Though he never played in the NHL, Herb Carnegie inspired such all-time greats as Frank Mahovlich and Jean Beliveau. (Darren Calabrese/AP)
By Stu Hackel
Herb Carnegie passed away on Friday, a great hockey player who deserved a shot in the NHL. It was denied him because he was black. But while the institutional racism of all big league pro sports, including the NHL, in that era prevented him from reaching his goal, he spent his post-playing years mentoring youngsters and started one of the first hockey schools in Canada and a foundation.
As an 18-year-old, Carnegie began attracting attention in 1938 while playing for the Toronto Junior Rangers under coach Ed Wildey, and one who saw him play at Maple Leaf Gardens was Conn Smythe, the owner of the Maple Leafs. Wildey told Carnegie that Smythe would sign him the next day…if he were white. Later, Smythe was widely reported to also have said, “I’ll give any man $10,000 who can turn Herb Carnegie white.” It was a slight that upset Carnegie at the time.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs was the team I rooted for as a boy,” Carnegie said in a 2002 interview. “And to find out that was how the owner of the team I rooted for felt about me was shattering, just shattering.”
It still upset him decades later, as Elliotte Friedman found out when he profiled Carnegie over the CBC on the Hockey Night in Canada pregame show.
Carnegie became a star in the mining leagues of the 1940s, small semi-pro loops that played the mining towns of northern Quebec and Ontario. That’s where Hockey Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, who grew up in Timmons, Ontario, saw him play. Mahovlich said Carnegie’s slick moves and passing excellence inspired him, and the man who would later be called The Big M wanted to emulate him. Mahovlich told author Cecil Harris in Breaking The Ice, that he expected he’d soon see Carnegie and many other black players in the NHL. But that never happened.