Let’s state right off the top: it’s a wonderful thing that Willie O’Ree, who broke the National Hockey League’s colour barrier in 1958, was enshrined two years ago in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was one of the most important pioneers in sports history and, even at age 85, O’Ree is still one of the great goodwill ambassadors of hockey, trying to get kids from diverse communities to give it a try.
But had things gone a little differently, the NHL would have “welcomed” its first Black player a decade earlier and broken that barrier only a year after Jackie Robinson did it in Major League Baseball.
Herb Carnegie is often called the best player who never played in the NHL. He made history when he played in a semi-professional league in the late 1940s on a line with his brother Ossie and Manny McIntyre — the first time three Black teammates had ever played on the same line.
Carnegie was born in Toronto in 1919 and grew up in North York. At the time, it was so undeveloped that there were no address numbers on the few homes that were there. In fact, there was a hobby farm at the Carnegie home; they raised cows and chickens and sold produce to their neighbours.
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Carnegie spent hours on the frozen ponds of North York, falling in love with hockey. (His skates were so big on him that he had to stuff newspapers into the toes.) He listened to the Leafs’ radio play-by-play voice Foster Hewitt and dreamed of playing in the NHL.
Carnegie played in the Quebec Senior Hockey League with the Quebec Aces along with the likes of Jean Beliveau, the future Montreal Canadiens’ legend.
“They nicknamed him Swivel Hips because of the way he could dipsy-doodle through all the players and go end to end,” said his daughter Bernice Carnegie during a weekly webinar for hockey fans called Hockey Time Machine. Last week’s episode focused on Black hockey players throughout history.
Carnegie caught the attention of the New York Rangers, which three times offered him a contract. But Carnegie turned them down because the Rangers insisted on paying him less than he was making in Quebec.
“He chose his family over headlines that might have said he was the first Black NHL hockey player,” Bernice said. “I’m proud of him for choosing us. But I challenge any man to wipe out half his salary for maybe a chance to play in the NHL.”
As a result, Carnegie never played in the bigs. Beliveau would eventually say, “Herb was excluded from the NHL because of his colour.”
He stayed in semi-pro hockey, winning the MVP award three times. “And, still, they brought up other players with lesser records to play in the NHL,” said Bernice.
If there was any doubt that racism was a factor in Carnegie’s fate, consider the line once attributed to Maple Leafs’ owner Conn Smythe. Upon seeing Carnegie play, Smythe said he’d “give anyone $10,000 if they could turn Carnegie’s skin white.” Bernie said the unfairness of that often built up in Carnegie. “He’d cry about it,” she said. “He couldn’t live that comment down.”
That racism prevalent in the sport might explain why hockey was a decade behind baseball in breaking the colour barrier. Even after O’Ree did it in 1958, it would be nearly another decade and a half before the second Black player laced up skates in hockey’s top league. And let’s not forget Alton White, who played organized hockey from 1962 to 1975 and was technically the second Black player in pro hockey. (White is sometimes forgotten because he played in the rival World Hockey Association starting in 1972, beating the NHL to its second Black player by two years.)
Carnegie’s wife, Audrey Redmon, had lighter skin and, as a result, when she went to games to watch her husband play, few knew her connection to the one Black player on the ice.
“She heard all sorts of awful things in the stands,” Bernice confirmed. “And she wouldn’t talk about it. It wasn’t until we were teens that we found out the gravity of what they experienced.”
“The first NHL game I ever saw I played in!” said Bill Riley during the Hockey Time Machine session. Riley and teammate Mike Marson, also Black, joined the Washington Capitals in 1974. Riley played for just one game before being sent back to the minors, where, he said, “I got called names I’d never heard before in Canada.” Riley, now 70, is originally from Nova Scotia.
Riley eventually played parts of four seasons in the NHL, earning a living as a fighter, and he fought the best, including Dave “Tiger” Williams and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz. While he loves the hockey fraternity — “I never imagined I’d get to play in the best hockey league in the world” – he said he also can’t help but be disappointed that the NHL was “the last league to step up on Black Lives Matter,” adding, “We’ve had so many great Black hockey players over the years, but no role models for my generation to help us get into the NHL.”
Hockey has improved. The superb goaltender Grant Fuhr, he of five Stanley Cup titles, was the first Black player enshrined in the Hall of Fame, in 2003. Angela James followed in 1990, recognized for her efforts on the international stage. Jarome Iginla, the highest scoring Black player ever (484 career goals), notched the most goals and points in the NHL in 2002, won a gold for Canada at the Salt Lake City Olympics in the same year, and was enshrined in the Hall in 2020. Tony McKegney spent 13 seasons in the NHL and was the second-highest-scoring Black player ever (320 goals).
There are 43 players of colour in the NHL this year. That’s about 6 per cent of the league’s 713 players. “And we can do a whole lot better than that,” said Kevin Shea, the session moderator.
“The NHL is really working to get some things right,” added Ray Neufeld, a Black player from Manitoba with 12 seasons in the league starting in 1979. “But we want to grow the game. Let more kids get involved. Make that connection and mentor them along the way. With the [Hockey Diversity] Alliance, we’re on the right path.”
Although Carnegie eventually made a living in the insurance business, he made his mark on hockey in a major way. He established the Future Stars Hockey School in which he promoted not only hockey excellence but also good citizenship. He made innumerable appearances in schools “and enriched the lives of millions of students,” said Bernice. He raised $860,000 for the foundation bearing his name and gave the money to students for scholarships.
“He’d tell the students, ‘Everything we do requires you to be a strong individual,’” Bernice recalled. “That’s what I saw my father do, and he had the most phenomenal life because of it.”
Herb Carnegie died nine years ago next month at age 92. He was awarded both the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He’s in the province’s and the country’s sports halls of fame. And if the world had been more just seven decades ago, his name might be as well-known today as the legendary Jackie Robinson’s.