Excerpted with permission from "Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey," by Cecil Harris. Published by Insomniac Press, 2003.
What Herb Carnegie needed more than anything else during the prime years of his athletic life was a sponsor. He needed his own Branch Rickey. Rickey was the baseball visionary that, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Negro League baseball star Jackie Robinson to a contract in October 1945. It was a business transaction done in an era of systemic racial oppression that changed the face of sports history.
During the same years Robinson augmented a reputation as a four-sport star at UCLA, Carnegie -- also a man of a darker hue -- excelled on hockey rinks, often in Canadian mining towns, usually on the periphery of the spotlight.
Some who saw Carnegie perform in person -- including Jean Beliveau and Frank Mahovlich, two of the greatest centers in hockey history -- marvelled at his multi-faceted skills and considered him among the finest players of his time. Unfortunately for Carnegie, he would never perform on his sport's premier stage, the NHL. And for that, the gatekeepers of the NHL must bear most of the blame ... and Carnegie himself must bear at least some.
An NHL hopeful in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, Carnegie predated the widespread media coverage now devoted to hockey. Hence, his contributions to the sport received inadequate exposure then and are a source of debate now. The issue of whether his credentials are worthy of induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame has become a political football, and Carnegie's side is trailing by a considerable margin on the scoreboard.
"I wish somebody from the Hall of Fame would have the decency to phone me and sit down with me and say, 'Herb, this is the problem. This is why it hasn't happened,' " he said, struggling to mask the pain. An immensely proud man, he lives in northern Toronto, less than one hour's drive from the Hall of Fame, but perhaps light years away from hockey's shrine philosophically.
Had his pursuit of an NHL career not been derailed by a league-wide policy of exclusion that may have been given public voice in 1938 by Conn Smythe, the powerful and influential owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carnegie likely would have become the NHL's first black player. The history-making ascension would have occurred more than a decade before Willie O'Ree broke the league's colour barrier in 1958.
Carnegie's debut in hockey's major league also could have occurred during the 1948-49 season, or shortly thereafter, were it not for his own bold, but ultimately self-defeating, decision -- a decision that might have done irreparable harm to his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
Even today, as an octogenarian, Carnegie could use a sponsor. He would welcome the opportunity to face his detractors on the Hall of Fame's selection committee, although he can no longer see them. Robbed of his sight a dozen years ago by glaucoma, he is cared for today by Audrey Carnegie, his wife of 63 years. But do not pity Herb Carnegie. Pity is the one thing he neither wants nor needs.
"I feel I've been blessed," says Carnegie, who turned 84 on Nov. 8, 2003. "It would be nice to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, not only for myself but on behalf of my wife and my (four) children and all those who have helped me over the years. But it is something that is out of my hands. It has always been out of my hands. So I've never felt that I should not go on living my life just because I haven't been accepted by the Hockey Hall of Fame."
Searching for a visionary
A helping hand from someone high above the ice, in a seat of power and influence, is what Carnegie truly needed to properly showcase his skills during his best years in hockey. But he chose to devote his life to a sport that at the time had no visionary. A Branch Rickey who defied the social and racial mores of his time and handed a baseball contract to a black man for the most sensible of reasons (it would make his team better) probably would have been drummed out of hockey. For hockey had no man with the courage to see past the darkness of racial discrimination and give all of the sport's gifted players during most of the first half of the 20th century an opportunity to perform in the NHL.
"Let's face it, Herbie Carnegie was one helluva hockey player," wrote one sportswriter who watched him many times. "He could have been a star in the six-team NHL were it not for the color bars that kept all black athletes out of all major sports at the time."
Had it not been so important to the fathers of hockey for so long to keep the NHL white, Carnegie almost assuredly would have become the Jackie Robinson of his sport. While he starred in semi-pro leagues from his late teens to his late twenties, he did not get a call from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins or New York Rangers.
Instead, Carnegie achieved a measure of popularity in lesser leagues while teaming with his older brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre to form a potent all-black line known from 1941 through 1949 by various nicknames, including The Black Aces. Herb wore No. 7, Ossie No. 10 and Manny No. 11.
Herb Carnegie, the center and conductor of the trio, stood at 5-foot-8 and weighed 165 pounds. "My thrill was in setting plays," he said. "To me, the game is a beautiful thing when you can set up a winger. That's an art."
He was an unusually handsome man in his younger days, with bronze skin, thin-slit brown eyes, a pencil-thin mustache and black hair chemically straightened into the conk style made famous by bandleader Cab Calloway. His appearance might have served him well as a leading man or action hero in the "race" movies of the era, such as 1939's "The Bronze Buckaroo."
Although Carnegie would be considered woefully undersized for his on-ice position today, smallish centers were not an unusual sight in 1940s hockey. However, smallish black centres were highly unusual. An all-black line was unprecedented. Ossie Carnegie, the right wing, possessed a crackling slapshot. McIntyre, the left wing, provided the muscle. If one of the trio was going to answer a racial slur from an opponent or spectator with his fists, it would likely be McIntyre.
And there was no shortage of racial slurs directed toward The Black Aces. Audrey Redmon Carnegie, the light-skinned daughter of transplanted Chicago natives, sat in the stands on many occasions and heard her husband Herb called "n-----" and sundry other words of hate by spectators seated nearby, people who did not realize she was black and married to the best player on the ice. She managed to hold her tongue while in the company of haters, because that is how blacks generally dealt with hate in that era.
The Carnegie brothers had been a popular duo in the mines league (hockey teams playing in mining towns) beginning in 1941 with the Buffalo Ankerites, a team owned by a group of Buffalo-based businessmen, and whose games were played in Canada. Hockey players, even NHL players, made so little money in that era that the brothers also worked as machine operators for the Ankerite Company. For a hockey player, a second job was necessary. If a player made $100 a week from hockey then he was doing quite well. The Carnegie brothers' financial status improved significantly when McIntyre joined the Ankerites. A native of Fredericton, New Brunswick, McIntyre correctly sensed the economic potential of an all-black line and successfully lobbied for his inclusion.
