By David Singh in North York, Ont. | Photography by Janick Laurent
By David Singh in North York, Ont. | Photography by Janick Laurent
Racism kept Herb Carnegie out of the NHL, but his legacy is still felt in the game and beyond — and his grandson won't rest until it's properly recognized

On June 27, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced Herb Carnegie will be inducted as part of the Class of 2022 in the Builder category. This story, originally published in October 2020, is about the efforts by the Carnegie family that helped that recognition become a reality.

Rane Carnegie doesn’t drink coffee. He does enjoy tea, though. After he leaves the house each morning, he picks up a large steeped brew with two creams and three sugars. Just past 9 a.m. on this August day, that caffeine is certainly doing its job. He’s fired up, talking fast and loud about the ongoing social justice movement and how he fits in as a Black male. His wife, Brooke, has told him repeatedly that he has a tendency to dominate conversations, not letting friends or strangers get too many words in. He’s working on improving, but the 35-year-old does take pride in the honesty he brings to every exchange and always has a lot to say.

The past is littered with instances, Carnegie is saying, where Black people were forced to accept racist treatment and discriminatory outcomes, to “take what you can get.” But he believes that right now, with all that’s happening in the world, his generation has the opportunity to push conversations and be heard in a way that wasn’t possible before. “Why not dream bigger?” Carnegie asks, spreading his arms out and motioning around him. The gesture takes in most of the lobby of the Herbert H. Carnegie Centennial Centre in North York, Ont. The hockey arena was renamed in 2001 after Carnegie’s grandfather, a revered centre who starred in Quebec leagues during the 1940s and ’50s. Though he was among the standout players of his day, Herb Carnegie never made it to the NHL. In the eyes of many, including late Montreal Canadiens legend and former teammate Jean Beliveau, that exclusion was simply because he was Black.

Up until his passing in 2012, Herb played an integral role in Carnegie’s life and the grandson has not forgotten. Earlier this year, when protests sprung up across the globe in the wake of George Floyd’s death in police custody, Carnegie thought of his grandfather’s story. Like many people of colour during the initial stages of that racial awakening, Carnegie fielded calls and texts from white friends reaching out to offer support. When they asked him, “What can we do?” Carnegie searched for a stronger response than, “Listen and learn.” He wanted to suggest something actionable, so he created a petition to get his grandfather inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Anytime someone connected with him, Carnegie let them know about his burgeoning initiative. “If I want change to happen, here’s my opportunity for change to happen,” he says. “If I don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it … In my opinion, this is how you can show that you’re not just a non-racist, you’re also an anti-racist. You’re an advocate; you’re an ally; you want inclusion; you want diversity; want equal opportunity; want equity. You want all of these wonderful things.”

What started out as a call to get his grandfather enshrined in hockey’s Hall has since morphed into a mission for Carnegie, a purpose. That’s partly because his efforts are helping to expunge personal demons that have haunted him for years. In many ways, this push has amounted to something akin to atonement for Rane Carnegie.

Rane has started working in hockey again, starting his own business, OWN Aces Sports Group, a mentorship and life and hockey skills development company

Willie O’Ree became the NHL’s first black player when he took the ice for the Boston Bruins on Jan. 18, 1958. It’s an honour he cherishes, but one he believes should have gone to another man. “Herb Carnegie should have been in the National Hockey League before me,” O’Ree says over the phone from his home in La Mesa, Calif.

O’Ree first learned of Carnegie when he was 14 years old, reading about him in the newspaper. He caught his first glimpse of the man nicknamed “Swivel Hips” on television when Carnegie was playing for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. “You noticed it when he was on the ice,” says O’Ree. “He made things happen. He didn’t wait for things to happen. That’s why his calibre of play was so great. He would have some great moves on the ice.”

It was only later that O’Ree learned of the abuse Carnegie heard during his playing days. According to O’Ree, some told Carnegie, “This is a white man’s sport.” Others told him “he should be back in the cotton fields.”

