Before Willie O’Ree broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, Herb Carnegie, also a Black man, was working his way through Canada’s senior hockey system. Carnegie was born in Toronto in 1919 to Jamaican immigrants and took up the sport as a child.
Unlike O’Ree, however, Carnegie never got an opportunity to suit up in the NHL. A star in the Quebec Senior Hockey League and Quebec Provincial League – he was named league MVP in three consecutive seasons – in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Carnegie turned down a minor-league contract with the New York Rangers in 1948 because the offer was for less money than he was earning in the Quebec league.
Throughout his hockey career, Carnegie was subject to racist taunts. In 1938, Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe allegedly said he would sign Carnegie if he could “turn him white.” In Carnegie’s autobiography A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story, Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau wrote: “It’s my belief that Herb Carnegie was excluded from the National Hockey League because of his color by him.”
After his hockey career ended and he retired in 1953, Carnegie started Canada’s first registered hockey school in Toronto in 1954, Future Aces, and became involved in several initiatives to promote sportsmanship. Today, the Future Aces Foundation offers scholarships and promotes inclusivity.
On Monday, Carnegie, along with former NHL players Roberto Luongo, Henrik Sedin, daniel sedin and Daniel Alfredson, and women’s hockey star Riikka Sallinen were elected for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Class of 2022 will be inducted at a ceremony in Toronto on Nov. 14.
TSN spoke with Herb’s daughter, Bernice, in Toronto on Wednesday about her late father – he passed away in 2012 at the age of 92 – and his nomination for induction.
TSN: Can you describe the moment that you found out that your late father, Herb, was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as a builder?
Carnegie: “Well, that was quite the story, I’m telling you. I had been called by a wonderful gentleman, William Douglas and he was saying, ‘How do you feel? How do you feel?’ Meanwhile, I had not seen the message coming from the Hockey Hall of Fame and another call comes in from [Hall of Fame chairman] Lanny McDonald and [selection committee chair] Mike Gartner. I just totally broke up. I said to Lanny, ‘I feel like I want to cry,’ and he said, ‘Well, you are crying.’ At that moment when I was talking with them, and totally overwhelmed, I was supposed to be starting a Zoom call with the team from the Carnegie Initiative, which is also named after my father. So, I put them on and all of us talked together with Lanny and Mike. They were crying and smiling from ear to ear and laughing and full of congratulatory remarks on my Zoom call. It went like one big, wonderful family gathering to help bring the news together for me.
I’m just overwhelmed because so many other friends have sent messages and called. You can probably see in my eyes I’m tired because I was up until 10 o’clock last night, answering emails and trying to get back to the many people that are so excited for this wonderful recognition for my father.”
TSN: What have you and your family done over the past couple of years to promote Herb’s legacy and push for his induction and his recognition as an important figure in this game?
Carnegie: “Well, it’s been more than a couple of years that people have been trying to see that my father’s name goes in history where it belongs. There have been other bids that have gone in, very extensive ones and I feel that, at the time, those who were making the choices really didn’t know who my father was.
We’ve had over 50 years of working in the community in other respects, but it doesn’t matter what that was, somehow every article of my father’s accomplishments always went back to hockey. It seems like he’s been promoting hockey forever and a day. Especially in the past couple of years, Rane [Carnegie, Herb’s grandson] joined in and said, ‘I just want this so badly for my grandfather.’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to put this in your hands to see how you do with it.’ Of course, he started a petition and that petition garnered I think close to 10,000 signatures, and there have been many other petitions along the way.
It’s not just our family that is so excited about this. There are literally thousands upon thousands of people whose lives my father has touched through our Feature Aces initiative and character and integrity-building initiatives that are feeling just like we are. You can’t imagine the kinds of comments that are coming up that say, ‘It’s been long overdue. We are just so happy for all of you.’ I’m happy for everybody that joined in with us as well because he was my father, and he was a lot of people’s father and had a lot of influence with so many people.”
TSN: How did your father speak about the sport to you and his experiences as a Black man playing hockey?
Carnegie: “In the early years, my father didn’t speak about his experiences with hockey. He had some raw moments. As much as he loved the sport and he loved the players, he just loved the whole atmosphere of hockey, there were moments where he should have had his due and been recognized, and it just didn’t happen.
One of the things my parents consciously decided to do was not tell us about racial incidents that occurred in their lives in the early years. It was n’t until we were teenagers and older, when we could start reading, that we learned through his articles from him that there were some moments in his life from him that really shouldn’t have happened. But he was a strong man. He was a kind and loving man, and he had a lot of confidence, and I think that’s what he carried through all those years of his daily routines and his time away from our family.
I happened upon a stack of letters as a teenager. It was one of the things my parents kind of hid from us, but it was love letters. My father was away eight months of the year. His career was 17 years, and my mom and dad wrote love letters almost every day to keep their family connection. I do not know whether you might know this story, but my father actually went AWOL from his hockey team when Punch Imlach was his coach. He was close to home. He was in Ottawa and our home was in North York. He was afraid that if he asked Punch if he could come home to see his family of him, that he would say no. So, I’ve just kind of snuck home. He got a whooping, a tongue-lashing, from Punch, but he took him back. Punch took him back and understood that my father was the ultimate family man.”
TSN: You talked about the impact your father had on other people. Now in hockey, we talk a lot about diversity and sportsmanship, but 50, 60 years ago, your father was also preaching similar messages. What was the impact he had on the greater community?
Carnegie: “My father’s impact on the greater community was huge. He wanted, at the time he started his hockey school, to teach more than hockey skills, because he knew most of those young men would never even dream of being in the NHL. It was just an opportunity to get together, but because of his experiences with him, he felt that it was really important to teach fairness, kindness, love, community, cooperation. That’s when he wrote the Future Aces creed, which is 12 positive statements that speak to your attitude, to your courage to stand up and speak out, to be an example for other people, and give back with service and sportsmanship, and it includes so many other attributes in your life that speak to the higher being.
So, it’s very interesting that that philosophy ended up being picked up by the education system and eventually we started an organization called the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation. We had an education team and a board of directors that worked tirelessly to bring values into the community. Then, the ministry of education actually found that my father’s value system was so good that they supported it for many, many years and we went into schools. My father and I would speak to about 20,000 students a year. At this particular time, I would say more than a million kids were influenced by the Future Aces Creed.
The Future Aces Creed, which my father developed back in 1956 when he had the hockey school, ended up being transferred into the education system and it was valued so much by educators that the ministry of education ended up supporting our organization, which became the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation. We had an education team that went in, and we would train teachers on how to take the values in the belief and actually apply them in the school system. We would then also train groups of young leaders in the school, and they would make decisions about how they wanted their schools to operate and to use best practices of being good citizens. We had conferences, and we also had a scholarship program and over the years, we have given out close to a million dollars in scholarships to young people all across Canada who were giving back to their communities. So, the footprint of my father is huge. I cannot go anywhere without running into somebody who has heard my dad speak or heard me speak or been involved with Future Aces in their school or has received a scholarship from us which propelled them on to their life. This is amazing.
So now, we have the Carnegie Initiative. We had our first conference in Boston in January of this year. All of the major thinkers, hockey moguls from around North America, came to that event and sat down and talked about the issues that we are having. The issues that we’re having in hockey are the same as the issues we’re having in life. Social justice is important in whatever you’re doing. So, we’re going to be having our next summit in Toronto in January 2023 and we already have an amazing group of sponsors and partners who want to join with us to be change agents, to make a difference. I couldn’t be more thrilled in knowing that what my father started so many years ago has come back. And then to get the Hall of Fame award, it’s like the icing on the cake.”