"They were good enough as a line to play in the American League, which was a level below the NHL," said Red Storey, a Hall of Fame referee who played against Herb Carnegie in junior hockey. "But Herbie was the leader. They couldn't have gone anywhere without Herb. He was good enough to play in the NHL. It was strictly color, not talent, that kept him out."
While the all-black line racked up points and inspired applause throughout the semi-pro circuit, it inspired an assortment of colorful sobriquets from the sporting press: The Dark Destroyers, The Ink Spots, The Brown Bombers (a reference to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis), The Dusky Speedsters. There was even one reference to the players' varying skin tones: 8-Ball, Snowball and Haile Selassie (the former emperor of Ethiopia). But the name the trio liked best was The Black Aces. By any name, the all-black line made a profound impression on Mahovlich, a Hall of Fame forward who first saw them in 1942.
"The black line was so amazing because of their great skills -- the skating, the passing, the goal scoring," he said. "I was a centerman for many years. I might have envisioned myself going down the ice like Herb Carnegie. In my mind I said, 'I guess if I ever become a hockey player, I'm going to be playing against a lot of blacks.' However, that was the only time I ever saw three blacks on the same line."
Mahovlich would never see any of The Black Aces in an NHL game. Herb Carnegie, the most gifted of the trio and the finest black player of the pre-expansion era (before 1967), would never display his considerable skills as a puckhandler and playmaker in his sport's premier league. And many who watched him perform under dimmer lights and before lesser crowds in other venues believe hockey fans themselves were cheated for having missed him.
Said one fan of Canada's pastime: "I saw a lot of hockey when I was in Quebec in the old mines league. The Carnegie brothers, Ossie and Herbie, were there. They could have played in the NHL but they (the NHL) wouldn't let them in because they were colored, which was awful."
In September 1948, however, the NHL pried open a door just wide enough to acknowledge Herb Carnegie. But instead of doing his utmost to kick the door down, he unwittingly closed it on himself.
Refusing to be "another nail in the board"
With no advance word, a letter arrived at the Carnegie home one August morning in 1948 from the New York Rangers, inviting the 28-year-old Carnegie to report to the team's training camp in Saranac Lake, N.Y., on Sept. 14. Carnegie had not even been aware the NHL was paying attention to him. No NHL team had contacted him while he excelled as leader of The Black Aces line in the 1944-45 season for the oddly named Shawinigan Falls Cataracts for a salary of $75 a week in the semi-pro Quebec Provincial League (QPL), whose caliber of play was below that of the NHL and perhaps comparable to a professional minor league.
Carnegie had not heard from the NHL after he scored five goals in one game against Cornwall that season. Nor had he heard from the major league after he and his black linemates moved on to the Sherbrooke Randies of the QPL for the next two seasons. Carnegie remembered The Black Aces combining for 84 goals and 98 assists in 1945-46, and he remembered narrowly losing the scoring title to former Montreal Canadiens winger Tony Demers of the St. Hyacinthe team, 79-75. He remembered scoring a Gretzky-like 127 points in 56 games in the 1947-48 season with Sherbrooke. But he didn't know the NHL had taken notice.
The missive from the Rangers was a form letter sent to 20 Canadian amateur or semi-pro players inviting them to try out for berths on the NHL team's roster. The invitees would report to Saranac Lake and work out at an arena in nearby Lake Placid, under the scrutiny of coach and general manager Frank Boucher until the arrival of members of the Rangers and two of their minor-league clubs, the New Haven Ramblers of the American League and the New York Rovers of the Eastern League, for the official opening of training camp Sept. 21.
The inclusion of Carnegie among the invitees was significant because up until 1945, each of the four major professional sports leagues in North America had excluded black talent. Various sports writers in the U.S., particularly those from the black press such as Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier and Sam Lacy of The Baltimore Afro-American, wrote forceful columns denouncing Major League Baseball's refusal to admit black players. Some players from the Negro Leagues, including Robinson, had been promised tryouts, but big-league officials and white players sometimes would not even bother to show up.
Not until Robinson officially joined the Dodgers' organization on Oct. 23, 1945, had any black baseball player signed with a big-league club. The National Basketball Association did not include blacks until 1950 when the New York Knicks signed Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, the Boston Celtics drafted Charles "Tarzan" Cooper and the Washington Capitals played Earl Lloyd in an Oct. 31 game. Charles Follis was the first black professional football player, in the early 1900s, in a league that predated the National Football League. The NFL, however, tacitly banned black players from 1933 until 1946 when the league admitted Woody Strode and Kenny Washington so it could secure a lease to play games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The signing of Robinson by Brooklyn and his extremely successful debut with the Dodgers undoubtedly emboldened a few other team executives in major pro leagues to give an opportunity to black athletes. Carnegie said he had followed Robinson's career during the 1940s and often wondered which of the two would be the first to break the color barrier in his sport. However, the events at Rangers' camp in 1948 strongly suggest Carnegie had not followed Robinson's story closely enough.
In the first week of workouts at the Lake Placid arena, Carnegie matched his skills against players he considered inferior to those he faced regularly in the Quebec Provincial League. He had just won his second consecutive MVP award in the league and led Sherbrooke to the league championship. Carnegie remembers eagerly awaiting the Sept. 21 arrival of Rangers stars such as Buddy O'Connor, the 1947-48 NHL MVP, and Edgar Laprade.
But as Carnegie wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk," he was called into an office during the first week of camp by minor-league coach Muzz Patrick and offered $2,700 a year to sign with the Rangers' organization and play for the team's lowest-level farm club in Tacoma, Wash. The $2,700 was far less than the $5,100 he had made in the 1947-48 season with Sherbrooke, so he turned the offer down.
After practice the next day, Carnegie wrote, he was summoned by minor-league coach Lynn Patrick, Muzz Patrick's brother, and offered a $3,700 contract to sign with the organization and report to the Rangers' farm club in St. Paul, Minn. Again, he refused. The next day, he wrote, Rangers coach Phil Watson offered him $4,700 to sign and play for the team's top farm club, the New Haven Ramblers. He declined the offer while telling Watson he thought himself more than capable of earning a spot on the Rangers roster.