In 1938, Carnegie caught the eye of Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who allegedly said that he would take Carnegie “tomorrow” if he could “turn him white.” According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, another version of the story has Smythe saying he would pay $10,000 to anyone who could turn Carnegie white.

“How could the NHL scouts overlook not one, but three most valuable player awards for a player on a team in a top senior league?”

Over the course of his career, the five-foot-eight Carnegie played for various semi-professional teams in Ontario and Quebec. Along with his brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre, he formed what is considered pro hockey’s first all-Black line, dubbed the Black Aces. He won Quebec Provincial League MVP honours in 1947 and ’48, tallying 48 goals and 127 points in 56 games during the 1947–48 campaign, and captured a QSHL MVP in 1949. He also managed to leave notable impressions on a pair of Hall of Famers: Beliveau, who played with Carnegie for two years on the Quebec Aces before cementing himself in Habs lore, penned the forward to Carnegie’s 1997 autobiography, A Fly in a Pail of Milk. “It’s my belief that Herb Carnegie was excluded from the National Hockey League because of his colour,” Beliveau wrote. “How could the NHL scouts overlook not one, but three most valuable player awards for a player on a team in a top senior league?”

Frank Mahovlich, the fabled Toronto Maple Leafs star, was also taken aback by Carnegie’s ability. “I was just amazed at the way he played; he was much superior to the others on the ice,” Mahovlich said in Cecil Harris’s book Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. “I was a centerman for many years. I might have envisioned myself going down the ice like Herb Carnegie. In my mind I said, ‘I guess if I ever become a hockey player, I’m going to be playing against a lot of Blacks.’”

The closest Carnegie came to the NHL was when the New York Rangers invited him to training camp in 1948. He was offered a contract to play for the club’s minor-league affiliate, but turned it down because it was for less money than he was making with Sherbrooke St. Francis. The opportunity may have eventually led to the NHL, but he was married and needed to provide for his family, which would eventually grow to include four children.

Born in Toronto to Jamaican immigrants, Carnegie retired from playing in 1954 at age 35 and transitioned into a successful career as a financial adviser. Though he was also a championship golfer, his post-playing days were, according to his family, defined by community involvement. He started a registered hockey school at North York’s Mitchell Field and, in 1987, established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation with his wife, Audrey, and daughter, Bernice. The foundation has provided $860,000 in scholarships to children across Canada, says Bernice, who spent years accompanying Carnegie on visits to schools across the Greater Toronto Area. They talked to students about his life, how he navigated challenges, and his Future Aces philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of self-esteem and sportsmanship, and was eventually incorporated into character-building exercises by hundreds of schools. His contributions were formally recognized when North York Centennial Arena was renamed in his honour in 2001. In 2008, a public school in Vaughan, Ont., was named after him.

Carnegie considered a positive attitude critical to the success he’d enjoyed in life. His daughters say he avoided discussing the racism he encountered as a hockey player at home, at least while his children were young, because he didn’t want his kids to be influenced by negative thoughts and doubt their ability to achieve what they desired. Yet, as time passed, the questions about being robbed of an NHL career persisted for Carnegie. Toward the end of his life, the constant reminder of rejection had chipped away at him enough to leave a breach in what was once an impenetrable brick wall. When the subject came up during a CBC Sports interview a few years before he died, Carnegie broke down in tears. “I was good enough for the Leafs,” he said in the interview. “Cause according to Conn Smythe, ‘I would take Carnegie tomorrow for the Maple Leafs if someone can turn him white.’ I got that statement when I was 18. How would you feel? I can’t forget it. Because he cut my knees off. He broke my legs. It’s horrible. So I don’t want people to go through that.”

Bernice, the third of Herb and Audrey’s four children, says the pain grew worse for her father as he got older. “Because he had more time to sit and think about what didn’t happen. The interviews never stopped for my dad. And they would always bring up Conn Smythe and they’d always bring up the fact that he didn’t make it into the NHL. And as he got older and older, it weighed more heavily on him because he realized, ‘I couldn’t do anything about it.’”

