Herb Carnegie, Hockey Legacies, and the Lingering Effects of Institutional Racism

On Friday March 9, 2012, Herb Carnegie passed away in a Toronto nursing home. He was 92 years old.

Carnegie’s name is likely not a familiar one to all but the most dedicated hockey fans and scholars of the sport’s history. Carnegie is known primarily for what he did not do – play in the National Hockey League – and for why he did not do it. Despite impressive hockey skills and some excellent seasons in Quebec’s Provincial and Senior hockey leagues (QPHL and QSHL), Carnegie never got the opportunity to play in the NHL. It is all but a certainty that Carnegie, who was a black Canadian of Jamaican heritage, would have played in the NHL if not for his skin colour.

At the peak of Carnegie’s hockey career, when he played for the Sherbrooke Saints of the QPHL and centred the “Black Aces” line (a non-too-subtle reference to the skin colour of Carnegie and his linemates), no black player had ever played in the NHL. Carnegie appears to have been skilled enough to make the league, with Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner Conn Smythe reportedly declaring that he would “give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herb Carnegie white.” In 1948, Carnegie attended the New York Rangers’ training camp. David Davis, who penned a story about Carnegie’s life in Friday’s New York Times, writes that:

During the first week of camp, [Carnegie] said, the Rangers offered a contract with their minor league club in Tacoma, Wash. He turned it down. A day later, he received an offer to play for their team in St. Paul. He declined. Then came a third offer: to report to New Haven of the American Hockey League, just below the N.H.L.

Carnegie was 28, with a wife, three children and a fourth on the way. He could not afford to take a pay cut.

“It was hard for me to demean myself to take a pee-wee salary when I was worth a senior salary,” he said.

Carnegie 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.”

He never got another opportunity.

It was not until 10 years later, in 1958, that Willie O’Ree would finally break the NHL’s colour barrier with the Boston Bruins.In Davis’ article, he quotes Stan Fischler as saying that Carnegie “made a mistake” by not reporting to the minors and proving his hockey ability. While Fischler’s assertion perhaps makes sense from a the perspective of an NHL prospect (go to the minors, pay your dues, etc.), it skims over the racial politics at play and the choice that Carnegie made to forgo his chance at an NHL career to make a statement. Why should Carnegie have eaten his pride and taken a salary he considered insulting, particularly when he felt that he had proven his merit as a hockey player and was well compensated playing in Quebec? I admire Carnegie more for refusing the Rangers’ offer and, despite the lifelong resentment it caused him, risking his shot at the NHL in order make a stand about his own value as a hockey player. Particularly when every indication is that Carnegie was expected to “pay his dues” in the minors not because of his status as a hockey player, but because of his status as a man of colour.

It would appear that racial politics are evident even in Carnegie’s passing. Despite the fact that he is described variously as “one of the best hockey players to never play in the NHL” and a “hockey pioneer” he has not been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame – presumably because, despite his prominence as a black player, he lacked the NHL resume to gain admittance. One would hope that the Hall might consider Carnegie, as well as O’Ree, for admittance in the Builder category – but given the opaque politics of the Hall’s Selection Committee, observers are advised not to hold their breath.

Carnegie was not only a trailblazing hockey player – he was also Canadian champion golfer and a philanthropist who was awarded the Order of Canada. As Signa Butler writes for CBC Sports:

Carnegie started a popular hockey school called Future Aces, then created a foundation under the same name to help empower youth through athletics and academics. His foundation also awards college scholarships.

Perhaps more insulting than his ongoing snubbing by the Hockey Hall of Fame is the fact that neither of Canada’s national newspapers – the Globe and Mail and the National Post – were prepared to publish obituaries on Carnegie’s passing. As of writing, neither papers’ online obituary section yet includes any mention of Carnegie. Despite his prominence and significance within hockey and beyond, Carnegie’s passing went acknowledged by the Globe and Mail only in the publication of a Canadian Press article on Saturday – an article that was reprinted on Monday with the added note that “A full obituary is forthcoming.”

I was alerted to the significance of the obituary in an email from Dr. Mary Lousie Adams of Queen’s University on a scholarly/professional listserve. Dr. Adams’ comments pointed toward an intriguing issue, something that I had never considered – that obituaries reflect who and what is valued in a particular culture. In this case, Dr. Adams pointed out that the relative lack of prominence given to Carnegie’s death speaks to who is, and is not, included in the mythology of Canada’s national sport.

These comments got me thinking a lot about Carnegie and why he is not considered a major part of Canada’s historical hockey narrative, despite seemingly having the credentials to occupy a major place among the popular legends of the game. Clearly there is a racial element here – not so much in terms of how Carnegie is viewed today, because the reports about his death have been glowing, if not borderline reverential. But racism nonetheless still impacts the contemporary treatment of Carnegie. This has to do in many ways with the hegemonic status of the NHL in the hockey hierarchy and the prominent role of the Hockey Hall of Fame as the arbiter of hockey greatness. Furthermore, the relative lack of status afforded to Carnegie reflects more broadly the characteristics upon which the dominant Canadian society chooses its heroes.