Carnegie's literary account contains one notable error: Frank Boucher was the Rangers coach and general manager at the time, not Phil Watson. Watson would not coach the Rangers until 1955. In 1948-49, Watson coached the New York Rovers, a team Carnegie would face that season in minor-league hockey. Boucher stepped down as Rangers coach on Dec. 21, 1948, after the team got off to a poor start (6-11-6) and was replaced by Lynn Patrick. Boucher continued as general manager until 1955.
When the 1948-49 training camp began, Lynn Patrick was the coach of New Haven. So why would Lynn Patrick be the one to offer Carnegie $3,700 to play for St. Paul? Carnegie does not recall. He said Muzz Patrick offered him $2,700 to play for Tacoma, and indeed Muzz Patrick coached Tacoma at the time. But why were the Rangers making such lowball offers to Carnegie in the first place? Surely they must have known he had made $5,100 the season before at Sherbrooke. Simply, the Rangers knew they could get away with it. The NHL had only six teams in 1948. There were only 126 jobs for hockey players in the premier league. No player had an agent, and an NHL players union would not exist until 1967. Hockey teams wielded a mighty hammer in 1948.
And if Carnegie, just another nail in the board, truly wanted to fulfill what he had described as a lifelong dream to play in the NHL, then it would have behooved him to get the best deal he could, swallow hard and try to make the best of it. While he is deserving of credit for not jumping at either of the first two lowball offers, he seriously overplayed his hand by turning down the third.
Carnegie's stay at Rangers' camp lasted 11 days. After initially turning down the $4,700 offer to play for New Haven, he said he persuaded Rangers management to let him remain in camp for the second week so he could show his talent against real NHL players. He took the ice for four successive days against the Rangers, including centers O'Connor and Laprade and goalie Jim Henry. "I had proven myself beyond a shadow of a doubt," Carnegie said. "I had shown the Rangers I could play as well."
Perhaps he had. But the Rangers still had the hammer to dictate the terms of whatever relationship they would have with Carnegie, as they would with every other player in a league where only the owners had clout. The Rangers' relationship with Carnegie would be regrettably short. On his 11th day in camp, he remembers meeting with Boucher, the coach and general manager. Again he was offered $4,700 to begin the 1948-49 season with the Rangers' top farm club in New Haven, just one notch below the NHL, just two hours away from Madison Square Garden if he needed to be promoted in a hurry. Again, he declined.
The final deal offered Carnegie by the Rangers was essentially the same deal the Brooklyn Dodgers had offered Robinson. The Rangers might well have looked to their New York baseball counterparts and used as a blueprint for their dealings with Carnegie the Dodgers' handling of Robinson. The baseball star's deal called for him to play the entire 1946 season for the Dodgers' top farm club, the Montreal Royals. He would not advance from the Negro Leagues directly to Major League Baseball. Robinson would spend a year in the minors, Rickey explained, so he could be sure Robinson could excel on the playing field and handle the inevitable racist slurs and various other indignities a black man would surely face as the only player of his color in an organized league one notch below the majors. If all went well, Rickey said, Robinson would join the big leagues in 1947.
After Robinson accepted the terms of the deal and played his way into the majors, he indelibly etched his name in the annals of sports and world history. Baseball players had no agents or union representation at that time, either. There were no salary negotiations. A player took whatever money he was offered, or he left the room and looked for other work. So when Rickey told Robinson to start in Montreal -- just to be sure -- Robinson, already a star in black baseball, did not take offense to being asked to spend a year in the minor leagues. He took the deal, for it would benefit not only him but also the black players who would follow him. Indeed, by 1948, the year after Robinson carried the banner for blacks in Major League Baseball, three other blacks (Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige) had joined him in the elite league.
While there was no black hockey league in the late 1940s, no on-ice equivalent of the Negro Leagues, there were a few other blacks who played hockey besides Herb Carnegie, such as his brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre, both of whom went on to play pro hockey in France. In Herb Carnegie's own words, Boucher wanted him to start in New Haven "just to be sure." The Rangers likely had a legitimate concern about how well Carnegie would play with linemates other than his brother and McIntyre who, in the opinion of Hall of Fame referee Storey, were not of NHL potential. A strong start by Carnegie in New Haven would have eliminated that concern. Boucher also said he would "make every effort" to promote Carnegie during the 1948-49 season. Had Carnegie taken the offer, he would have been on the cusp of an NHL career while making the ice somewhat more solid for other black hopefuls.
The major difference, then, between sports pioneers Robinson and Carnegie was this: Robinson took the deal and Carnegie did not.
Too old for the minors?
Carnegie, married and a father of three at the time (his fourth child was born in 1951), felt no need to take a $400 pay cut and play minor-league hockey in New Haven, when he could continue playing semi-pro hockey in Canada and be closer to his family. He returned to Sherbrooke, reuniting briefly with Ossie and McIntyre, then joined the Quebec Major Hockey League from 1949 to 1953, and the Ontario Senior Hockey Association for the 1953-54 season.
"He stayed in Canada because he had a better future here financially," said Storey, who lives in Montreal. "He could do better in the Quebec League financially than he could in the NHL."
In Carnegie's view, he proved to Rangers players in four days of drills and scrimmages that his skills were at least comparable to theirs. He also said the other players were truly surprised to see him leave camp. Only a few men who attended that camp 55 years ago are still alive. Don "Bones" Raleigh, a spindly 150-pound center, was there. The 77-old said he saw Carnegie on the ice but remembers nothing specific about him. Laprade, a Hall of Fame center, recalls being surprised that Carnegie left. But he remembers little about Carnegie the player.
"I can't recall if he was above average in any particular thing at all," said Laprade, who is 84. "But I don't know why he didn't take that New Haven offer. Two things: he would have been one step from the Rangers or one step from another NHL club if the Rangers decided to trade him, and he could have been the first colored player. I guess he made the decision not to go. That's his. Has he ever regretted it?"
