August 15, 2017

Hockey Heroes: Herb Carnegie

Willie O'Ree was the first Black player in National Hockey League history, often earning the nickname of the "Jackie Robinson of Hockey."

But O'Ree wasn't the first or necessarily the best Black hockey player back in the early days. Many say that Herb Carnegie was the best player not in the National Hockey League at that time.

Herb Carnegie was one-third of what is believed to be the very first all-black line in hockey. Herbie centered his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre. O'Ree described them as "superstars of their era" with the Quebec Aces of the QSHL and EHL.

"Herb was a center. He and Ossie, a right wing, were both born in Toronto. McIntyre, the left wing on the line, was born in my hometown of Fredericton, New Brunswick. They were a great forward line, terrific skaters and terrific shooters. Herb was considered to be the best of the three, but all of them would have made the NHL if they had gotten a better chance at it," said O'Ree.

Carnegie had chance to play with a young Jean Beliveau while with the Quebec Aces. Beliveau many years later had nothing but good things to say about Carnegie.

"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," said Jean. "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."

Frank Mahovlich, hockey Hall of Famer and Canadian senator, was another fan of his.

"I was just amazed at the way he played; he was much superior to the others on the ice."

Born in Toronto to Jamaican immigrants, Herb and Ossie grew up like any other southern Ontario kid. They played hockey whenever they could, perfecting skills that would turn them into junior and senior stars. Herb was particularly grand, earning the nickname "Swivel Hips" because of his elusive dekes on the ice. He was said to "lift fans out of their seats with a feathery pinpoint pass, exquisite puckhandling or a brilliantly conceived play."

The better Carnegie became, the more the racial taunts began. Even as a youth, opposing coaches or fans would taunt him. But he heeded the advice of a coach and chose to respond by scoring goals and being better than everyone else. He became incredibly focused on achieving his dreams of playing for his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs before adoring fans at Maple Leaf Gardens, just like his hero Joe Primeau.

While racism in the NHL has more or less been swept under the rug very successfully, Toronto Maple Leaf's boss Conn Smythe was once allegedly quoted saying "I will gladly give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herb Carnegie white." Although there is no written evidence that Smythe ever actually said that, the quote, mythical or not, shattered Carnegie, who at the time was a junior player still unaware of the destiny he faced.

The hockey world knew that Herbie Carnegie was a good player, but suspiciously he never had a chance to play in the NHL, not even during World War II when NHL teams were desperately looking for replacements lost to the armed forces.

Hall of Fame referee Red Storey suggests there was only one reason Carnegie never got a chance.

"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. 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 the same restaurants and there could be problems if he took him to the States to play against the NHL teams there."

Carnegie found all doors to the NHL closed, but he and his brother continued to play. They formed an all black line with Manny McIntyre. The trio started in the old "mines leagues," traveling from town to town. Later they settled in Quebec where they were dubbed "The Black Aces." Herb was the strategist, Ossie was the man with the big canon and McIntyre was the muscle and hustle.

"They were good enough as a line to play in the American Hockey League, which was just below the NHL," suggested Storey. "But Herbie was the leader. They couldn't have gone anywhere without Herb. He was good enough to play in the NHL."

The Black Aces became comfortable with their somewhat legendary status and they achieved decent economic success. By the late 1940s Herb was getting paid $5100, a good amount back then, and he had solid job offers outside of hockey as well.

So it came as a great surprise when the New York Rangers offered Carnegie a training camp invite in 1948. Carnegie kept surviving the cuts, and soon the Rangers were offering a minor league contract. The Rangers wanted to see Carnegie apprentice in the minors to see if he could adjust to the realities of being a black athlete in America, and also to see if he could have the same levels of success without his long time linemates. The strong headed Carnegie refused every contract offer, insisting he was good enough to play in the NHL and refusing to play in the minor leagues. Also he did not want to take a pay cut or move his young family to a minor league city, either.

Carnegie summed up his own possible passing on the NHL in Cecil Harris' book Breaking The Ice:

"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 at the time and I didn't feel like playing there. For in those days there were not too many thirty year old players in the NHL and I knew that if I didn't make it immediately, I wouldn't get another chance."

"He stayed in Canada because he had a better future here financially. He could do better in the Quebec League financially than he could in the NHL."

Carnegie returned to Quebec and played hockey until 1954. After retirement he became very successful in the field of financial management with Investors Group.

He also avidly pursued his other sporting passion, golf. He was always a natural golfer, long before the days of Tiger Woods. He was so good that he won the Canadian Senior Championship in 1977 as well as several other provincial and national titles as well.

He also continued to be influential in the community, particularly with children, setting up the Future Aces Foundation. It started out as a hockey school, said to be the first hockey school by one source, with a focus on developing solid sportsmen and citizens. Now 50 years later, the foundation has grown into an influential force in Ontario school system and beyond.

Carnegie had to give up golf and many other activies

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