Even After His Passing, NHL Appears to Turn Its Back on Herb Carnegie

Herb Carnegie was denied a shot to play in the NHL, to the point his passing has been practically ignored by the league.

"I witnessed Herb’s brilliance. There was no question that the years I spent with him still evoke some of my best hockey memories. Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker. Those days the younger ones learned from the older ones, I learned from Herbie." - Jean Beliveau

I was saddened to read about the passing of Herb Carnegie at the age of 92. He was a hero and inspiration to not just the game of hockey, but life in general. You can read his official obituary here.

Carnegie was easily one of the greatest players to never make the NHL. There are of course, numerous reasons for a player not making the NHL, but in Carnegie's case, it was the color of his skin.

Growing up in Toronto, Carnegie chronicled his battles with racism in his autobiography, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story". I had just given the book a re-reading just a matter of weeks ago, and I strongly recommend it.

Playing hockey in the early 1930's, Carnegie always responded to the racial slurs from opposing fans and players by burning them on the ice, either with by setting up a goal or lighting the lamp himself.

He was an outstanding player in his junior days, but his goal of an NHL career came to a grinding halt in 1938. He learned through his coach that Conn Smythe, then-owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team he grew up idolizing and following on the radio, would only sign him if someone could "turn him white". It was a devastating blow to the young forward.

"It was sickening and heart-breaking because all I wanted was a chance," Carnegie said years later.

There has been debate over whether Smythe ever actually made the comment, but there is no evidence that he ever denied making it, and Smythe was a notoriously outspoken and brash man.

If there was a talent greater than his hockey ability, it was his perseverance. He never forgot Smythe's words for the rest of his life, but continued to play the game he loved with perhaps a chance to pursue his dream. As World War II broke out, Carnegie was playing for mining town clubs in Northern Ontario. As men were pressed into service, the NHL started drawing replacement players from the mining clubs. Neither Carnegie, his brother Ossie, nor Manny McIntyre (another black star), were ever called upon by the NHL.

"I was just so amazed at the way he played. He was much superior to the others on the ice. The black line was so amazing because of their great skills – the skating, the passing, the goal scoring. I was a centreman for many years. I might have envisioned myself going down the ice like Herb Carnegie."
- Frank Mahovlich, who witnessed Carnegie and his linemates in 1942

Photo credit: Getty Images

He eventually found himself playing in the Quebec Provincial League, and later the Quebec Senior League, along with future NHL stars such as Jean Beliveau, Jean-Guy Talbot and Marcel Bonin, and squaring off against legends such as Jacques Plante.

Three straight QPL MVP awards was enough to draw interest from the New York Rangers. Lester Patrick offered a minor league deal to Carnegie, but he turned it down as it was for less money than what he was making in Quebec. The truth of the matter is, the Rangers added insult by wanting him to start with their tier three minor league club in Tacoma, gradually upping the offer to start in New Haven (AHL).

Hockey writer Stan Fischler felt that Carnegie made a mistake by not taking a minor league spot, as Jackie Robinson did with the Brooklyn Dodgers as he broke the colour barrier in baseball. But with a wife and four children, the pay cut was too severe for Carnegie to continue to support his family.

Carnegie retired from playing, with Willie O'Ree breaking the NHL color barrier years later with the Boston Bruins. He became an active member in the community in his home of Toronto. From coaching to beginning his Future Aces Foundation, Carnegie devoted the rest of his life to making things better for future generations.

I had an opportunity to work with Carnegie's daughter Bernice at a Future Aces presentation a couple of years ago, and the foundation does an amazing job for schools in the Greater Toronto Area.

He has received numerous accolades, including the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario and induction into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Many, including Fischler, feel he should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The New York Times was one of the first media outlets to post Carnegie's passing, which was picked up by pretty much every other media outlet across North America. Hockey Night In Canada's Elliotte Friedman, who did an excellent feature on Carnegie in 2009, mentioned it at the conclusion of their broadcast Saturday.

Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun honked his horn as he passed the North York Arena that now bears Carnegie's name, noting in his Sunday column "Carnegie could have been consumed with bitterness, having been denied his NHL dreams because of his colour. But rather than tear down, he built up, teaching life skills and hockey to those in need of it."

You would think that the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs, out of respect to his community involvement, could at least acknowledge Carnegie's passing. However outside of a small link to the Canadian Press release on the NHL news page (that you'd have to search for), they haven't.

It's a real shame on them for missing a chance to, at least slightly, right to a terrible wrong from many years ago.

Rest In Peace Mr. Carnegie, at least some of us won't forget you.

Carnegie's funeral will be a private family one on Friday.

A viewing will take place on Thursday at the R.S. Kane Funeral Home, at 6150 Yonge St., just south of Steeles Ave., from 2-4 and 6-9 p.m. A celebration of Herb Carnegie's life will take place Friday, at Earl Haig Collegiate, 100 Princess Ave., in North York, at 7:30 pm.

Donations can be made in his memory to the Future Aces Foundation.

Statement from the Investors Group. Carnegie was a consultant with them for 32 years.

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