Tuesday, 25 May 2010

A Non-NHL Trophy Mystery

The man to the immediate left is NHL Hall of Famer Charles William Conacher. The "Big Bomber" came from a family of ten children that produced three NHL players: older brother Lionel Conacher, middle brother Charlie Conacher, and younger brother Roy Conacher. However, Charlie was one of the NHL's most dynamic players during his time in the league, and his charitable work led to the creation of the Charlie Conacher Memorial Trophy in 1968 that would be awarded to the NHL player "who best exhibited outstanding humanitarian and public services contributions" each season. The only problem? The trophy was only awarded until 1984, and all records of who won this trophy are nowhere to be found. There's our mystery: what happened to Conacher's Award, and who were the players that won the trophy?

First, let's start with a little background on Conacher before we get to the missing information on an NHL Award.

From the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame:

Conacher played a year of junior hockey with North Toronto before joining the Toronto Marlboros in 1927. He played on the Marlies' Memorial Cup-winning team in 1929 and made the jump to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1929-30. His brother, Lionel, who by that time was coaching the New York Americans, negotiated Charlie's first contract figuring it would be better for a kid of 19 to begin a career in his home town.

Charlie played a strong right wing, and after a few mediocre front line configurations, Leafs owner Conn Smythe teamed 20-year-old Conacher with 18-year-old Harvey "Busher" Jackson (who'd played with Conacher on the Marlies) and 22-year-old Joe Primeau. Because of their youth and inexperience, the three were called the Kid Line. It was 1931, and the Leafs were not showing well in regular season, so the new Kid Line didn't grab a lot of attention. At first.

The Kid Line went on to become one of the most dangerous lines in hockey history, and the threesome found itself near the top of the scoring lists for the better part of a decade. Conacher himself became the best right wing in the game over the next half-decade. Five times between 1930 and 1936, he either led or tied for the league lead in goal-scoring. He was a Second Team All-Star in his second and third years in the league and a First Team selection for three consecutive seasons beginning in 1933-34. He also helped the Leafs win the Stanley Cup in 1932.
So we know that Charlie Conacher was a big-time player with the Toronto Maple Leafs. He spent nine seasons in Toronto, helping the Leafs win one Stanley Cup. His nine years of being a "take-no-prisoners" power forward in the NHL had resulted in a pile of injuries: "removal of one kidney after crashing into a net, a broken collar bone, a shoulder separation, blood poisoning from a cut to his hand, and various other fractures and cuts". His bruising body began to slow down, and the Leafs sold him to the Detroit Red Wings in the summer of 1938.

Conacher would have a solid season in Detroit, but it was clear that his career was winding down. The following summer, he was shipped off to the New York Americans where he would play another two seasons. However, Conacher's love of the game kept him around as he turned to coaching. In 1944, he coached the Oshawa Generals to a Memorial Cup Championship, and even took the reins of the Chicago Black Hawks for three seasons in the late 1940s.

In the 1960s, it was discovered that Charlie Conacher was suffering from throat cancer. On December 30, 1967, he finally succumbed in his battle with the disease at the age of 58 in Toronto, Ontario. However, Conacher had started the Charlie Conacher Research Fund to help raise funds for research into how to defeat esophageal cancer. Because of his humanitarian and charitable work, the Conacher Research Fund created the Charlie Conacher Memorial Award that would be given to the NHL player "who best exhibited outstanding humanitarian and public services contributions".

Now, I need to stress that this is not an NHL-endorsed award. The NHL never once awarded the Conacher Memorial Trophy to an NHL player in any circumstance. Instead, it was given annually to an NHL player by the Conacher Research Fund. And this is where the mystery begins.

The only instance I can find of any NHL player ever being credited with winning the Conacher Memorial Trophy is George Armstrong of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1968-69, the first player to accept the award. That picture appeared in the August 1968 edition of The Hockey News, and is the only image I've ever seen of the trophy or a player accepting it. Because the award was not an NHL Award, there is absolutely no record of it anywhere in the history of the NHL. Even Armstrong's bio page on the Leafs' website makes no mention of the Conacher Award, despite the picture saying that it was "one of his most cherished honors". Ditto for his Legends of Hockey page.

However, some online detective work has turned up one additional name who accepted the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award between 1968 and 1984. Gary Bergman, a defenceman for the Detroit Red Wings, shared the award in 1973 with another unnamed player in the NHL. And that's all I can find.

I'm all ears if anyone can point me in the direction of the Conacher Research Fund's website so I can contact someone there. Again, I found nothing online that would resemble a website for the charitable organization, so if you know something, put it in the comments. I'd like to know who shared the award in 1973 with Gary Bergman, and who the other fourteen winners were over that sixteen-year span where the trophy was awarded.

I do know that the 1968 gala dinner for the Conacher Research Fund attracted more than 500 people. That clip is from the May 24 edition of the Montreal Gazette, showing that people were behind cancer research in the late-1960s.

Again, if you have any information regarding the Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award, please leave some contact info in the comments, or email me directly. I'm very interested in knowing who else won this award!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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