Herb Carnegie: Black Excellence on – and off – the Ice | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Herb Carnegie: Black Excellence on – and off – the Ice

Listen to Strong and Free, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada, produced by Media Girlfriends. Because Black history is Canadian history.

Herb Carnegie is widely regarded as the best Black player to never play in the NHL. He played competitive hockey in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly in the  Quebec and Ontario Junior A and senior leagues. In this episode, we learn about Herb’s story of Black excellence on and off the ice, and speak with Kwame Mason, director and producer of the “Soul on Ice” film and podcast, and Bernice Carnegie, daughter of Herb Carnegie, and co-founder of the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation.

Garvia Bailey: What do you picture when you think of hockey? Or maybe I should ask, who do you picture? Connor MacDavid today. Sidney Crosby in the 2000s. Wayne Gretzky in the 80s and 90s. There are many players you could say are among the greatest of all time.

The Canadian hockey legends we picture in our minds are usually white. Where were the Black players? Because let me tell you - they were there – just as they are today.

This is Strong and Free, a Historica Canada podcast. Because Black history is Canadian history. My name is Garvia Bailey and you’re listening to our episode on Herb Carnegie, the greatest hockey player of his time to never play in the NHL, and his example, one of many, of Black excellence on ice.                                

Today, we see Black athletes on the ice making moves and well, doing this.

That was Akil Thomas of Scarborough, Ontario, scoring the golden goal for Team Canada at the 2020 World Junior Championships. And if you don’t know him, Akil is Black. His mom’s side is from Barbados and his dad’s side is from Guyana. Akil was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and he’s the FUTURE of the game. Same goes for Elijah Roberts, Joel Ward and many more.

Now, when we talk about Black athletes, yes, there will be racism to discuss. But today, I want to focus on the history of Black excellence on, and off, the ice in Canada. You might not know the stories so that’s what we’re here for. And I have the perfect guide for you.

Kwame Mason: My name is Damon Kwame Mason. Everybody calls me Kwame.

GB: Kwame is a documentary filmmaker and creates a ground-breaking podcast with the NHL called Soul on Ice, all about Black athletes in the league.

But back when Kwame grew up in Toronto in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was just a kid who loved hockey.

There was one time, when Kwame was 6, playing outside. As usual, he chose to be his favourite NHL player because that’s what you do when you play road hockey.

KM: My go-to was always Guy LaFleur. And I remember one time, I don't even know if this kid was in our neighborhood, he must have been just like, somebody’s friend or from a neighboring neighborhood who came to play -- I was like, “I'm Guy Lafleur” and he said,

“You can't be Guy LaFleur.” I was like,

“Why not?” And he was like,

“Guy LaFleur’s not Black. You gotta pick a Black guy.” And I had nobody I could pick.

I've always remembered that because it was like the first time I was like, who..? What..? I..? Okay, he's right. I'm Black. He is white, I can't be him. And it made me think about role models, like, who's my role model? Who am I? Who can I be? Lo and behold, there was, around that time because we're talking like ‘76, so you're talking about Mike Marsen was playing, Bill Riley was playing. So there were Black players, I just never knew about them.

GB: That’s why Kwame now devotes his work to setting the record straight. In 2015, he made a documentary film called, “Soul on Ice: Past, Present & Future,” about the history of Black athletes.

KM: I wanted to make sure people understood that our history started all the way back to the late 1800s with the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes.

GB: Okay – pause. The what hockey league of the Maritimes? Yeah, you heard right. Let me take you back, for a sec, to 1895.


1895 is the year of the first recorded mention of an all-Black hockey team in Nova Scotia. By 1900, The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes was an organized league based in Halifax and the players were all Black. Why was that?

KM: Now, because the white leagues that were being developed and played around that time weren't allowing Black kids to play, they decided, the Black community there decided to develop their own sports league.

GB: The Coloured Hockey League teams were very connected to their communities, mainly through church.

KM: And they thought, “you know, what, what's a good way to entice young Black men to come into the church? Well, let's start a sports team.” They started developing all these different teams around that area, Dartmouth and Africville. And so they would issue challenges in the newspaper, the other team would accept, and then you'd have this game. And now this game, you know, they would charge admission, you know, like five cents or whatever it was back then. But they would get from like, 1200 to 2000 people come and watch this game, because the skill set and the entertainment value of it was amazing.

GB: The Coloured Hockey League games were so popular; they could attract bigger crowds than the white league.

KM: The interesting thing about that league was the audience, for the most part were a lot of white people, because they wanted to see this new exciting style of hockey that was being played around that time. You know, for example, the goaltender stood straight up and they weren't allowed to go down on the ice. Whereas with the Coloured Hockey League, the goaltenders were allowed to go down on the ice.