A 1973 article in The Toronto Sun quotes Carnegie as saying, "I missed the NHL by the stroke of a pen. 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. So he suggested I sign and start playing in New Haven. I was 29 (actually 28) 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 said on April 10, 2003, that he did not recall expressing any regret about his decision. Asked if he would have signed with the Rangers organization if he had it to do over again, he said emphatically, "No. I don't even have to think twice about that. I'm at the end of my career and it's no time for me to be going to the minors to start a new career with teenagers and 20-year-olds. I didn't think it would have made any kind of sense."
But in the late 1940s, an NHL team's top minor-league affiliate was not quite the kiddie corps Carnegie made it out to be. Remember, there were only six NHL franchises then, only 126 major-league jobs. The top minor-league teams had many players in their late twenties and early thirties trying to play their way into the NHL. And had Carnegie been promoted to the Rangers after turning 29 during the 1948-49 season, he would not have been a greybeard by any means. He would have been five years younger than forward/defenseman Neil Colville, three years younger than O'Connor and defenseman Bill Moe, the same age as Laprade, winger Alex Kaleta and defenseman Wally Stanowski and one year older than goalie Chuck Rayner.
Furthermore, Detroit Red Wings center Jim McFadden won the NHL Rookie of the Year award in the 1947-48 season ... at age 28.
Incidentally, Robinson, born Jan. 31, 1919, was a mere 40 weeks older than Carnegie when he broke baseball's color barrier and won the National League Rookie of the Year award. Robinson clearly had not considered himself too old to spend a year in the minors to play his way into the big leagues.
"Herb wouldn't have been the first guy to start off in the minors before getting to the NHL," Laprade said. "You don't just jump into the National Hockey League. You go to the minors, get experience, then maybe after two or three months or a year, they'd call him up."
Perhaps it would have taken Carnegie less than a month after reporting to the New Haven team to become the "Jackie Robinson of hockey." On Oct. 8, 1948, six days before the Rangers' season-opening game against the Montreal Canadiens, O'Connor and Laprade -- the team's two best centers -- were among four players injured in an auto accident in Lacolle, Quebec, near the U.S.-Canadian border. "Buddy was driving. We got permission to take his car to New York and an old wagon full of apples pulled up in front of us, and he hit it," Laprade said.
Broken ribs sidelined O'Connor for six weeks. Laprade played the Montreal game despite a broken nose and a concussion. Had Carnegie, a center, been with New Haven at the time he could have been called up to the Rangers as a replacement. (That is how Willie O'Ree became the NHL's first black player in 1958. The Boston Bruins called him up from the minor leagues to replace an injured player.) Instead, New York made a pair of trades to replace the injured players.
"Don't you think the Rangers would have called me back if they had been serious about wanting me?" Carnegie asked. But he effectively answered his own question as he recalled his final conversation with Rangers management at training camp: "They told me that if I signed with the Rangers and went to New Haven, I would make international headlines. I told them my family couldn't eat headlines. That was probably when the Rangers decided to forget about me."
The rest of the NHL forgot about him as well. He never got another call from the major league.
The Rangers probably could have done a better job of trying to convince Carnegie that he should start the 1948-49 season in New Haven. They did not have to, but they could have. The Rangers could have pointed out, and Carnegie does not recall them doing so, that the minimum NHL salary that season was $5,000, meaning if he had been promoted to the major-league club his pay would have been at least commensurate with his Sherbrooke salary. Further, it could have been bettered, had he been offered a salary more than $100 above the league minimum. And with an opportunity to cash in on new-found fame and status as the NHL's first and only black player, Carnegie could have generated even more money.
Yes, the Rangers could have allowed Carnegie to start the season with the big club. But the Dodgers in 1946 didn't do that with Robinson, and by 1948 everybody could see how well Brooklyn's plan had worked. And yes, the Rangers could have summoned Carnegie from Sherbrooke after the injuries to O'Connor and Laprade.
But NHL teams had no obligation to satisfy Carnegie or any other player, only themselves. Carnegie, for his part, refused to be treated like just another nail in the board. If only he had had the leverage to match his intractability. He will be remembered as the best black player never to reach the NHL, partly because of the racism that circumscribed the lives of all blacks in North America during his athletic prime and partly because of an insistence on trying to dictate the terms under which he would sign with an NHL organization in 1948 -- a year in which hockey players, black or white, could not dictate anything to management.
"The Rangers at that time were not exactly a powerhouse; we finished in last place," said Emile Francis, a backup goalie in 1948-49. "You think Boucher was concerned about race? Heck, he was trying to win games. He would have played any player who could have helped us win games."
Francis' viewpoint is noteworthy, not merely because he's a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame after five decades as a goalie, coach and general manager, but because he sits on the Hall of Fame selection committee -- a group called upon to consider Carnegie's candidacy in 2000. It certainly did not help Carnegie's chances to be elected as a player then, and will not help in the future, if he is regarded by at least one selection committee member as simply a career semi-pro. Asked if Carnegie had been a good enough player to get into the Hall of Fame, Francis said, "You'd have to play in a better category of hockey than that. That's not the NHL."
Larry Zeidel, a former NHL defenseman who played against Carnegie in the Quebec Senior League, said in a 1972 interview he believed money, not race, was a bigger factor in Carnegie's exclusion from the NHL. "Ossie and Herbie were making terrific money in the Quebec (Provincial) League and had side jobs which gave them more security," he said. "There was no reason to try for the NHL."
Herb Carnegie, whose brother Ossie died in 1991, disputed Zeidel's assertion and said it was a boyhood dream of his and Ossie's to play major-league hockey. Racism kept the Carnegie brothers out of the NHL, he said, which is precisely what their father told them would happen.
The Josh Gibson of Hockey
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto and grew up playing hockey on the pond rinks in Willowdale, north of the city. Herb and Ossie Carnegie spent many hours on the pond developing a symmetry that would make them semi-pro stars years later. Herb, however, would become a master improviser. He could lift fans out of their seats with a feathery pinpoint pass, exquisite puckhandling or a brilliantly conceived play. He had the soft and quick hands required of a center along with a penchant for creativity and keen instincts for the game.
"I was just amazed at the way he played; he was much superior to the others on the ice," said Mahovlich, a 15-time NHL All-Star. "I've known Herb pretty much my entire life, since the first hockey game I ever witnessed at the age of 4 way up in Northern Ontario ... in a little mining community called Timmins. My Dad had taken me to a game in the mines league. Every mining town had a hockey team, and Herb was playing for the Buffalo Ankerites."