Rochelle says Rane's work with kids through the OWN Aces and the push to get his grandfather into the HHoF has her son more inspired and driven than he's been in years

Rochelle Carnegie didn’t want her son, Rane, to play hockey. As the youngest child of Herb and Audrey, she had seen way too much of the sport while growing up — the family had one television and every Saturday night they had to watch Hockey Night in Canada. She was just tired of the game. But when her father showed up to her home in the Jane and Finch community one day and mentioned that he hadn’t yet seen five-year-old Rane on skates, everything began to change.

Even though glaucoma had robbed Herb of most of his sight by that point, he was ready to accompany his grandson on the ice at Downsview Arena. Herb held the boards while Carnegie pushed an orange pylon that helped keep him upright. “I’m trying to keep up with my grandfather, who is going at a nice clip,” recalls Carnegie. “Even though he couldn’t see, he still could skate.”

Introduced to the sport shortly after that first skating trip, Carnegie took to hockey immediately, which ended up being the best thing for him, says Rochelle, who was a single mom to three kids in the early ’90s. It kept him occupied, grew to become his passion and brought him even closer to his grandfather. Herb showed up at many of Carnegie’s games and because his vision was limited to just spotting shadows, Audrey described the action on the ice for him.

“Spiraling looks like lying to everyone that you care about.”

By the time he was a preteen, Carnegie’s hockey sense and skill were impossible to ignore. “He was an extreme talent,” says Spence Kirton, who coached Carnegie, along with NHLers Trevor Daley and P.K. Subban over the course of his three decades working with GTA youth hockey players. “He had so many tools. His skills were so advanced. He thought the game two years ahead of kids in his own age group. He was able to process the game then, and that’s a big thing that you can’t teach.”

Carnegie was drafted 18th overall by the OHL’s Belleville Bulls in 2001, an encouraging start to what looked like a promising career. However, his trajectory over the next decade would best be described as up and down: He requested a trade from Belleville; dislocated his shoulder playing for Plymouth; was suspended for smoking weed; captained the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads during a season in which he scored 96 points; and played in two playoff games for the Nashville Predators’ AHL affiliate. But by the time he was 21, Carnegie’s NHL dreams were all but over. While playing for Bakersfield of the ECHL during the 2006–07 campaign, he began to dabble in hard drugs and after bouncing around the Central Hockey League and pro teams in France, he hung up the blades in 2011.

Herb was the first one to get his grandson out on the ice. Rane remembers trying to keep up with his grandfather, who could still fly along the boards even after losing most of his sight.

The next year, Herb fell ill and was admitted to hospital. Carnegie made plans to visit his grandfather, but then got a phone call from a family member telling him that Herb’s health had improved. “I was like, ‘Okay cool, I’ll go see him the next day,’” says Carnegie. “And there was no next day. So I didn’t get to say goodbye. My priorities were f—ed up.”

Carnegie’s anguish is written on his face as he tells the story, seated in the stands of the arena named after his grandfather. His eyes find a large mural of Herb on the wall and his upper lip quivers as he begins to sob. He bows his head and bends forward, clutching a gold ring with a blue stone that’s hung on a chain around his neck. The ring once belonged to his grandfather. “I could have gone to him every day if I wanted to,” Carnegie says, tears streaming down his face. “I wasn’t doing anything.”

After Herb’s death, Carnegie once again followed in his footsteps. Like his grandfather, Carnegie pursued a career in finance upon retiring from hockey and landed a position as an account manager handling client acquisitions. He was good at the job and it paid well, but the money only served to intensify his bad habits, which soon morphed into a full-blown cocaine addiction that saw him spending roughly $1,000 a week on the drug. He went into debt and eventually lost his house, cars and several friends. He managed to keep his job, but his life spiraled out of control. “Spiraling looks like lying to everyone that you care about,” he says. “Spiraling looks like not taking accountability for your own shit. Spiraling looks like getting phone calls from dealerships saying, ‘You’re past due on your payments.’ Spiraling looks like you need to pay your mortgage and would rather get high than take care of [your] responsibilities. Spiraling looks like lying to my wife and going out with my boys and saying that I’m just watching a Leafs game.

