Imagine being a young hockey player in the 1940s and 1950s with a dream of making it into the National Hockey League. During the Original Six era there were only six big-league clubs, resulting in a limited number of roster spots. The competition was stiff in both the NHL and American Hockey League. In the AHL and other minor-leagues, a combination of fresh prospects out of junior and grizzly veterans, went out game after game with one intention - work hard and hopefully be summoned to the big show.
Then, imagine being a player like Herb Carnegie who passed away at the age of 92 on March 9, 2012 in Toronto.
By all accounts, Carnegie possessed the skills-set to jump from the minor-leagues to the National Hockey League stage. Working on his craft in the Quebec Provincial League, and later in the Quebec Hockey League, Carnegie earned a reputation as a playmaking centre who could also skate on the wing. If one is to compare his style of game to an NHL counterpart from the same era, the name Max Bentley would come to mind. Known as the "Dipsy Doodle Dandy from Delisle", Bentley would dazzle NHL crowds with his ability to control the puck and maneuver around opponents trying to steal it off his stick. In a similar fashion, Carnegie would dash up the ice and work his magic.
With all this talent and some to spare, why didn't Carnegie make the jump to the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens? Certainly not due to a lack of ability. No, there is only one reason his career didn't advance to the top level - the colour of his skin. Being a black man in an all-white sport, didn't enhance his chances of leaping ahead of his competition. In a time when segregation was in place, the opportunity for any black person to be fully accepted was non-existent.
In Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson opened the door, but in the NHL the door remained closed until the late 1950s. By this time, Carnegie's time on the ice was on a downward slope. Of note, he did catch the eye of the New York Rangers when the 1940s were coming to a close. The NHL club proposed a tryout and minor-league contract. A lateral move didn't tweak Carnegie's interest.
Writing in his biography, "My Life in Hockey", Jean Beliveau provides some insight on Herb Carnegie.
"The QSHL was also home to many players who, for various reasons, never would or could make it to the NHL. One such player was Herbie Carnegie, a smooth-skating playmaker equally adept at centre and on the wing. Herbie had one drawback: he was back, or "coloured" as the expression went back then. When I was a youngster in Victoriaville, Herbie, his brother Ozzie, and a third black, Matty McIntyre, all played with Sherbrooke in the Quebec Provincial League. Herbie made it up one rung on the hockey ladder, but could go no further," explained the legendary Habs captain.
"It is my belief that Herbie was excluded from the NHL because of his colour. He certainly had the talent, and was very popular with the fans, who would reward his great playmaking with prolonged standing ovations, both at home and on the road. Perhaps they suspected that his colour was an issue in the NHL, but it certainly wasn't with them," wrote Beliveau.
As NHL fans gather to watch their favourite stars duke-it-out, another game is being played far, far away. Just called up to participate is a newcomer, Herbie Carnegie. Coach Toe Blake, sensing a need for some help up-the-middle, has no hesitation slotting the rookie into his line-up. He knows Leaf bench boss, Hap Day, is equipped with an offensive weapon that can inflict some major damage - Max Bentley. Blake, with Carnegie on board, can now watch as Day squirms to counter the slick stick work of his new addition.
In the dressing room, Carnegie puts on his gloves and picks-up his stick. He makes his way towards the door at the players bench and stops to take a quick glance at the scene unfolding before him. Carnegie observes goalie Turk Broda standing in his crease waiting for the game to get underway. He ponders what course of action to take should he get a scoring chance against Broda - shoot or look for an open winger?
Lost in his thoughts, Carnegie suddenly hears a voice. "Hey Herbie, don't just stand there watching, come out and join us." The voice belongs to Max Bentley positioned at centre ice waiting for the drop of the puck.
Herb Carnegie's time has finally come.