Carnegie's performances in the mines league have largely been lost to history. Accurate statistical records are hard to come by. Carnegie, who could have become "the Jackie Robinson of hockey," has instead become "the Josh Gibson of hockey," a kindred spirit of the often-overlooked slugging catcher who entered the Negro Leagues well before Robinson and found racism an impenetrable barrier to entering Major League Baseball.
From sun-up to sundown on many a winter's day, Herb and Ossie Carnegie cultivated their hockey skills on the pond and dreamed of displaying them in the NHL. That no black man had yet played in the major league was not lost on either boy. Ossie and Herb expected to be the first ones, in that order. But their father, George, could never envision the possibility. "You know they won't let any black boys into the National Hockey League," he said.
George Carnegie worked as a janitor and wife Adina as a homemaker and, being among the earliest Caribbean émigrés, they were determined to see that their children had a better and richer life. Since others would be sure to tell Herb Carnegie he would never play in the NHL, his father wanted to be sure Herb would not neglect his studies or stunt his personal growth in pursuit of a dream that could be denied by forces and institutions more powerful than he.
Herb Carnegie's earliest remembrance of bigotry came at age 4 when neighbourhood children slurred him. He remembered responding to taunts of "n-----," "coon" and "Rastas" with his fists, which he considered a fitting response from a strong-minded Scorpio.
It seemed whenever Herb was not playing hockey, he was fighting for any modicum of respect he could extract from schoolmates and neighbors. As his confidence in being able to physically defend himself grew, so did his devotion to and proficiency in hockey. He also took a liking to baseball and golf. In the twilight of his athletic life, he would win the Canadian Senior Golf championship in 1977 and '78.
In high school hockey, Carnegie earned the nickname "Swivel Hips" because of his elusiveness on the ice. He also heard other names on the ice. He recalls a game attended by several thousands in which one megaphone-voiced spectator repeatedly yelled, "Get the black bastard!" However, a stunned Carnegie heeded the advice of a coach who said the most effective response to bigotry was to score goals. Carnegie filled the net with pucks and garnered his share of laudatory clippings from Toronto-area newspapers.
His father hoped he would become a doctor, but Herb had visions of an NHL residency. He excelled in the sport by day and relished Foster Hewitt's vivid radio accounts of Toronto Maple Leafs games at night. Carnegie closed his eyes and saw himself on the Leafs' bench right beside the famed "Kid Line" of Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson. He saw himself showered with standing ovations from fans at Maple Leaf Gardens. He saw action photos of himself in the sports pages of the Toronto dailies.
The Smythe slight
Carnegie thought himself a step away from NHL stardom when he joined the Toronto Junior Rangers, also known as the Young Rangers, in 1938. He would be the lone black player on the team, but race would have no effect on his ice time. And he would respond to any racial slurs he would hear on the rink or from the stands by filling the net with pucks. The Young Rangers played in an NHL arena, Maple Leaf Gardens, and prepared teenaged players for the NHL.
Under the tutelage of Ed Wildey, Young Rangers Jim Fowler, George Parsons, Jim Thomson and Jim Conacher went on to hockey's elite league. Carnegie believed he would follow, in part because of his glowing press clippings: "Herb Carnegie, the Young Rangers colored centre player ... gave one of the most brilliant displays ever seen here, scored five goals and assisted on another."
As Carnegie remembered it, he was practicing one day at Maple Leaf Gardens when Wildey alerted him to the presence of a hockey powerhouse in the arena's upper reaches. It was Conn Smythe, the man who had shrewdly built the Toronto Maple Leafs into the NHL's most glamorous franchise. Although not a large man physically, he was considered imposing, if not intimidating.
The Toronto native had served as a major in two world wars. In 1927, he used $160,000 in loans and successful horse-racing bets to purchase the Toronto St. Pats and change its nickname to Maple Leafs to stimulate more national interest. Since an NHL player draft did not yet exist, he stockpiled Toronto-area talent such as defenseman Red Horner and the aforementioned "Kid Line," transforming the franchise into a perennial contender for the Stanley Cup. Yet Smythe, who would manage the Leafs to seven Stanley Cups, also had his detractors.
"He was a little dictator; I never liked the guy," said Laprade, the former New York Rangers centre. "I didn't like it when he said, 'If you can't beat 'em in the alley, you can't beat 'em on the ice.' "
Yet another quote attributed to Smythe would prove traumatic to Carnegie. He said his eyes beamed when he spotted Smythe in the stands that day. Everybody in hockey knew of the formidable man called "The Major." However, nothing in Carnegie's first 19 years had prepared him for Wildey's relaying of Smythe's comment about his chances for an NHL career: "He said he'd take you tomorrow if he could turn you white."
"That comment created such anger in me. It hurts to this day," Carnegie said in an August 17, 2002 interview. "The Toronto Maple Leafs was the team I rooted for as a boy. And to find out that was how the owner of the team I rooted for felt about me was shattering, just shattering. I felt at the time that my dream of playing in the NHL had been dashed."
Some doubt has arisen over the years as to whether Smythe had indeed uttered that remark 65 years ago, or the somewhat different and more widely quoted version: "I'd give any man $10,000 who could turn Herb Carnegie white." Some historians regard the quote as apocryphal. Some regard the quote as credible given Smythe's often grating personality and apparently bigoted remarks on other matters, yet they admit to having no concrete evidence.
At least one Canadian hockey fan considered Smythe a bigot, and not just against blacks. "Conn Smythe was an advocate of racism," the hockey fan wrote to The Toronto Star. "He not only discriminated against black athletes but would not hire young Jewish men to sell programs and refreshments at Leafs games. He traded away defenseman Alex 'Mine Boy' Levinsky because Al was Jewish." Levinsky was traded by Toronto to New York in April 1934.
Smythe and Wildey, Carnegie's junior-league coach, are deceased. However, Storey, a 1967 inductee to the Hall of Fame, is alive, and he believes Smythe uttered the damning quote. He believes this, although he did not hear it himself.
