Herb Carnegie: Hockey's First Black Superstar

Kevin van Steendelaar@@LeTirEtLeButAnalyst IFebruary 28, 2009

It's 1947, and Jackie Robinson has joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball. The story is legendary.

At the same time in Quebec, a 28-year-old man from Toronto of Jamaican descent is tearing up the semi-pro Quebec Provincial League.

Although he would never play in the NHL, his story is also legendary.

Born in 1919, Herb Carnegie gained the attention of the hockey world at the age of 19, becoming a rising star in junior hockey with the Toronto Young Rangers.

The Rangers played in Conn Smythe's Maple Leaf Gardens and also featured a future Hall of Famer named Punch Imlach.

Carnegie caught Smythe's attention while playing there. It was then that some racial controversy began.

Having already faced racial taunts from opposing players, coaches, and even teammates in his young career, Hall of Fame referee Red Storey allegedly had Smythe quoted as telling Carnegie's coach that he would accept Carnegie on the team if he were white, or that he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn Carnegie white.

While there's no record of Smythe publicly stating or denying this, a later remark by Storey seems to question whether or not it was indeed spoken.

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“It’s very simple. He’s black. Don’t say we don’t have any rednecks in Canada. But I’m not saying Conn Smythe was bigoted either," Storey told journalist Joe Pelletier.

"I think he said the quote, but I think he meant that with Herbie being black, he wouldn’t be able to put him in the same hotels with the rest of the team and have him eat at the same restaurants and there could be problems if he took him to the States to play against the NHL teams there.”

Carnegie would eventually join the Buffalo Ankerites in a mining town league that took him through Northern Ontario and Quebec.

It was during this time, in 1942, that a young Frank Mahavolich had an opportunity to witness Carnegie's brilliance with the puck.

“I was just amazed at the way he played; he was much superior to the others on the ice,” the Hall of Fame forward said.

Carnegie played on a line with brother Ossie and fellow African-Canadian Manny McIntyre known as the Black Aces.

During the Second World War, NHL teams were desperately looking for replacement players. Although the league claimed to sweep racism under the rug, and despite being well known in the hockey world, Carnegie was never offered to play for any team.

The trio would join Shawinigan of the Quebec Provincial League in 1945 and then the Sherbrooke Randies/St. Francis.

Carnegie would win the first of three consecutive league MVP awards in the 1946-47 season. In the following year, he amassed 127 points in just 56 games.

In 1948, Carnegie was given a tryout with the New York Rangers and offered a contract to play in the Rangers' minor league system.

However, now with a family of his own, he was offered less money than he was earning in the Quebec league and turned down all three offers made by the Rangers organization during his tryout.

"Frankie Boucher was coaching the New York Rangers in 1948 and he told me he thought I was a good player, but he wanted to be sure whether I could play in the NHL," Carnegie told author Cecil Harris.

"So he suggested I sign and start playing in New Haven. I was 29 at the time and I didn't feel like playing there. For in those days there were not too many 30-year-old players in the NHL and I knew that if I didn't make it immediately, I wouldn't get another chance."

Carnegie would continue to play with the St. Francis (now part of the Quebec Senior League) for one more season, then join the Quebec Aces.

It was here that he would play alongside future Montreal Canadiens superstar Jean Beliveau and be coached by his former junior teammate Punch Imlach.

“Even though it’s been more than four decades since I witnessed Herb’s hockey brilliance, there is no question that the years I spent with him still evoke some of my best hockey memories," Beliveau said in an interview with Pelletier.

"Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker. In those days, the younger ones learned from the older ones. I learned from Herbie.”

Carnegie would play with the Aces until 1953, then play one season with the Owen Sound Mercurys of the OHA Sr. League.

It would not bee until five years later that Willie O'Ree would be called up to the Boston Bruins, becoming the first black man to play in the NHL.

After his playing career, Carnegie started the Future Aces Hockey School in 1955, one of first hockey schools in Canada.

After a very successful business career, he continued his athletic career as a golfer, winning the Canadian Seniors Golf Championship in 1977 and 1978, and the Ontario Senior Golf Championship in 1975, 1976, and 1982.

In 1987, he established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation to provide bursaries for college and university.

In the early 1990s, Carnegie and his Future Aces hockey program were featured in two special issues of The Amazing Spiderman, helping Spiderman bring down evil villains in Quebec City and Fredericton, respectively.

In 1996, he published his biography, A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story.” (Mosaic Press, 1996).

Carnegie was named to the Order of Ontario in 1996 and the Order of Canada in 2003.

On May 2, 2005, the North York Centennial Centre was renamed the Herbert H. Carnegie Centennial Centre in his honour.

On June 12, 2006, he received an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University in Toronto.

A public school in Markham, Ontario was named in his honour in 2008. Carnegie, now 89 and legally blind, attended the opening and met with the students and faculty.

Mr. Carnegie's career statistics can be found here courtesy of hockeydb.com.

For those looking to further research black history in hockey, I strongly make these recommendations:

The Ontario Black History Society's time-line of African Canadians in hockey.

Joe Pelletier's greatesthockeylegends.com with several articles including Carnegie and O'Ree.

Other suggested reading includes Mr. Carnegie's autobiography mentioned earlier as well as Cecil Harris' Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. (Insomniac Press, 2003).