A pioneer in search of fame
Excerpted with permission from "Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey," by Cecil Harris. Published by Insomniac Press, 2003.What Herb Carnegie needed more than anything else during the prime years of his athletic life was a sponsor. He needed his own Branch Rickey. Rickey was the baseball visionary that, as general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Negro League baseball star Jackie Robinson to a contract in October 1945. It was a business transaction done in an era of systemic racial oppression that changed the face of sports history.
A helping hand from someone high above the ice, in a seat of power and influence, is what Carnegie truly needed to properly showcase his skills during his best years in hockey. But he chose to devote his life to a sport that at the time had no visionary. A Branch Rickey who defied the social and racial mores of his time and handed a baseball contract to a black man for the most sensible of reasons (it would make his team better) probably would have been drummed out of hockey. For hockey had no man with the courage to see past the darkness of racial discrimination and give all of the sport's gifted players during most of the first half of the 20th century an opportunity to perform in the NHL. "Let's face it, Herbie Carnegie was one helluva hockey player," wrote one sportswriter who watched him many times. "He could have been a star in the six-team NHL were it not for the color bars that kept all black athletes out of all major sports at the time." Had it not been so important to the fathers of hockey for so long to keep the NHL white, Carnegie almost assuredly would have become the Jackie Robinson of his sport. While he starred in semi-pro leagues from his late teens to his late twenties, he did not get a call from the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins or New York Rangers. Instead, Carnegie achieved a measure of popularity in lesser leagues while teaming with his older brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre to form a potent all-black line known from 1941 through 1949 by various nicknames, including The Black Aces. Herb wore No. 7, Ossie No. 10 and Manny No. 11.
|“||My thrill was in setting plays. To me, the game is a beautiful thing when you can set up a winger. That's an art. ”|
|— Herb Carnegie|
|“||Herbie was the leader. They couldn't have gone anywhere without Herb. He was good enough to play in the NHL. It was strictly color, not talent, that kept him out. ”|
|— Red Storey, Hall of Fame referee|
With no advance word, a letter arrived at the Carnegie home one August morning in 1948 from the New York Rangers, inviting the 28-year-old Carnegie to report to the team's training camp in Saranac Lake, N.Y., on Sept. 14. Carnegie had not even been aware the NHL was paying attention to him. No NHL team had contacted him while he excelled as leader of The Black Aces line in the 1944-45 season for the oddly named Shawinigan Falls Cataracts for a salary of $75 a week in the semi-pro Quebec Provincial League (QPL), whose caliber of play was below that of the NHL and perhaps comparable to a professional minor league. Carnegie had not heard from the NHL after he scored five goals in one game against Cornwall that season. Nor had he heard from the major league after he and his black linemates moved on to the Sherbrooke Randies of the QPL for the next two seasons. Carnegie remembered The Black Aces combining for 84 goals and 98 assists in 1945-46, and he remembered narrowly losing the scoring title to former Montreal Canadiens winger Tony Demers of the St. Hyacinthe team, 79-75. He remembered scoring a Gretzky-like 127 points in 56 games in the 1947-48 season with Sherbrooke. But he didn't know the NHL had taken notice. The missive from the Rangers was a form letter sent to 20 Canadian amateur or semi-pro players inviting them to try out for berths on the NHL team's roster. The invitees would report to Saranac Lake and work out at an arena in nearby Lake Placid, under the scrutiny of coach and general manager Frank Boucher until the arrival of members of the Rangers and two of their minor-league clubs, the New Haven Ramblers of the American League and the New York Rovers of the Eastern League, for the official opening of training camp Sept. 21. The inclusion of Carnegie among the invitees was significant because up until 1945, each of the four major professional sports leagues in North America had excluded black talent. Various sports writers in the U.S., particularly those from the black press such as Wendell Smith of The Pittsburgh Courier and Sam Lacy of The Baltimore Afro-American, wrote forceful columns denouncing Major League Baseball's refusal to admit black players. Some players from the Negro Leagues, including Robinson, had been promised tryouts, but big-league officials and white players sometimes would not even bother to show up. Not until Robinson officially joined the Dodgers' organization on Oct. 23, 1945, had any black baseball player signed with a big-league club. The National Basketball Association did not include blacks until 1950 when the New York Knicks signed Nat "Sweetwater" Clifton, the Boston Celtics drafted Charles "Tarzan" Cooper and the Washington Capitals played Earl Lloyd in an Oct. 31 game. Charles Follis was the first black professional football player, in the early 1900s, in a league that predated the National Football League. The NFL, however, tacitly banned black players from 1933 until 1946 when the league admitted Woody Strode and Kenny Washington so it could secure a lease to play games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The signing of Robinson by Brooklyn and his extremely successful debut with the Dodgers undoubtedly emboldened a few other team executives in major pro leagues to give an opportunity to black athletes. Carnegie said he had followed Robinson's career during the 1940s and often wondered which of the two would be the first to break the color barrier in his sport. However, the events at Rangers' camp in 1948 strongly suggest Carnegie had not followed Robinson's story closely enough. In the first week of workouts at the Lake Placid arena, Carnegie matched his skills against players he considered inferior to those he faced regularly in the Quebec Provincial League. He had just won his second consecutive MVP award in the league and led Sherbrooke to the league championship. Carnegie remembers eagerly awaiting the Sept. 21 