Herb Carnegie was denied the opportunity to achieve his dream as a hockey player, but he spent his long and productive life making sure others had a chance to pursue their dreams.
In the late 1930s, after watching Carnegie play hockey, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe was said to have turned to those around him saying he would pay $10,000 “to anyone who could turn Carnegie white.” Since the NHL would not follow the lead of the other major North American professional sports leagues in employing black players, Carnegie was forced to settle for a career in the Quebec provincial and senior leagues, where he formed a legendary line for the Quebec Aces with his older brother, Ossie, and another black player, Manny McIntyre.
It was a slight Mr. Carnegie never got over – “There’s still a wound,” he said in 2006 – but he didn’t let it ruin his life. After his playing career ended in the 1950s, he went on to a career as a financial planner in Toronto and, more importantly, established the Future Aces Foundation, which gives awards and scholarships to students in Ontario and beyond.
Carnegie died on March 9 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto. He was 92.
Herb and Ossie Carnegie were the children of Jamaican parents who emigrated to Canada in 1912, settling in the then-remote Toronto suburb of Willowdale. Carnegie, who was born on Nov. 8, 1919, and his brother learned to play hockey on ponds in the neighbourhood.
“I’d loved the game since I was 7½,” he told The Globe and Mail in 2006. “We’d play all day on ponds in Willowdale, then listen on the radio to Foster Hewitt and Hockey Night in Canada. I wanted to be a Maple Leaf.”
But the closest Carnegie ever came to the NHL was an invitation to the New York Rangers’ training camp in 1948 from Frank Boucher, the team’s general manager. Two years earlier, Woody Strode and Kenny Washington had broken the colour barrier in the NFL and in 1947 Jackie Robinson had done the same in major league baseball. But there were no guarantees in Boucher’s offer.
Carnegie, who was 28 at the time, turned down the Rangers because it was only an offer for their minor-league team. He was insulted by the fact players who were not as good as him were offered NHL contracts by the Rangers.
No other NHL team ever made an offer. The league did not admit its first black player until 1958, when Willie O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins. By then, Carnegie had retired as a player and was raising a family in Toronto.
Many of Carnegie’s contemporaries, who went from the Quebec Senior Hockey League to the NHL, said it was only the colour of his skin that kept him out of the league. Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau played with Carnegie on the Quebec Aces and remembered him as a smooth-skating, slick-with-his-stick centre.
“There were only six [NHL]teams then, 120 jobs,” Béliveau said in a 2006 interview. “But Herbie was very good – a real playmaker who scored his share of goals, a beautiful skater. I will say he never got a fair shot, and it was because of his skin. Everyone in our dressing room loved him. You need those players to win championships.”
In addition to forging a career of more than 30 years as a financial planner, Carnegie started a hockey school in 1952. From that sprang his Future Aces program for schoolchildren, with Aces being an acronym for attitude, co-operation, example and sportsmanship. He devoted many, many hours to inspirational talks to children and the Future Aces Foundation is still thriving under the leadership of his daughter Bernice.
Carnegie, who was a member of the Order of Canada, was also a champion golfer. He won the Canadian senior amateur championship in 1977 and 1978 and won the Ontario senior title in 1982.
He leaves his companion, Grace Matthews, and children Goldie Jeanjacques and Dale, Bernice and Rochelle Carnegie. He also leaves nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.