GB: Now, that style for goalies seems normal but Black athletes incorporated that into their game. It’s called butterfly goaltending, where you fan out your arms and get down onto the ice to stop the puck. That was against NHL rules at the time. Black athletes were also the first to use the slap shot - or as it would have been known back then, “the baseball shot”. 

Black teams entertained the crowds halfway through the game. Yeah, they were the original half-time shows. As you heard Kwame say, white players weren’t doing all of that.

For the Coloured Hockey League, it wasn’t simply about being great at the game. Their strategy was to use sports to uplift young Black men, to instill leadership, community and purpose. It might have been the first Black pride sports movement ever.

The last games of the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes took place in the early 1930s. There aren’t any monuments or much in the history books about this league, which is a shame because it was SO successful in its heyday. Kwame works to keep the history alive, so you know about the league-

KM: And that our history had significant people like Willie O'Ree, like Mike Marsen and like Herbert H. Carnegie.

GB: Ahh, thank you, Kwame, for bringing us to Herb Carnegie. 

KM: Herb Carnegie was one of the best hockey players of his time.

GB: Herb was born in 1919. He grew up in a house his dad built in a Toronto neighbourhood that was still farmland.

Herb, his brother and the neighbourhood kids played hockey all winter on frozen ponds in the area. By the time Herb Carnegie was in high school, sports writers were raving about him in the papers.


Herb came up in the ranks of the amateur leagues playing for teams like the Toronto Young Rangers. When he played with the Buffalo Ankerites in Timmins, his brother played with him, too, Ossie Carnegie, and there was another Black athlete named Manny MacIntyre. The three of them got a lot of attention.

KM: People already knew about Herb Carnegie by reading the hockey news or articles about this Black player named Herb Carnegie and his brother Ossie and his friend Manny McIntyre, the first all-Black line. They were called the Ink Spots and the Black Aces, the Brown Bombers.

GB: They were known for playing so well together. And Herb was the stand-out.

KM: He was a guy who played in a time where it was like rough and tumble hockey. It was you play, then after season, you got to work in the mines. In places like… in places like Owen Sound, like the Quebec League, where he played with the Quebec Aces and was like an all-star.

GB: Herb landed in the Quebec provincial league in the 1940s, where he became a bona fide hockey star.

KM: From what I’ve been described by people who have seen him play or know really how he played; they will say he was silky smooth. So, in hockey, that would mean a guy that like… okay, if you look at like, Connor McDavid, he's very silky. You give him those two steps, he's gone, that’s it. You better get there or you’re not catching them. He's gone. Apparently, he was like that.

GB: The great Jean Béliveau, one of the most celebrated players in the history of the game, played in Quebec City with Herb and said he learned from him. Beliveau said, “Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker.”

Herb Carnegie was also a scoring machine. He scored so many goals and assists he was named most valuable player when he played for the Sherbrooke Saints, outranking the white players from 1946 to 1949.

KM: Most valuable player in the Sherbrooke Quebec teams, that's unheard of - not unheard of but, you know, for that time, for a Black man to be the most valuable player - that must say something about that person on the ice, their skills and…. So, he was just that great, and that well-respected in the game of hockey, but not respected enough that he could play in the National Hockey League.

GB: Why couldn't he crack the NHL?

KM: For the most part, I think the easiest answer would be a form of discrimination. Jackie Robinson had not yet cracked the MLB.

GB: That’s Jackie Robinson, who became the first Black player in Major League Baseball in 1947.

KM: So, to have a Black player playing in a national sports league, was unheard of, and who was going to be the first person to take that chance?

I mean, there's a famous story of when Herb was 18 years old.

GB: So, this is around 1937 or 38.

KM: He was practicing and in the stands was Conn Smythe, who was the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time. And Herb’s coach at the time said, “Do you know who that guy is?” And he said,

“Yeah, that’s Conn Smythe.” And then after the word got back to Herb that Conn Smythe said that “I would pay anyone $10,000 if they could turn that young man white, then he can play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

Was it a joke? Did he really say it? That's… that's what Herb remembers. That's what Herb has always talked about. And it was bigotry like that, that kept him out of the game.

GB: Herb was a very positive, productive person. He wasn’t raised to dwell on the negative. But he encountered stark racism, even as a hockey star at the top of his game. Herb never forgot it.

KM: I conducted the very last interview with Herb before he passed away in March of 2012. And he was blind in both eyes. But when it came to hockey, his light bulb just went on, the good and the bad. He had very fond memories of playing with his brother and Manny. But he also was heartbroken to remember at the age of 18 somebody said, “the only way you're gonna play for the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team that you grew up loving, the only way you're gonna play for that team, kid, is if you're white. You're good enough to play but you're not white.” And that is the one thing I remember out of that interview that stuck to me because… have you ever seen a blind man cry? It's one of the saddest things to see. You know, and sitting there seeing him cry and bang his hand against his knee saying, “I don't want this to ever happen to another young boy, this should not happen.” It's…it’s eerie in a sense, because that's a pain that he's always carried.