arrival of Rangers stars such as Buddy O'Connor, the 1947-48 NHL MVP, and Edgar Laprade. But as Carnegie wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "A Fly in a Pail of Milk," he was called into an office during the first week of camp by minor-league coach Muzz Patrick and offered $2,700 a year to sign with the Rangers' organization and play for the team's lowest-level farm club in Tacoma, Wash. The $2,700 was far less than the $5,100 he had made in the 1947-48 season with Sherbrooke, so he turned the offer down. After practice the next day, Carnegie wrote, he was summoned by minor-league coach Lynn Patrick, Muzz Patrick's brother, and offered a $3,700 contract to sign with the organization and report to the Rangers' farm club in St. Paul, Minn. Again, he refused. The next day, he wrote, Rangers coach Phil Watson offered him $4,700 to sign and play for the team's top farm club, the New Haven Ramblers. He declined the offer while telling Watson he thought himself more than capable of earning a spot on the Rangers roster. Carnegie's literary account contains one notable error: Frank Boucher was the Rangers coach and general manager at the time, not Phil Watson. Watson would not coach the Rangers until 1955. In 1948-49, Watson coached the New York Rovers, a team Carnegie would face that season in minor-league hockey. Boucher stepped down as Rangers coach on Dec. 21, 1948, after the team got off to a poor start (6-11-6) and was replaced by Lynn Patrick. Boucher continued as general manager until 1955. When the 1948-49 training camp began, Lynn Patrick was the coach of New Haven. So why would Lynn Patrick be the one to offer Carnegie $3,700 to play for St. Paul? Carnegie does not recall. He said Muzz Patrick offered him $2,700 to play for Tacoma, and indeed Muzz Patrick coached Tacoma at the time. But why were the Rangers making such lowball offers to Carnegie in the first place? Surely they must have known he had made $5,100 the season before at Sherbrooke. Simply, the Rangers knew they could get away with it. The NHL had only six teams in 1948. There were only 126 jobs for hockey players in the premier league. No player had an agent, and an NHL players union would not exist until 1967. Hockey teams wielded a mighty hammer in 1948. And if Carnegie, just another nail in the board, truly wanted to fulfill what he had described as a lifelong dream to play in the NHL, then it would have behooved him to get the best deal he could, swallow hard and try to make the best of it. While he is deserving of credit for not jumping at either of the first two lowball offers, he seriously overplayed his hand by turning down the third. Carnegie's stay at Rangers' camp lasted 11 days. After initially turning down the $4,700 offer to play for New Haven, he said he persuaded Rangers management to let him remain in camp for the second week so he could show his talent against real NHL players. He took the ice for four successive days against the Rangers, including centers O'Connor and Laprade and goalie Jim Henry. "I had proven myself beyond a shadow of a doubt," Carnegie said. "I had shown the Rangers I could play as well." Perhaps he had. But the Rangers still had the hammer to dictate the terms of whatever relationship they would have with Carnegie, as they would with every other player in a league where only the owners had clout. The Rangers' relationship with Carnegie would be regrettably short. On his 11th day in camp, he remembers meeting with Boucher, the coach and general manager. Again he was offered $4,700 to begin the 1948-49 season with the Rangers' top farm club in New Haven, just one notch below the NHL, just two hours away from Madison Square Garden if he needed to be promoted in a hurry. Again, he declined. The final deal offered Carnegie by the Rangers was essentially the same deal the Brooklyn Dodgers had offered Robinson. The Rangers might well have looked to their New York baseball counterparts and used as a blueprint for their dealings with Carnegie the Dodgers' handling of Robinson. The baseball star's deal called for him to play the entire 1946 season for the Dodgers' top farm club, the Montreal Royals. He would not advance from the Negro Leagues directly to Major League Baseball. Robinson would spend a year in the minors, Rickey explained, so he could be sure Robinson could excel on the playing field and handle the inevitable racist slurs and various other indignities a black man would surely face as the only player of his color in an organized league one notch below the majors. If all went well, Rickey said, Robinson would join the big leagues in 1947. After Robinson accepted the terms of the deal and played his way into the majors, he indelibly etched his name in the annals of sports and world history. Baseball players had no agents or union representation at that time, either. There were no salary negotiations. A player took whatever money he was offered, or he left the room and looked for other work. So when Rickey told Robinson to start in Montreal -- just to be sure -- Robinson, already a star in black baseball, did not take offense to being asked to spend a year in the minor leagues. He took the deal, for it would benefit not only him but also the black players who would follow him. Indeed, by 1948, the year after Robinson carried the banner for blacks in Major League Baseball, three other blacks (Larry Doby, Roy Campanella and Satchel Paige) had joined him in the elite league. While there was no black hockey league in the late 1940s, no on-ice equivalent of the Negro Leagues, there were a few other blacks who played hockey besides Herb Carnegie, such as his brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre, both of whom went on to play pro hockey in France. In Herb Carnegie's own words, Boucher wanted him to start in New Haven "just to be sure." The Rangers likely had a legitimate concern about how well Carnegie would play with linemates other than his brother and McIntyre who, in the opinion of Hall of Fame referee Storey, were not of NHL potential. A strong start by Carnegie in New Haven would have eliminated that concern. Boucher also said he would "make every effort" to promote Carnegie during the 1948-49 season. Had Carnegie taken the offer, he would have been on the cusp of an NHL career while making the ice somewhat more solid for other black hopefuls. The major difference, then, between sports pioneers Robinson and Carnegie was this: Robinson took the deal and Carnegie did not.