"It was in the newspapers. That's where I saw it, and I believe that is an accurate quote from Conn Smythe," said Storey, who turned 86 in May 2003. "There's a reason why Herb Carnegie did not play in the NHL. 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. Basically, Conn Smythe was a good guy away from the arena. 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. The NHL games weren't sold out then, and the owners might have been worried about losing the fans they already had. Basically, you were blocked out of everything if you were black then, and I think Conn Smythe didn't want to take a chance on him. So he was saying, 'I'd take him if you could turn him white.' But I still would have taken a chance on Herb Carnegie if I were Conn Smythe."
In Carnegie's autobiography, he wrote that Storey confirmed the Smythe quote in an audiotape he sent that included his recollections on his years in hockey, football, baseball and lacrosse. Carnegie quotes Storey as saying on tape, "And I remember Conn Smythe, many years ago when Herb was in his prime, saying 'I will give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herbert Carnegie white.' "
When told that Storey said he had read the quote, rather than heard it, Carnegie said, "Whatever I wrote in my book is accurate. I believe I still have that tape somewhere in the house, but I wouldn't know where it is."
Carnegie said even after Smythe's apparent dismissal of his NHL aspirations, he continued to play hockey because he loved the game and believed a major-league franchise other than the Leafs would give him a tryout. With the onset of World War II, which Canada entered in 1939, Carnegie believed both he and Ossie would have a chance to enter the major league since many white players were trading hockey uniforms for military garb. But Herb Carnegie was treated no better during wartime: no call came from the NHL.
Hockey barred him from the major league just as his Negro Leagues-playing brethren were kept out of Major League Baseball during World War II. The St. Louis Browns could find room during the war years for Pete Gray, a white outfielder with one arm, but Major League Baseball refused to make room for black talent. The NHL was every bit as deficient.
Carnegie said that neither the Smythe quote nor the NHL's failure to give him a tryout during wartime had entered his mind while at Rangers camp. However, the aforementioned incidents could have made it difficult for him to trust the intentions of an NHL general manager that wanted him to report to the minor leagues. Asked if he trusted Boucher, Carnegie sighed and finally offered, "I don't think it would do me any good to put into words what I thought of him."
Remaining a minor-league star
Back in Canada for the 1948-49 season, Carnegie won his third straight MVP award with Sherbrooke. He scored four goals in a playoff series to eliminate the Quebec Aces, whose player-coach was George "Punch" Imlach. Carnegie accepted Imlach's offer to jump to the Aces of the Quebec Senior League (it became the Quebec Major Hockey League in 1950), and for two full seasons starting in 1951, he teamed with and mentored Beliveau, a future Hall of Famer. Together, they would win the league championship in 1953.
"Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker," Beliveau said. "In those days, the younger ones learned from the older ones. I learned from Herbie."
Beliveau, a 6-foot-3, 205-pound power center, also remembered watching Carnegie perform on The Black Aces line in the 1940s and marvelling at their cohesion, puckhandling abilities and offensive prowess. Carnegie was 32 when he and Beliveau became teammates, two ships passing through a hockey port. Nothing stood in the way of Beliveau becoming hockey royalty. No racial or social mores prevented a white French-Canadian from playing hockey at the highest level and winning 10 Stanley Cups in 18 full seasons. The Quebec native actually preferred to play for the hometown Aces instead of the Montreal Canadiens, with whom he spent two games in the 1950-51 season. The Canadiens acquired the 13-time NHL All-Star only after buying a controlling interest in the Quebec League in 1953. Beliveau signed a five-year, $105,000 contract with the Canadiens that year -- Carnegie's next-to-last year in hockey. (Carnegie had 20 and 55 points for the Owen Sound Mercuries of the Ontario Senior Hockey Association in 1953-54.)
Since Carnegie ended up playing another six seasons after his invitation to Rangers camp, his professional hockey life could well have been markedly different had he taken the New Haven deal. Six solid seasons in the NHL -- presuming he got a big-league promotion in the 1948-49 season and stayed there -- combined with his prolific scoring and playmaking on The Black Aces line in the '40s, might have added enough sheen to his resum&ecute; to win over an 18-member Hall of Fame selection committee.
But to Art Dorrington, another black hockey pioneer, Carnegie's absence from the NHL register should not matter. Carnegie, he said, belongs in the Hall, and he did not need to go to New Haven to prove it:
"With the experience Herb already had at the time, he wasn't going to play in a minor-league town. He wasn't a young kid anymore. I think Herb did the right thing."
Dorrington said that even though he, like Robinson, took the deal.
Jumping through the hoops
A 5-foot-8, 160-pounder who played center and left wing, Dorrington left his hometown of Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1950 to join an amateur team in Connecticut. It was his first foray into the U.S., and he traveled alone. During a team practice at Madison Square Garden, he caught the eye of a Rangers scout. The scout offered him a contract to play for the New York Rovers, an Eastern League team affiliated with the NHL club. Dorrington, then 20, took the deal and waited for the Rovers to return from a road trip. And waited. And waited.
"I was in a hotel in New York City by myself for four days, and I felt homesick," he said. "I got impatient, so I told the Rangers that I needed to play some hockey. They arranged for me to go to Atlantic City for a weekend tryout with a team that they had a working agreement with."
Dorrington, whose best attribute was his skating speed, impressed the Atlantic City Sea Gulls enough to earn a contract with the Eastern League club. No black had ever played professional hockey in the U.S. before. Atlantic City impressed Dorrington enough that he has lived there ever since. In 1951, he had 18 goals and 34 points and led the Sea Gulls to the league championship. The year would be an extremely busy one. He signed as a center fielder with the Boston Braves organization and played on the major-league club's farm teams in Watertown and Wellsville, N.Y.
"I didn't have one week off in '51," he said with a throaty laugh. "I went right from a hockey uniform to a baseball uniform. I ended up missing the Braves' spring training in Myrtle Beach, S.C., because of hockey."
Dorrington was spared the indignity of the segregated hotels and restaurants in Myrtle Beach that year, but he encountered those odiously racist restrictions in most other American cities he visited in the 1950s.