GB: The Toronto Maple Leafs weren’t the only NHL team around. And in 1948, Herb was given the opportunity to try out for the New York Rangers. He was being given the chance, maybe, just maybe, to finally play for the NHL. But it wasn’t the dream scenario it should have been.

KM: You know, he was given an opportunity to try out for the Rangers in New York. And he made it through all the cuts, but they wanted to put him on their minor league team before he would get the chance to go up to the big leagues. And at that point in his life, I believe he was his late 20s, early 30s. You know, he's at his peak. And you know, he's making really good money. He's got a family. And they're asking him now to a) play in the minors, b) take a pay cut with the possibility of playing in the National Hockey League. That's a risk, you're going to have to take and around that time, in the 40s, do you want to take that risk?

GB: They didn’t roll out the red carpet for Herb. Instead, they gave him a tough choice. Herb was a family man. And for him, the choice was clear. He had kids and they depended on the paycheque he brought home. He told the Rangers, “No, thanks.”

Family was really important to Herb. Don’t take it from me. Take it from his daughter.

Bernice Carnegie: My name is Bernice Carnegie. And I am the third child, second daughter of Herb Carnegie.

GB: Bernice is in her 70s, with a sweet smile. She’s the family historian.

Okay, I just want to start at the beginning, around Herb as a dad. What was it like to be Herb Carnegie's daughter?

BC: I would call him an incredible dad. I remember special things about him that he did for me, which was that I had a very, very strong fear of water. And when he was home, on his off time from hockey, he used to shampoo my hair. He would put the little goggles on my eyes. And he would, he would shampoo my hair for me and his, he had a very gentle touch to his hand.

My father had this really wonderful warm feeling about him. But he was also a mischievous person. He was ticklish and I used to capitalize on that all the time, and I would come at him with my fingers buzzing and I can remember him shouting, “Audrey!”

GB: Audrey was Bernice’s mom.

BC: “Audrey, help me!” As little me, and I was little at the time, would want to come up and tickle him, you know.

GB: At what point did you realize that he was this hockey star?

BC: It took a while to understand that. My father did get a lot of press, I really didn't read all of those articles about him until I was an adult. And it’s interesting because, I came across an article from when he was 17 years old. Is it okay for me to read a little of that article?

GB: Yeah, for sure. Please do.

BC: It went: “He couldn't single out the individual stars of the Toronto team without placing dusky Herb Carnegie head and shoulders above the crowd. He was superb. He poke-checked, back-checked, fore-checked, stole the puck from the very attackers from every possible angle and in every section of the rink, and was a constant offensive threat that nearly drove the Colts frantic. He scored two goals and assisted in four others. A great performance by a great little player.” And then he went on to write, “the phenomenal playing of Herbie Carnegie, coloured center ice star.”

That's from back in the 1930s, right. And I have literally thousands of articles about my father.

And I can remember him saying, “I played every game like there was a scout out there watching me.” And he said, “somebody is going to see me, somebody is going to notice me, somebody is going to give me a chance.” And so, when he got the letter, yeah, from the New York Rangers, I know there were tears between my mom and dad, thinking maybe this is it.

GB: Like Kwame said, in 1948, when Herb Carnegie was called to come try out for the New York Rangers, Herb made every cut. But when the Rangers offered far less than what he was already making, with his wife and children at home, he just couldn’t accept that offer.

But Herb Carnegie’s story doesn’t end with that offer from the Rangers. His story doesn’t even end with him hanging up his skates from professional hockey. This was just the beginning of a new chapter.

BC: When my father finished hockey, he was asked to be the coach of a tournament team where the coach had died suddenly and they needed someone to replace him.

GB: Herb agreed to be the replacement coach. And this is what started him on a new path of focusing on youth, by starting a hockey school called Future Aces.

Now listen, if you, yourself, have ever been to a hockey school, anywhere in North America, I just want you to know, they didn’t exist before Herb Carnegie. Herb himself grew up playing with his brother and his friends on frozen ponds. Nowadays, you take skating lessons and you get rink time. It’s organized. That type of hockey school didn’t exist before Herb created Future Aces.

BC: And he knew that the boys were not going to be NHLers, probably. But he wanted to give them a sense of community and to teach them good citizenship skills. Mostly, it was white boys because there weren't any Blacks at the time, my brother and my cousin --

GB: That was it!