Too old for the minors?
Carnegie, married and a father of three at the time (his fourth child was born in 1951), felt no need to take a $400 pay cut and play minor-league hockey in New Haven, when he could continue playing semi-pro hockey in Canada and be closer to his family. He returned to Sherbrooke, reuniting briefly with Ossie and McIntyre, then joined the Quebec Major Hockey League from 1949 to 1953, and the Ontario Senior Hockey Association for the 1953-54 season.
|“||I missed the NHL by the stroke of a pen. Frankie Boucher was coaching the New York Rangers in 1948, and he told me he thought I was a good player, but he wanted to be sure whether I could play in the NHL. So he suggested I sign and start playing in New Haven. I was 29 (actually 28) at the time and I didn't feel like playing there. For in those days there were not too many 30-year-old players in the NHL, and I knew that if I didn't make it immediately, I wouldn't get another chance. ”|
|— Herb Carnegie|
|“||They told me that if I signed with the Rangers and went to New Haven, I would make international headlines. I told them my family couldn't eat headlines. That was probably when the Rangers decided to forget about me. ”|
|— Herb Carnegie|
|“||The Rangers at that time were not exactly a powerhouse; we finished in last place. You think Boucher was concerned about race? Heck, he was trying to win games. He would have played any player who could have helped us win games. ”|
|— Emile Francis, Rangers backup goalie in 1948-49|
The Josh Gibson of Hockey
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto and grew up playing hockey on the pond rinks in Willowdale, north of the city. Herb and Ossie Carnegie spent many hours on the pond developing a symmetry that would make them semi-pro stars years later. Herb, however, would become a master improviser. He could lift fans out of their seats with a feathery pinpoint pass, exquisite puckhandling or a brilliantly conceived play. He had the soft and quick hands required of a center along with a penchant for creativity and keen instincts for the game.
The Smythe slight
Carnegie thought himself a step away from NHL stardom when he joined the Toronto Junior Rangers, also known as the Young Rangers, in 1938. He would be the lone black player on the team, but race would have no effect on his ice time. And he would respond to any racial slurs he would hear on the rink or from the stands by filling the net with pucks. The Young Rangers played in an NHL arena, Maple Leaf Gardens, and prepared teenaged players for the NHL.
|“||That comment created such anger in me. It hurts to this day. The Toronto Maple Leafs was the team I rooted for as a boy. And to find out that was how the owner of the team I rooted for felt about me was shattering, just shattering. I felt at the time that my dream of playing in the NHL had been dashed. ”|
|— Herb Carnegie on Conn Smythe's alleged comment|
Remaining a minor-league star
Back in Canada for the 1948-49 season, Carnegie won his third straight MVP award with Sherbrooke. He scored four goals in a playoff series to eliminate the Quebec Aces, whose player-coach was George "Punch" Imlach. Carnegie accepted Imlach's offer to jump to the Aces of the Quebec Senior League (it became the Quebec Major Hockey League in 1950), and for two full seasons starting in 1951, he teamed with and mentored Beliveau, a future Hall of Famer. Together, they would win the league championship in 1953.
Jumping through the hoops
A 5-foot-8, 160-pounder who played center and left wing, Dorrington left his hometown of Truro, Nova Scotia, in 1950 to join an amateur team in Connecticut. It was his first foray into the U.S., and he traveled alone. During a team practice at Madison Square Garden, he caught the eye of a Rangers scout. The scout offered him a contract to play for the New York Rovers, an Eastern League team affiliated with the NHL club. Dorrington, then 20, took the deal and waited for the Rovers to return from a road trip. And waited. And waited.
Still waiting for a call
Carnegie also has devoted a significant part of his post-hockey life to improving the lives of others, particularly children. He still loves hockey -- not the men running it and certainly not the politics of it -- but the game itself.
|“||Unfortunately, I don't have the opportunity to be in the board room to give a reasonable response to whatever is being said about me. I wish I could be a fly on the wall and hear what they are saying about me. ”|
|— Carnegie on his Hall of Fame chances|
Another Carnegie on the horizon
Hall of Famers Mahovlich and Beliveau are not selection committee members either, but they have influential voices. Mahovlich serves in the Canadian Senate. Appointed by the Prime Minister, his term runs until 2012. Mahovlich and Beliveau admit to having been greatly influenced by Carnegie's play during their formative years. Has either man attempted to lobby the selection committee on Carnegie's behalf?
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