What Herb Carnegie needed more than anything else during the prime years of his athletic life was a sponsor. He needed his own Branch Rickey. Rickey was the baseball visionary who, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Negro League baseball star Jackie Robinson to a contract in October 1945. It was a business transaction done in an era of systemic racial oppression that changed the face of sports history.
During the same years Robinson augmented a reputation as a four-sport star at UCLA, Carnegie—also a man of a darker hue—excelled on hockey rinks, often in Canadian mining towns, usually on the periphery of the spotlight.
Some who saw Carnegie perform in-person—including Jean Beliveau and Frank Mahovlich, two of the greatest centers in hockey history—marveled at his multi-faceted skills and considered him among the finest players of his time. Unfortunately for Carnegie, he would never perform on his sport’s premier stage, the NHL. And for that, the gatekeepers of the NHL must bear most of the blame—and Carnegie himself must bear at least some.
An NHL hopeful in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Carnegie predated the widespread media coverage now devoted to hockey. Hence, his contributions to the sport received inadequate exposure then and are a source of debate now. The issue of whether his credentials are worthy of induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame has become a political football, and Carnegie’s side is trailing by a considerable margin on the scoreboard.
“I wish somebody from the Hall of Fame would have the decency to phone me and sit down with me and say, ‘Herb, this is the problem. This is why it hasn’t happened,’” he said, struggling to mask the pain. An immensely proud man, he lives in northern Toronto, less than one hour’s drive from the Hall of Fame, but perhaps light years away from hockey’s shrine philosophically.
Had his pursuit of an NHL career not been derailed by a leaguewide policy of exclusion that may have been given public voice in 1938 by Conn Smythe, the powerful and influential owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Carnegie likely would have become the NHL’s first black player. The history-making ascension would have occurred more than a decade before Willie O’Ree broke the league’s color barrier in 1958. Carnegie’s debut in hockey’s major league also would have occurred during the 1948–49 season, or shortly thereafter, were it not for his own bold, but ultimately self-defeating, decision—a decision that may have done irreparable harm to his candidacy for the Hall of Fame.
Even today, as an octogenarian, Carnegie could use a sponsor. He would welcome the opportunity to face his detractors on the Hall of Fame’s selection committee, although he can no longer see them. Robbed of his sight thirteen years ago by glaucoma, he was cared for by Audrey Carnegie, his wife of sixty-four years, until she died in August 2003. But do not pity Herb Carnegie. Pity is the one thing he neither wants nor needs.
“I feel I’ve been blessed,” says Carnegie, who turned eighty-five on November 8, 2004. “It would be nice to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, not only for myself but on behalf of my wife and my [four] children and all those who have helped me over the years. But it is something that is out of my hands. So, I’ve never felt that I should not go on living my life just because I haven’t been accepted by the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
A helping hand from someone high above the ice, in a seat of power and influence, is what Carnegie truly needed to properly showcase his skills during his best years in hockey. But he chose to devote his life to a sport that at the time had no visionary. A Branch Rickey who defied the social and racial mores of his time and handed a baseball contract to a black man for the most sensible of reasons—it would make his team better—probably would have been drummed out of hockey. For hockey had no man with the courage to see past the darkness of racial discrimination and give all of the sport’s gifted players during most of the first half of the twentieth century an opportunity to perform in the NHL.