Herb Carnegie, who many believed was the best black player never to play in the NHL, has died. He was 92.
Carnegie, a dazzling centre man, businessman, philanthropist, championship golfer, and Order of Canada recipient, died Friday in Toronto, his daughter Bernice Carnegie told the New York Times.
Born on Nov. 8, 1919, to Jamaican immigrants, Carnegie fell in love with the game of hockey at an early age, playing on the frozen ponds in north Toronto and listening to Foster Hewitt call hockey games.
Playing alongside brother Ossie, Carnegie played in the Ontario junior ranks before moving to the semi-professional Quebec Provincial League, where they teamed up with Manny McIntyre of Fredericton, to form the first all-black line in pro hockey.
They were given nicknames like les Noirs, the Black Aces, the Brown Bombers and other far from politically correct labels, but they made noise on the ice, with the smooth-skating Herb winning several most valuable player trophies over the years.
In the 1950s, Carnegie played on the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior League, where he was a teammate of future Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau, who became a longtime friend and wrote the forward in Carnegie’s autobiography, A Fly in a Pail of Milk.
“When I was 13 or 14, I never missed a game when Sherbrooke [Carnegie's team] was in town,” Béliveau is quoted saying in the Times. “I tried to duplicate what Herbie was doing at faceoffs and making passes onto the blade, not behind the wingman.”
Dream never given a chance
But like Bud Kelly and many other black players before him, Carnegie, despite his tremendous hockey skills, was denied an NHL career because of an unwritten colour barrier.
In 1948, a year after baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Carnegie was invited to try out for the New York Rangers. He felt he performed well enough at camp to deserve a job, but was told to report to the minors. He didn’t.
It wasn’t his first brush with the pros.
Eleven years earlier, then-Leafs owner Conn Smythe saw his talent but wouldn’t look past his skin colour.
In an emotional interview on Inside Hockey with Hockey Night in Canada’s Elliotte Friedman in 2009, Carnegie broke down in tears recalling what happened.
In the late 1930s, Carnegie was a member of the Young Rangers Junior A club in Toronto. The team would often practise at Maple Leaf Gardens.
“I was good enough for the Leafs because, according to Conn Smythe, ‘I would take Carnegie tomorrow for the Maple Leafs if someone could turn him white,’” Carnegie recalled, choking back emotion.
“I got that statement when I was 18. How would you feel? I can’t forget it because he cut my knees off, he broke my legs … it’s horrible.
“I loved the game and I feel cheated. I didn’t get the chance to prove myself. I just had a door closed where I couldn’t participate. As much fun as I had in the game, I had pain because I couldn’t have that other step.”
It would take another decade for a black player to break the colour barrier in the NHL, the last of the four major professional sports league to open its doors to black players.
Willie O’Ree owns that distinction. He appeared with the Boston Bruins in 1957-58 and, while he paved the way for other notable black players, including Tony McKegney, Grant Fuhr and Jarome Iginla, it was Carnegie who blazed the trail.
Fulfilling life and legacy
Outside hockey, Carnegie became a very successful businessman and philanthropist. He was married for more than 60 years to his wife, Audrey, who died in 2003, and had three daughters, Bernice, Goldie and Rochelle, and a son, Dale.
Carnegie started a popular hockey school called Future Aces, then created a foundation under the same name to help empower youth through athletics and academics. His foundation also awards college scholarships.
Carnegie was also a successful golfer, winning the Canadian senior amateur title twice and several other amateur tournaments.
He was inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 2001 and was named to the Order of Canada in 2003.