"It was a shock to me to see the racism in the United States," he said. "I went to places in the Eastern League like Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Charlotte, Greensboro and the rest of the team would go into a hotel or a restaurant, and I wouldn't be allowed to go in. I had to put up with the same kind of racism that Jackie Robinson put up with in baseball. The racism and the discrimination I faced in hockey was the same. Even though I had anger about it, I couldn't act on it. I had to accept things the way they were and hope that they would eventually change."
In order to let his body recuperate from the rigours of hockey, he abandoned hopes of a Major League Baseball career and focused on his favourite sport from 1952 onward. No brown-skinned man had played in the NHL yet, and he set his sights on becoming the first. In terms of quality, the Eastern League was below the American League, which was one level below the NHL. Yet it would have been possible for him to advance from the Eastern League to the AHL to the NHL. Each of the three professional leagues had only six franchises in Dorrington's day, and the NHL kept close tabs on all the promising minor leaguers.
Because of the transient nature of minor-league sports franchises, Dorrington played for six different Eastern League teams. For each he played well. He had 25 goals and 47 points for the Johnstown Jets in 1952-53; 30 goals and 48 points for Johnstown the following season; 33 goals and 68 points for the Washington Lions in 1954-55; and 30 goals and 61 points as an aptly named Philadelphia Rambler in 1955-56.
By this time, Dorrington had begun the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, which made him eligible for the draft. His hockey career was curtailed for two years when he entered the Army in 1956, meaning an invitation he had received to try out for an AHL club that year would have to be declined. After an honorable discharge, he rejoined the Ramblers in 1958. Eleven games later, his hockey career ended.
"I was playing in Utica, N.Y., and I was carrying the puck up the ice when a defenseman stuck out his leg and tripped me. I broke my left leg," he said. "I needed four operations in the next two-and-a-half years. That injury ruined my hockey. I lost my speed. I didn't consider (the injury) a racial thing. I don't. I just beat a guy on a play, and he stuck his leg out. Most of the Eastern League players were Canadians. We had more in common than not."
Dorrington returned to Atlantic City, where he met his wife Dorothie, where their daughter Dorrie was born, where he worked for the Atlantic County Sheriff's Department for 20 years, where he serves on the boards of a local golf club and a baseball umpires association, where he founded a youth baseball organization named after a Negro Leagues great and Hall of Famer John Henry "Pop" Lloyd, where he serves as a goodwill ambassador for the local East Coast Hockey League team called the Boardwalk Bullies, and where he founded and operates a self-named foundation devoted to providing free hockey equipment and instruction, academic guidance and social services to inner-city youth.
Once his U.S. citizenship became official in 1958, he became the first black American to play professional hockey. His Atlantic City Sea Gulls jersey No. 16 is on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame. But his dream of playing in the NHL was dashed in a freakish injury on a rink in upstate New York. Bitterness? No. Dorrington, now 73, has no use for it.
"I look at it like this: if God meant for me to get to the NHL, then it would have happened," he said. "Maybe God meant for me to work with kids and try to help them become good citizens."
Still waiting for a call
Carnegie also has devoted a significant part of his post-hockey life to improving the lives of others, particularly children. He still loves hockey -- not the men running it and certainly not the politics of it -- but the game itself.
He endeavored to create a legacy to the game, a means by which people could learn hockey through the principles he considered essential. In 1955, he founded the Future Aces school, which is believed to be the first hockey school in North America. He developed a Future Aces creed -- one that is taught in Toronto-area schools to this day -- based on four components: attitude, cooperation, example and sportsmanship. The school included on-ice hockey instruction, with an emphasis on learning the fundamentals (skating, shooting, passing, defense, teamwork), as well as lessons in fair play, tolerance and diversity that he hoped would create a more tolerant, compassionate and color-blind society. His Future Aces Foundation holds a fund-raising golf tournament each August and awards scholarships to help financially needy students attend college. He built the Foundation while working for 32 years for a financial investment company, retiring as a senior executive.
"I really was a bitter person when I left hockey, and I knew that I needed to do something to redirect my energies and emotions into something positive and constructive," he said. "As far as I know, no professional hockey players have come out of the Future Aces program, but I've taught countless people the fundamentals of the game. No one can tell me the program has not produced better hockey players and better and more knowledgeable hockey fans. No one can tell me the program did not contribute to the betterment of hockey or the betterment of those who took part."
Without question, Carnegie has built an impressive foundation. Now the question becomes, has he built a resumé that a committee of 18 men will deem worthy of the Hockey Hall of Fame? There are three categories in which a person can be inducted into the Hall: player, builder and referee/linesman. A builder of the game is defined as a person with "coaching, managerial or executive ability," one whose "sportsmanship and character" contributed to the betterment of his organization in particular or hockey in general. Those advocating the induction of Carnegie hope the selection committee will give more merit to his humanitarian efforts than it gave in 2000 to his hockey-playing credentials. They hope the committee will be as noble-minded as Marvel Comics, which saw fit to immortalize Carnegie in a Spiderman comic book in the 1990s.
The campaign to enshrine Carnegie as a player was launched by Richard Lord, the first black to play college hockey in the U.S. He captained the 1949-50 Michigan State Spartans. Now an immigration court judge in Montreal, Lord advocated Carnegie's candidacy the way any other citizen could have: he wrote letters to the Hall of Fame selection committee. A letter along with supporting materials such as newspaper clippings can be sent to any of the 18 members. The members' names and biographies can be found on the Hockey Hall of Fame Web site. Nominations to the committee must be made by March of each year. The letter and supporting materials are shared among all committee members who then are expected to research the merits of a candidate on their own.
At a closed-door meeting (the 2003 meeting took place June 11), a candidate's qualifications are discussed and debated before a vote is taken by secret ballot. For a person to be enshrined, he must receive at least 14 of the 18 votes from the selection committee. The new members are announced on the day of the voting and the enshrinement takes place in November.
"I can tell you Herb Carnegie's name has been up for consideration before, but I can't chat about whatever reservations have been discussed in the meetings," said Hall of Fame president William C. Hay, who does not have a vote on the selection committee. "What is said in those meetings is confidential. I would never discuss publicly what has been said about a candidate at a committee meeting. That's the one protection area that we allow our selection committee. It's all done in confidence and that's the reason we're able to get each and every member of the selection committee speaking so freely at the meeting."
