candy for $5 million.
Though there were suspicions the deal was made to lure an NFL team to Toronto, the powerful triumvirate put money into the team and made the Argos into champions right away.