Obituary: Herb Carnegie / Hockey trailblazer never got his NHL shot

Nov. 8, 1919 - March 9, 2012

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His memory had dimmed, and glaucoma had robbed him of sight. At 92, Herb Carnegie was living in an assisted-care home in northern Toronto.

But Mr. Carnegie, who many say should have been the Jackie Robinson of the National Hockey League, laughed with delight when he reminisced about his youthful hockey experiences.

"We learned to skate on the frozen ponds right outside the front door," he said. "When I was 7, my sister Bernice said, 'Hey, Herb, you can play!' Getting a compliment like that, at that age? Boy, you got your wings."

Mr. Carnegie died Friday in a Toronto hospital, his daughter Bernice Carnegie said.

Born on Nov. 8, 1919, the son of Jamaican parents who met and married in Canada, Mr. Carnegie was raised in a northern suburb of Toronto. They were the only black family in the neighborhood, Mr. Carnegie recalled, but hockey helped ease the racial divide.

Compact at 5 feet 8 inches and 160 pounds, he straightened his hair and wore a sliver of a mustache. He earned a reputation as a playmaking center, a dipsy-doodler of a stickhandler who liked to put the puck between a defender's legs and go around him.

When he and his older brother Ossie started their careers, no blacks played in the NHL. Conn Smythe, the Toronto Maple Leafs' owner, watched Mr. Carnegie skate and, the story goes, said, "I'll give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herb Carnegie white."

The Carnegie brothers heard racist slurs from the stands in the small towns of the Canadian mining leagues.

"You learned to play on," Mr. Carnegie said last month in a telephone interview.

They graduated to the Quebec Provincial League, a notch or two below the NHL, and teamed with Manny McIntyre, a winger/enforcer from New Brunswick. The presence of three black players on the same line was a gate attraction and a headline writer's dream. They became known as les Noirs, the Black Aces, the Dusky Speedsters.

When fans watched them, Mr. Carnegie said, "their reaction was, 'There's three of them?' "

They were more than a novelty act, with Mr. Carnegie winning multiple most valuable player awards with the Sherbrooke Saints.

"When I was 13 or 14, I never missed a game when Sherbrooke was in town," said Jean Beliveau, the Hall of Fame forward for the Montreal Canadiens. "I tried to duplicate what Herbie was doing at faceoffs and making passes onto the blade, not behind the wingman."

In 1946, Kenny Washington and Woody Strode broke the National Football League's color line with the Los Angeles Rams. The next year, after a season with the minor league Montreal Royals, Robinson made his Major League Baseball debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

In August 1948, New York Rangers general manager Frank Boucher invited Mr. Carnegie to the team's training camp in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

Mr. Carnegie said: "It was a very exciting time for me. I said, 'This is my opportunity.' "

During the first week of camp, he said, the Rangers offered a contract with their minor league club in Tacoma, Wash. He turned it down. A day later, he received an offer to play for their team in St. Paul. He declined. Then came a third offer: to report to New Haven of the American Hockey League, just below the NHL.

Mr. Carnegie was 28, with a wife, three children and a fourth on the way. He could not afford to take a pay cut.

"It was hard for me to demean myself to take a pee-wee salary when I was worth a senior salary," he said.

Mr. Carnegie believed that he had earned a spot on the Rangers.

"I was as good as the most talented player," he said. "I was stopped by the color barrier."

He never got another opportunity.

Mr. Carnegie retired in the mid-1950s after a stint with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Hockey League; Mr. Beliveau, now 80, was a teammate.

In 1958, the NHL became the last of the four major professional sports leagues to integrate when the Boston Bruins signed Willie O'Ree.

By then, Mr. Carnegie had started the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first hockey academies in Canada.


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