Lord's campaign for Carnegie earned an advocate on the selection committee in longtime Toronto Star sports editor Jim Proudfoot. But Proudfoot suffered a stroke before the June 2000 meeting and was unable to argue Carnegie's merits before the full committee. Proudfoot resigned from the committee for health reasons, and died in May 2002. No other member of the selection committee has taken up the cause for Carnegie in the player category since his candidacy was defeated in 2000.
"Unfortunately, I don't have the opportunity to be in the board room to give a reasonable response to whatever is being said about me," Carnegie said. "I wish I could be a fly on the wall and hear what they are saying about me."
In all likelihood, it would burn his ears. For starters, there is the aforementioned comment from Francis, the former NHL goalie, coach and general manager, about Carnegie needing to have played "in a better category of hockey" than semi-pro leagues and the Quebec Senior League because "that's not the NHL." Francis added, "I don't think there was any part of him not being able to play in the NHL because of his color."
Then there is a comment from a March 2001 Toronto Star column quoting selection committee chairman Jim Gregory on how racism did not keep Carnegie out of the NHL: "I did some investigation when I was younger and what I found out was that it (racism) didn't exist."
Has the selection committee concluded Carnegie must have left the Rangers camp in 1948 rather than report to the New Haven team because he himself had doubts as to whether he could have played his way into the NHL? Only the fly on the wall Carnegie wished himself to be on voting day could know for sure. But what about the NHL's failure to give Carnegie a tryout prior to 1948, especially during the war years when jobs were available? Is the committee suggesting racism did not exist then?
"The Hall of Fame committee people are without heart," Carnegie said. "They knew of the comments that were made by 'The Major' (Smythe) and they fell in line. The Smythe comments strongly indicate that I was good enough to play in the NHL. He said he'd give any man $10,000 if he could turn me white. His comment just cut me off at the knee."
Perhaps Carnegie would stand a better chance for induction if more people who actually saw him play could vote. "If I had a Hall of Fame vote, Herb Carnegie would get my vote tomorrow," said Storey, the Hall of Fame referee. Storey is not on the selection committee, which includes a mix of former players and coaches, team executives, media members and one former referee.
Another Carnegie on the horizon
Hall of Famers Mahovlich and Beliveau are not selection committee members either, but they have influential voices. Mahovlich serves in the Canadian Senate. Appointed by the Prime Minister, his term runs until 2012. Mahovlich and Beliveau admit to having been greatly influenced by Carnegie's play during their formative years. Has either man attempted to lobby the selection committee on Carnegie's behalf?
"I've tried to get a number of players elected," said Mahovlich, who would not name any. "I write a few letters from time to time. However, the decision-making is up to the (selection committee). If I can influence them, I'll try. But I don't have a say in who gets in."
In September 2002, Mahovlich awarded Carnegie a Queen's Jubilee Medal, one of the highest civilian honours bestowed in Canada. Carnegie was among 2,080 citizens to be so honoured, as each of Canada's 104 Senators selected 20 recipients.
"Herb Carnegie should not go away forgotten," Senator Mahovlich said. "People should know he made a great contribution to the game of hockey. I think he should be in the Hall of Fame."
Why isn't he?
"He never played in the NHL and I think it's about playing in the NHL," Mahovlich said.
The most prominent Hall of Fame player never to have appeared in the NHL or its predecessor, the National Hockey Association, is Vladislav Tretiak, the goaltender from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and '80s. The Cold War kept the renowned Tretiak out of hockey's major league. A racial cold war kept Carnegie from getting an invite to an NHL camp before his late twenties, and then only after Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball.
Beliveau took a Socratic stance, providing more questions than answers, in discussing the Hall of Fame prospects of his former Quebec Aces teammate. "Should Herbie be in? As a player? As a builder? Is it possible they cannot decide which one? Was his color the reason the Rangers did not give him an NHL contract? I don't know. When I played with Herbie he seemed good enough to play in the NHL. But I would say in the Quebec League, he had time to look around and set up the plays. In the NHL, the league was much faster, and he would not have had as much time to look around. I know there was some writing that he was too small, but I thought he was a very good hockey player."
Beliveau, an NHL legend, would have to declare Carnegie a great player, not merely a very good one, to put any heat on the Hall's selection committee. Not even in his foreword to Carnegie's 1997 autobiography did Beliveau advocate him as a Hall of Fame player.
Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the dynastic Edmonton Oilers teams in the 1980s, became the first black Hall of Famer in 2003. Fuhr said he would be representing not only himself but also each of his progenitors, including Carnegie, as a Hall of Fame member -- a statement Carnegie called "very kind." A selection in the builder category would appear to be Carnegie's best hope for enshrinement in the Hall. It did not happen in 2003. But other prestigious honours have not eluded him. In 2002, the year he received the Queen's Jubilee Medal, the former North York Centennial Arena was renamed the Herbert H. Carnegie Centennial Arena. The year before, he was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame.
The Hockey Hall of Fame has always paled in comparison to family in the Carnegie household. So Herb Carnegie, his hair made thin and grey, his body brittle by age, chuckles at the possibility that a grandson, 18-year-old Rane Carnegie, could someday skate in an NHL game. In the first round of the 2001 junior league draft, the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario League selected Rane Carnegie. He is a center, like his grandfather, with soft hands and fine passing skills, also like his grandfather.
"I've been in the rink a couple of times, but I have not seen him play," Herb Carnegie said. "That's a shame. I regret that I can't see him. How I wish I could see Rane play."
Glaucoma, which has deprived him of the joy of watching a grandson shine on a hockey rink, is the only regret Carnegie will give voice to these days. Not being able to see Rane's stride, his passing, puckhandling, slapshot and forechecking, to compare those skills to his own, is the regret. The glaucoma? Carnegie has found a silver lining even in that.
"Now, I have to be color-blind," he said. "I only wish more people were."
Mike Marson, the NHL's second black player, certainly would have wished for the same.