In North America, the NHL is considered the benchmark of success in hockey. Outside of small towns, in which some local amateur or junior player may be a local legend, hockey “heroes” or “legends” are almost entirely drawn from the ranks of the NHL. On one hand, this makes sense: since the decline of quality in amateur leagues in the post-WWI period – primarily through financial domination by the NHL – the NHL has been the preeminent league in North America and arguably the world. It has only solidified this position in recent decades, poaching the most talented players not just from Canada and the United States, but also from Europe.

On the other hand, the focus on the NHL as the domain of hockey legends is inherently exclusive. Women, obviously, are excluded – while the Hall of Fame has slowly opened its doors to some female players, this has been a slow and far from comprehensive process that has yet to acknowledge many worthy candidates. Legendary status in the women’s game can seemingly only be earned through success in international hockey, primarily the Winter Olympics, thus severely restricting the pool of female players who are able enter the pantheon of hockey legends. Similarly, while exceptional international superstars such as Vladislav Tretiak and Valeri Kharlamov grace the Hall, many excellent European players who never played in North America are not considered worthy of induction.

Of course, also excluded from the Hall of Fame are players such as Carnegie who were never able to achieve NHL glory because of the political and social circumstances under which they played. As such, the politics of race lingers over Carnegie’s legend in numerous ways. I do not believe that the Globe and Mail and National Post were slow to eulogize Carnegie – particularly when compared, hypothetically, with the ways in they will one day mark the passing of Wayne Gretzky, Jean Beliveau, or Bobby Orr – because of racist editorial policies. I believe these papers were slow off the mark because Carnegie’s hockey legacy itself is held back in the same way his career was. Having never received the opportunity to play in the NHL, Carnegie was therefore unable to fulfill the conditions necessary to become a hockey legend – at least a hockey legend as adjudged by the dominant benchmarks of NHL success and/or Hall of Fame induction. The spectre of hockey’s racially exclusionary history thus haunts contemporary processes of mythologizing the sport and its history.

Finally, it is worth considering how Carnegie’s socially constructed legacy fits in to the broader context of Canadian society. Canadian mythmakers have demonstrated a huge bias toward elevating white males as national heroes, as the CBC’s 2004 Greatest Canadian competition aptly demonstrates. This is not because female and non-white Canadians have not contributed invaluably to the building of the country – it is because the arbitrary benchmarks that are popularly used to gauge “greatness” are tilted massively toward  social roles that were, for most of Canada’s history (and in some cases still are), available almost exclusively to white males.

In many ways, the hockey legacy of Herb Carnegie reflects this socially constructed bias. Carnegie is remembered primarily for what he was not able to do; and, while this failure is considered admirable or even heroic by the few people who know of Carnegie, the fact that he never played in the NHL ultimately condemns his legacy to second class status within the powerful social mythology of Canadian hockey.

16 thoughts on “Herb Carnegie, Hockey Legacies, and the Lingering Effects of Institutional Racism

  1. Your argument follows the conventional narrative of Carnegie, and the one he also sustained, but the idea that Carnegie’s chance to play in the NHL was constrained by institutional racism has never been ironclad.

    While there is little doubt Carnegie, like many African-Canadians of the era, would have experienced some maltreatment due to his skin colour, the attitude of the NHL clubs is less clear. The quote from Conn Smythe is of dubious origins, and even if he had such an attitude he was only one club owner of six. The fact remains that the Rangers invited Carnegie to camp, which they were under no pressure to do, and by Carnegie’s own admission bent over backwards to get him to stay with the organization. The negotiation suggests the Rangers were very interested in Carnegie, perhaps to enhance their appeal to African-American audiences. After all, the club had a long tradition of trying to connect with ethnic audiences by choosing (or fabricating) players with ethnic identities (Rocco, Shabotsky, etc.) and in 1948 Frank Boucher, the Rangers’ GM, had brought up Chinese-Canadian Larry Kwong to the Rangers from the Rovers for a game. It doesn’t take much to speculate this is what he had in mind for Carnegie as well. By sticking to his guns, admirable or not, Carnegie may well have denied himself that chance. I don’t think should we rush to conclusion that “Carnegie never got the opportunity to play in the NHL… and “would have played in the NHL if not for his skin colour.” Carnegie did get an opportunity to get a better shot at the NHL, and given the attitude of Frank Boucher, I think it fair to speculate that his skin colour would have gained him admittance, at least temporarily.

    The question of salary is also curious. Leaving aside the significant issue of moving his young family for an uncertain future, AHL salaries of the time would have been quite comparable to Quebec senior hockey, and far from “peewee”. But his position would not have been guaranteed and it is likely that Carnegie did not want to take the risk. Given the playing depth of the Rangers (and the NHL) in that era, he may have felt safer returning to a sure thing. We can’t hold that against him – it was a rational thing for a family man to do – but it would make the decision not to join the Rovers more about pragmatism than principle.

