Trailblazing black hockey player dies at 92

Herb Carnegie chats with Anthony Stewart of the Kingston Frontenacs before a 2009 OHL game at the...

Herb Carnegie chats with Anthony Stewart of the Kingston Frontenacs before a 2009 OHL game at the Hershey Centre. (QMI Agency)

Lance Hornby, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:56 AM ET

Herb Carnegie would never put on an National Hockey League sweater, despite being eminently qualified.

Too many influential people who looked at the colour of a man’s skin before they looked at goals and assists made sure to make it difficult for Carnegie to escape the minors in the 1940s.

But Carnegie did pave the way for hundreds of black players. More than 25 currently in the NHL will be saying a prayer for him today after Carnegie passed away Friday in Toronto at age 92.

“The people who are in charge of hockey today are not the people who were in charge back then,” Carnegie told the Toronto Sun’s Mark Keast in 2005. “The mindset is different. People seem to have a heart today. Back then, I don’t know where their heart was, if they had one.”

Carnegie was born in Toronto to Jamaican parents, fell in love with the game, listened on radio and developed as a centre for the Toronto Young Rangers in his teens. Though Toronto was not the Deep South, racial tolerance was still an issue. Seeing him dazzle on local rinks, Maple Leafs founder Conn Smythe is alleged to have said he’d pay $10,000 if anyone could make Carnegie white, though that has been disputed through the years. But Carnegie believed Smythe and those running the Original Six NHL were prejudiced and carried the memory with him forever.

“It was sickening and heart-breaking because all I wanted was a chance,” Carnegie said.

His prowess as a playmaker grew in the post-war years, for teams in the highly competitive mining leagues in Northern Ontario and Quebec. He was the Quebec Provincial League’s MVP in 1946, the same year Jackie Robinson electrified minor-league baseball fans in Montreal before breaking baseball’s colour barrier the next season.

Nicknamed ‘Swivel Hips’, the 5-foot-7 Carnegie was a great stick handler and starred on an all-black line called the Aces with his talented brother Ossie and a winger named Manny MacIntyre. Carnegie won two more MVP titles in 1948, earning enough interest from the New York Rangers for a tryout and minor-league contract. But because the money was less than what he made in Quebec, Carnegie felt the honourable thing was to refuse.

Ten years later, Willie O’Ree became the first black NHLer for the Boston Bruins. When O’Ree was called up, coach Milt Schmidt told curious reporters “he isn’t black, he’s a Bruin” and though it would take another decade before black players began arriving in large numbers, the 30 teams have had close to 70 come and go since O’Ree.

Carnegie, meanwhile, went back to Quebec after his Ranger tryout and played on senior teams with such future NHL greats as Jean Beliveau. Future Leaf boss Punch Imlach was his coach.

By the time O’Ree played for Boston, Carnegie was nearing 40 and retirement. He started up the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first of its kind for black or white players. His ‘Future Aces Creed’ was a heartfelt attempt to spare younger players the taunts and strange looks to which he was subjected and to foster respect, diversity and sportsmanship.

The hockey program later evolved into the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation, creating bursaries for college and university students. In the 1990s, that inspired the Spiderman comics franchise to use the young Future Aces in a couple of story lines about the kids helping the super hero battling smugglers and evil scientists. Before glaucoma took his sight, Carnegie was also a top golfer on the Canadian seniors scene.

In the 2000s, Carnegie was involved in the new Canadian Multicultural Hockey League, in which teams from the Greater Toronto Area’s ethnic groups played each other in exhibitions and tournaments. In 2005, Carnegie dropped the ceremonial puck in the North York rink renamed in his honour for the CMHL event.

“Herb loved the concept,” said Stan Papulkas, the CMHL’s founder. “Though he couldn’t see the games, he came down to the rink and was always phoning me to see how we were doing.

“I know he was a real fan of the Nubian Kings team and they were trying hard to win it for him this year because he had been sick (making the semi-finals). He was a real gentleman and did a lot for us.”

Carnegie’s biography, A Fly in a Pail of Milk was published in 1996. He was named the Order of Ontario in 1996 and the Order of Canada in 2003.

lance.hornby@sunmedia.ca


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