BC: And maybe one other person I think my brother had mentioned but yeah, we were in an all-white community. But what my father was trying to show is that he had experienced racism and he had hoped that by doing this hockey school and teaching fairness and equality and goodwill, would rub off on these young men so that when they were out in the big wide world, they would treat people like us better.

He wrote a values creed called Future Aces. And he wrote 12 statements, attributes, or values, whatever you want to call them, that had the word Aces: attitude, cooperation, example, sportsmanship.

That Future Aces creed got accepted in schools all over Ontario. And so, we really affected millions of kids in the 30 years or so, actually it was 40 years. And then after a number of years, my father came to my mom and I and he said, “I want to have a scholarship program.”

Well, bottom line, end of the road, we have actually given out over $860,000 in scholarships to young people all across Canada over the 30 some-odd years that the Foundation was active.

GB: Incredible, just incredible.

Now, I want to say that if you hadn’t heard of Herb Carnegie before and you’re feeling kind of silly for not knowing these stories of Black excellence in the tradition of Canadian hockey, it’s ok. Now you know.

BC: And then I keep finding people who go, “well, how come I don't know this story?” And I asked each one of them, “Did you get Black history in school as part of the curriculum?” And every one of us, including me, has had to say no. So, we have not done a good job in Canada, of sharing the stories of our Black Canadians and other ethnic Canadians, and marginal peoples, of sharing how we have made a difference.

And so why aren't our kids understanding that it's more than white people that have made contributions to this society? You know, when I think about my dad, the achievements are overrunning. They're momentous, and every time I talk about him, I'm inspired, because he was such an amazing role model.

GB: Herb was an amazing role model for sure. Which makes it even more regrettable that he never made it to the NHL, which he clearly had the ability to do. But Herb left a legacy beyond the NHL.

BC: He does feel that his legacy was Future Aces, was writing the Future Aces philosophy and touching the lives of millions of young people.

GB: So where are we at today? There are more Black athletes in the NHL, there’s work happening within the league to understand and implement more diversity and inclusion.

Herb Carnegie was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario. He’s received an honorary degree, he has a school and a hockey rink named in his honour. He’s in several halls of fame for hockey including Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame BUT he’s not in THE NHL Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s not for lack of trying. There have been multiple attempts to get him into the Builder category for his exceptional talent and humanitarianism, and his grandson is currently working on it with a petition.

And Kwame is a part of the mission to work more inclusion into the NHL. He sees the historical throughline, from Herb Carnegie all the way to Akil Thomas. Remember Akil? The draft pick for the LA Kings who scored that winning goal for Team Canada at the world juniors in 2020?

KM: You know, for a kid like Akil Thomas, I think it’s one of those things, especially for a lot of the young Black kids in the Toronto area, they've all played at Herb Carnegie arena in Willowdale. And so, there's this sense of I'm playing in an arena named after a Black hockey player. Some know more than others, but for the most part, we have to still do a better job of telling Herb’s story. We have to because it's such a remarkable story. He’s such a remarkable man.

I respect the fact that he was unapologetic in knowing who he was as a man playing a game that was predominantly white.

He could have been very bitter after his career was done. But he refocused that and he used that energy to try to help children and, anybody that does that, they are top notch in my book because after a while it's not about you anymore, it’s about the kids.  

GB: Kwame feels strongly about the future of Black athletes in hockey.

KM: I salute them because we are going to make a world where a young Black boy or girl can still stay strong in Blackness and play the game of hockey without feeling that they have to conform and act like something that they're not.

GB: It’s what Herb wanted too.

BC: And I have to say that everything my father did made a difference, not just for himself and he wasn't thinking of himself as being, “okay, let me take, take, take.” It was, “what can I give, give, give.” And I saw him give the best of who he was not only to our family, but to the rest of the world.

GB: Thank you for listening.

Strong and Free is produced by Media Girlfriends and Historica Canada.

This series is part of a larger Black history education campaign by Historica Canada. For more resources, visit historicacanada.ca.

You can find Strong and Free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

This episode was produced by Hannah Sung and me, Garvia Bailey.

Script written by Hannah Sung and we’re both senior producers on this series.

Sound design and mix by Gabbie Clarke and David Moreau.

The Media Girlfriends team is rounded out Josiane Blanc, Lucius Dechausay, Jeff Woodrow, and Nana aba Duncan, the founder of Media Girlfriends

Thank you to Bernice Carnegie, Educational and Life Enrichment Speaker and co-founder of the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation and to our script consultant and guest, Kwame Mason, Director & Producer of the Soul on Ice film and podcast.

Thanks to TSN and Hockey Canada for the clip of Akil Thomas playing at the World Junior Hockey Championships of 2020.  

Fact-checking by Amy van den Berg. 

I'm Garvia Bailey, thanks again for listening.