10 years before Willie O’Ree, there was Herb Carnegie
Herb Carnegie and a portion of a letter from the New York Rangers inviting him to training camp in 1948. Carnegie is widely considered to be the best black player never to play in the NHL.
Willie O’Ree finally broke the National Hockey League’s color barrier in 1958, but there was another black player who could have done so 10 years earlier.
Herb Carnegie tried out for the New York Rangers during the team’s training camp in 1948, and was impressive enough for the team to make him three separate contract offers.
But Carnegie, a center – who was 28 at the time with a wife, three children and a fourth on the way – turned them down because all of the offers were for less money than he was making playing with Sherbrooke St. Francis of the Quebec Provincial Hockey League, where he had accumulated 48 goals and 79 assists for 127 points in 56 games during the 1947-48 season.
The August 1948 letter from the Rangers to Carnegie, inviting him to the team’s training camp that fall, an accompanying immigration note and the envelope that housed them were donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in July.
The son of Jamaican immigrants to Canada who was born in Toronto, Carnegie is widely considered to be the best black player never to play in the NHL. He also played in the Quebec Senior Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey Association Senior A League.
He died in 2012 at the age of 92.
Carnegie’s playing career spanned 10 seasons – from 1944-45 to 1953-54.
The story goes that, after watching Carnegie skate, legendary Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Conn Smythe said: “I’ll give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herb Carnegie white,” according to Carnegie’s New York Times obituary.
He was part of hockey’s first all-black line while playing for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Provincial Hockey League, along with his older brother Ossie, and Manny McIntyre. The unit was dubbed “The Black Aces,” and Herb won two scoring titles and three Most Valuable Player awards in the QPHL from 1944-48.
Carnegie, 5-8 and 160 pounds, played for the Aces from 1949-50 to 1952-53. One of his teammates was legendary Hockey Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau.
The Rangers’ final offer would have required Carnegie to play the season at their top minor league affiliate in New Haven, Conn., nearly two hours from Madison Square Garden.
“It was hard for me to demean myself to take a pee-wee salary when I was worth a senior salary,” Carnegie told the New York Times about a month before his death.
He also 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.”
His most famous teammate agreed.
"It's my belief that Herbie was excluded from the NHL because of his colour," Beliveau wrote in his autobiography, "Jean Beliveau: My Life in Hockey."
Carnegie continued to excel after retiring as a player.
He was a financial advisor, became a champion senior golfer and started the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first hockey academies in Canada. He also developed the Future Aces Creed, a 12-point philosophy to help mold youngsters into responsible citizens.
Carnegie is enshrined in 13 halls of fame and was invested in the Order of Canada, one of that nation's highest civilian honors.
Canadian publisher ECW Press is re-releasing his 1996 autobiography, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story," with new chapters written by his daughter, Bernice Carnegie. The scheduled release date is Nov. 8, what would be Herb Carnegie’s 100th birthday.