“Spiraling looks like, f—, all of the above, man.”

These days, Carnegie and his childhood friend Nathaniel Brooks play golf about four times a week. A 6:30 a.m. tee time allows them to hit the links without interfering with family duties or work. The two were on the course every day during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that time gave Brooks a front-row view of the fire inside Carnegie. One day he would be talking about his grandfather’s foundation. The next day he would speak intensely about George Floyd. The day after that, he was voicing his thoughts on Black empowerment and then his focus shifted to the Hall of Fame.

Carnegie has been completely sober for more than a year now, with the help of NA meetings. He’s no longer working in finance and is instead back in hockey. He was recently an assistant coach under Brooks — peewee bench boss for the GTHL’s AAA Don Mills Flyers — and has started his own business, a mentorship and life and hockey skills development company called OWN Aces Sports Group.

When you listen to his friends and family speak, it’s apparent that Carnegie’s push to preserve Herb’s legacy has given him direction. “He feels like a changed man to me,” says Brooke Chambers, Carnegie’s cousin. “I think he’s figured out who he’s supposed to be now and what he’s supposed to do with his life.”

“I think he had to go through what he went through in life to get to the point where he is now, where he is being driven for his purpose,” says his mother, Rochelle, who notes that she hasn’t seen Carnegie this passionate since his playing days. “When you can find something where your passion meets your purpose, you’re going to be successful. And that’s what he’s found.”

Carnegie’s wife, Brooke, doesn’t worry anymore about him travelling back down that dark path. He’s channelling his energy into their children — son Myles Herb, 8, and daughter, Mya Audrey, 6 — his new business and the campaign to get Herb into the Toronto-based Hall. “Something did change within him the past few months,” she says. “It’s a long time coming and it’s something he has always wanted to do. Something happened a few months ago and all this started and it just pushed him. It’s just his mission.”

Seeing Herb inducted would mean a lot for Rane and his family, but he also sees it as a decision that would benefit everyone in the game

Herb never skated in the NHL, so getting him into the Hall as a player isn’t likely. Instead, Carnegie hopes his grandfather can be inducted in the Builder category. After all, hockey was the entry point to his grandfather’s successful community work and, perhaps more importantly, Herb was the first to really alter the perception about what a Black man could do on the ice. “I hope Herb gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” says O’Ree, who was inducted as a Builder in 2018. “He should be there. He set high standards.”

Carnegie’s petition had amassed more than 5,400 signatures as of early October and he has had talks with Hockey Diversity Alliance co-head Akim Aliu about getting the newly formed organization involved. Aliu says the HDA wants to offer support, but an exact roadmap for that hasn’t been established yet. “It’s unfathomable, [with] what we’re going through as Black players in this day and age in the NHL, to even think about what [Herb] had to go through in the ’40s and ’50s,” says Aliu, who went public in May with his own story of racism in hockey. Aliu calls it “sad” that Herb isn’t already enshrined in the Hall and notes that in addition to being a trailblazer, he was a recipient of several notable awards and distinctions, including the Order of Ontario in 1996 and the Order of Canada in 2003. (He was also made honorary police chief by the York Regional Police Service and appeared in two special issues of The Amazing Spider-Man comic.)

Five Players and one Builder were elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this past June. However, according to a spokesperson, the Hall’s board of directors is set to meet on Oct. 29 to decide whether to amend the 2020 class to include more inductees. That decision could see the 2020 and 2021 classes amalgamated into a single induction ceremony, which is scheduled for Nov. 15, 2021.

