‘He retired in 1954, then became a successful businessperson and philanthropist,’ writes Susan Goldenberg
North Yorker Herb Carnegie was a trailblazer, the first black hockey star, in the 1940s into the early 1950s. Yet, he never made it into the National Hockey League because of his skin colour. The NHL was all-white.
Born in 1919 to Jamaican immigrants, “Herbie” started playing hockey on North York’s frozen ponds at eight. At 18 he joined the junior Toronto Young Rangers as a centre, the only black player. Five-foot-eight, 165 pounds, today he would be considered undersized. The team practised at Maple Leaf Gardens and Carnegie said in his 1997 memoir, A Fly In A Pail Of Milk, that he was told owner Conn Smythe remarked “I’d give anyone $10,000 if he could turn Carnegie white.” Whether Smythe really said this is unknown.
“To find that the owner of the team I loved and had cheered for would not accept me because of my skin colour hurt, and it still does,” he wrote.
He played for “mining” teams in northern Ontario and Quebec, then for the Sherbrooke Saints of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, becoming captain and was named Most Valuable Player three times.
In 1948 the NHL’s New York Rangers invited him to join. This was significant because the hockey, football and basketball leagues excluded black athletes, and baseball had until 1945 when Jackie Robinson was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Carnegie rejected the offer because it was $400 less than the $5,100 he was making, and because he would first have to go to the farm team, unlike the white players he thought were less talented. “I had once more been stopped by the colour barrier,” he wrote.
No other NHL team contacted Carnegie. He retired in 1954, then became a successful businessperson and philanthropist, establishing the North York-based Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation in 1987 to “inspire and assist youth and adults to become the best they can be as responsible, respectful, peaceful, confident and caring citizens.” Thousands of young people have learned the creed.
Carnegie received the Order of Ontario in 1996 and Order of Canada in 2003. His name lives on with the former North York Centennial Arena renamed in his honour in 2008 and with a new York Region District School Board public school that opened in 2008 in Vaughan. He died in 2012. His youngest daughter Rochelle carries on his work.
Written by Susan Goldenberg.
Originally published on November 29, 2018, on toronto.com.