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Jotting it Down with Jesse: The Case for Herb Carnegie's Enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame

Thursday, February 4th
Jotting it Down with Jesse: The Case for Herb Carnegie's Enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame

As the hockey world participates in Black History Month initiatives this February, you will likely hear references to some of the game’s trailblazing Black pioneers in the NHL.

Willie O’Ree. Val James. Mike Marson. Tony McKegney. Grant Fuhr.

They were among the first, with O’Ree being the VERY first Black player to play in an NHL game, making his debut with the Boston Bruins on January 18, 1958. Their contributions to breaking down barriers in this wonderful sport, and serving as an inspiration to countless young boys and girls of color to pursue their dreams should not be overlooked.

You’ve heard of O’Ree, James, Marson and others. But there’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Herb Carnegie.

Who was Herb Carnegie?

As O’Ree told SportsNet’s David Singh this past year, “Herb Carnegie should have been in the National Hockey League before me.”

Carnegie, the son of Jamaican immigrants to Canada, was an outstanding centerman who played in the Quebec Provincial Hockey League, the Quebec Senior Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey Association Senior A League and is widely considered by many hockey historians to be the best Black player never to play in the NHL. He played for the Quebec Aces from 1949-53, where he was a teammate of future Montréal Canadiens legend, 10-time Stanley Cup winner and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jean Beliveau.

During his time in Quebec, Carnegie teamed up with his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre to form the potent “Black Aces” line, and the trio were a dominant force on the circuit, with Herb Carnegie winning multiple scoring titles and MVP awards.

He did this while being told by opposing players and fans, “This is a white man’s sport,” or that he should “be back in the cotton fields.”

Prior to the 1948-49 season, Carnegie was invited to attend training camp with the New York Rangers, and was given three contract offers to play for the Rangers’ top minor-league affiliate.

But Carnegie turned the offers down, as his daughter Bernice told NHL.com staff writer William Douglas, because he had a young family to support, and he would have made substantially more money remaining in Quebec.

At the time of Carnegie’s tryout with the Rangers, the NHL was a six-team league; there is little doubt, that if the NHL was the 31-team operation it is today, that Carnegie would have been on a major league roster nearly a full decade prior to Willie O’Ree’s debut with Boston.

Was it simply Carnegie’s decision that prevented him from reaching the NHL? Not necessarily so, wrote Beliveau in his 1994 autobiography: “It’s my belief that Herbie was excluded from the NHL because of his colour.”

Perhaps more damning is the anecdote that years before, as a teenager in 1938, Carnegie dazzled Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Conn Smythe. As the story goes, Smythe allegedly remarked that he would take Carnegie “tomorrow” if he could “turn him white.” Another version of the story has Smythe say he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn Carnegie white.

To hear Carnegie address that story is simply heartbreaking.

After retiring from hockey, Carnegie started the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first of its kind in Canada, and became a successful financial planner. He received numerous awards and honors, including an honorary Doctor of Laws from York University and the Order of Canada in 2003, before passing away on March 9, 2012 at the age of 92.

But one honor has still eluded Carnegie.

There is no doubt that one of the ways we can write the wrongs of the past is to acknowledge this fundamental truth: Herb Carnegie deserves enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

It’s a pursuit his grandson Rane Carnegie, himself a former minor-pro hockey player, has dedicated his life’s work to. The hope is that Herb Carnegie would be inducted into the Hall in the Builder category, an honor bestowed upon Willie O’Ree as part of the Hall’s 2018 selection class, and one O’Ree himself has endorsed on the record for Carnegie.

There are two ways someone can get on the Hall of Fame ballot as a Builder: a member of the 18-person selection committee can officially nominate that individual, or the public can submit a recommendation by March 15 of the selection year to the chair of the Board of Directors for the Hall (Lanny McDonald), in the hopes that the request would be forwarded to each selection committee member. In order to be elected to the Hall as part of an induction class, a nominee requires 14 of the 18 votes.

While Rane Carnegie continues to work to build a case and collect sources of evidence and materials to support the argument for Herb Carnegie’s induction, you can fill out the petition LINKED HERE. There’s approximately 6,900 signatures already on it, with the targeted goal of 7,500 well within reach.

It should be noted that the Hockey Hall of Fame is not strictly limited to NHL participation. The Hall has made an effort in recent years to adopt a more wider selection that incorporates international and female players.

But with the coronavirus pandemic forcing the Hall to delay the induction of the Class of 2020 to November of this year as a standalone induction class, delaying Carnegie’s entry for at least one more year.

It should be noted that the Class of 2020 includes Jarome Iginla, one of the modern Black stars of the games, and a tremendous ambassador to the sport in his own right. His very presence in the Hall of Fame can no doubt be attributed to the groundwork laid by Carnegie and O’Ree.

It’s been far too long that Carnegie has been absent from the Hall. It’s only right that his name is part of the Class of 2022.

The clock is ticking.

Jesse Liebman is the director of communications and broadcasting for the Orlando Solar Bears and is in his sixth season behind the microphone as the team’s play-by-play voice for the 2020-21 season. Use the form below to shoot him your questions, comments or blog ideas.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Solar Bears. All opinions expressed by Jesse Liebman are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Orlando Solar Bears or their Hockey Operations staff, partners or sponsors.

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