There are two ways a Builder can get on the ballot: A member of the selection committee can officially nominate them, or the public can submit a recommendation that would potentially be forwarded to each member of the selection committee for consideration. To become elected, a nominee needs at least 14 of the 18 total votes. (Two members of the committee, who I reached out to for comment, declined to be interviewed for this story, due to privacy around the selection process.)

Carnegie’s plan was to submit a public recommendation to the Hall, but he hasn’t yet done so. He’s been working on compiling a list of historians and gathering voices and information to support Herb’s candidacy, and that process has proven more challenging during a pandemic that has stunted his ability to visit arenas and speak to people in person.

Bryant McBride, a leader in the push to get O’Ree into the Hall, has been walking Carnegie through some of the machinations of O’Ree’s nomination and eventual induction. As the NHL’s first Black executive — McBride was the league’s vice-president of business development from 1992 to 2000 and started the NHL diversity task force, which has since morphed into Hockey is for Everyone — his advice holds weight. He says one of the main differences between O’Ree’s case and Herb’s is the fact that O’Ree was a constant presence in hockey circles, showing up to arenas and meeting people. O’Ree has also served as NHL diversity ambassador and director of youth development for over 20 years. Herb, on the other hand, focused more of his time and effort on his philanthropy. As a result, his story is less known and publicized.

“That legend skipped a bunch of people. They didn’t know what Herb contributed.”

“That legend skipped a bunch of people,” McBride says. “People just didn’t know it. They didn’t know what Herb contributed. They didn’t know he was in [several sports Halls of Fame]. National golf champion. Successful businessman. Future Aces. All the things that he did, people just didn’t know that.

“If people don’t know the story, they don’t know what to pass down,” he adds. “They just don’t know. Those bridges get broken and not rebuilt.”

Carnegie is trying to rebuild his grandfather’s bridge by amplifying his story. It’s a fight against hockey’s systemic racism that he believes mirrors what’s going on in the larger world today. “It breaks my heart that it’s come to this to get him into the Hall of Fame, where he rightfully belongs,” says Carnegie. “It’s not if he makes it into the Hall of Fame, because I’m not stopping until he does. So everybody is going to be tired of hearing from me.

“It would mean the world to me, [and] not only [for] my own redemption,” he adds, before launching into a message he hopes to one day send up to the sky: “Grandpa, I’m sorry I wasn’t who I could have been when you were here, but I am the person that you always knew I was and that you always hoped that I would be. And we’re here now and we did this. Not only for you, for our family, but we did this for society. We made the difference.”

Herb shielded his four children, including Bernice (left) and Goldie, from the worst he'd endured as a player, preferring they grow up believing they could achieve anything

Whenever Herb phoned any of his nine grandchildren, he would ask for the password. Hi, how are you? What’s the password? Before the conversation could continue, they would have to answer with, “I like myself.” The concept originated from his Future Aces creed. He wanted his family to know that it was important to be themselves and recognize their self-worth. If you like yourself, you’ll be able to achieve anything in life and won’t be worried about what other people think of you, he’d say. It’s what you think about yourself that makes all the difference.

One of Herb’s great-granddaughters is a former rep hockey player in Whitby and Ajax who travelled across Ontario for games. As a teenager, she endured a handful of racist incidents, including opposing players saying the N-word to her. These occurred three-quarters of a century after Herb’s own playing days were marred by similar bigotry. In Canada, facing racism is still a fact of life for Black hockey players.

Herb wasn’t alive to help his great-granddaughter cope and move forward. But if he was, he would have likely said to her what he told his grandson when Carnegie sought help after experiencing racism on the ice in the early 2000s:

Rane, if they’re not saying anything bad about you, you’re not doing a good job. You have to look for the positive in every negative. And no matter how hard it is, if you persevere and find that little positive, then you’re going to be OK. And don’t let these guys tell you anything because they’re only saying it because they don’t understand the true beauty of your abilities. As best you can, let it go. Focus on the task at hand in the sport of hockey. Tune that out. You can’t score goals from the penalty box. Persevere.

Photo Credits

Photography by Janick Laurent. Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images.