    Admittedly, Carnegie’s decision not to risk the Rovers may have been constrained by a prevailing racism – and he was probably treated better in Quebec than he would have been in the US – but ascribing his situation entirely to institutional racism should not deny his own agency, which you highlight. In that vein, Fischler’s conclusion is probably the best one: “Herbie made a mistake.” And that decision has turned out to make a big difference to the cast of his legacy as a player. Whether the idiosyncratic practices of the Hall of Fame will lead to acknowledge of his role is an open question, but Canada’s national newspapers should be able to do so more readily.

    • Andrew, thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comment. You raise a lot of valid points and critiques of my post, to which I’ll do my best to respond here.

      I do admit that my sources of information about Carnegie were largely journalistic, so (even as I critique them) I largely follow their narrative. This is a product of my own rush to get this piece out, and therefore my limited research about the circumstances of his life. I did try (obviously not successfully) to couch my language in less-than-ironclad terms – “Conn Smythe reportedly declaring,” “all but a certainty,” etc. This was my effort to synthesize the different stories I read about Carnegie’s life without accepting them as absolute fact and leaving room for the possibility of inaccuracies. I probably should have been clearer about this, but I felt comfortable with the language I chose.

      I do agree with you that Carnegie probably would have played in the NHL if he had stuck it out in the Rangers’ farm system. And like I say in the post, purely in terms of hockey opportunity not doing so was a “mistake.” However, I stand behind my admiration for him turning down that offer and not settling for what he considered to be an inadequate opportunity, even if it cost him that shot at the NHL.

      Where I do assume institutional racism is in the fact that Carnegie never had another shot at the NHL. If he was as talented a player as the various stories I have read make him out to be, presumably he should have been coveted by any number of teams and therefore received other tryout offers? Again, I should have been more upfront about my own limited knowledge of the circumstances, as perhaps there were other reasons for Carnegie to never have another crack at the NHL. But I certainly get the impression (again, perhaps as a result of revisionist narratives) that Carnegie faced additional barriers to making the NHL as a result of his race – hence, institutional racism.

      Ultimately, the aim of my post is to move beyond Carnegie’s individual narrative to consider the broader processes of mythmaking in hockey and the ways in which these are tilted against people from certain backgrounds or demographic groups. This is not to say that people from these demographic groups CAN’T become legends – rather, it is to say that the historical circumstances in which certain people participated in hockey militate, given the benchmarks of measuring legacies employed in the North American hockey world, against their inclusion in the pantheon of hockey “greats.” I tried to extend this point beyond racism toward Carnegie (or other black Canadians or African Americans), for example by highlighting the relative lack of recognition afforded to some superb female players and European stars who never played in North America. In this sense, the article is intended to be less about Carnegie and more about the politics of creating and maintaining legends in North American hockey.

      You are right, though, that I gloss over complexities in Carnegie’s story in order to lay the foundation for my argument, and I should have been more careful in these details. It is ironic that I criticize the media’s treatment of Carengie’s legacy at the same time as I rely on media reports to sketch a brief portrait of Carnegie’s life.

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  3. Solid post, Mark…and I love the informed and reasoned dialogue that has taken place in the comments. There is a great book chapter by Gamel Abdel-Shehid (2000) that talks about (If I remember correctly) how the myths that establish Willie O’Ree as the “Jackie Robinson of Hockey” need to be read through the lens of Herb Carnegie’s story. Pretty important point if you ask me…

      • Abdel-Shehid, G. (2000). “Writing Hockey Thru Race: Rethinking Black Hockey in Canada.” In Walcott, R. (ed.). Rude: Contemporary Black Canadian Cultural Criticism. Toronto: Insomniac Press.

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  8. Great article Mark, regardless of what some may say the basis of the first article holds true. Carnegie, experienced it first hand and he was very vocal about his experiences. He watch repeatedly as people less skilled players than him we’re giving the opportunity for the NHL that he was not. He and other non-white players played while being subjected derogatory taunting and unfair treatment on the ice, It was a sign of the times. The Socially & political circumstances & socially constructed bias that affected Carnegie, although we have come a long way, the core of it still exist today. As you said if race was not the issue for someone as talented as Carnegie, many more opportunities would have presented themselves. On the NFboards site, I read a post on (The history of Racist Incidents and False Alarms in Hockey) it’ s just a small but good little piece that takes you into the world of what non-whites from different races and backgrounds in hockey had to endure, and not only but starting in around Canada starting in around 1946. I know we are in a much better place now, but a lot more work still needs to be done.

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  12. If Hobey Baker, Valeri Kharlamov, Vladislav Tretiak, Hayley Wickenheiser and Cammi Granato (all who never played in the NHA or NHL) can be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, then why not Herb Carnegie?

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