Monday, June 27, 2022

Herb Carnegie is a worthy Hall of Famer, and every fan should know his story

Whenever the Hockey Hall of Fame announces a new class of honorees, it’s only natural that most of the focus goes to the players’ side. It’s a thrill to see somebody you grew up watching get the sport’s ultimate honor, and maybe you skip over the builder’s category, thinking it’s for the long-forgotten old-timers and suit-and-tie cronies.

This year, please don’t make that mistake with Herb Carnegie.

If you know Carnegie’s story, you understand how overdue this honor was. If you don’t, well, you really should, and that’s why it’s so important that the Hall has finally honored him.

Carnegie is often cited as hockey’s first Black star, and that’s a big part of his story, but his case for induction doesn’t start there. Quite simply, he was among the most successful professional players of the 1940s and 1950s, a three-time MVP in the Quebec Provincial League who later starred on a line with Jean Beliveau for the Quebec Aces of the vaunted Quebec Senior Hockey League. This was back in the days when the NHL was still relatively new and wasn’t the only high-level pro league in North America, so Carnegie’s dominance of elite competition makes him a worthy HHOF candidate just on the merits of his play.

But of course, his legacy goes well beyond his on-ice achievements. A Canadian of Jamaican descent, Carnegie faced racism throughout his career, including ugly taunts and insults from opponents and fans. As Carnegie was beginning to earn the attention of NHL scouts, there were comments attributed to legendary Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe suggesting that Toronto would have gladly signed the up-and-coming star if not for his race; in one version of the story, Smythe makes a tongue-in-cheek offer of $10,000 to anyone who can come up with a way to turn Carnegie white. Some historians have disputed whether Smythe actually said those things, but at the very least, such comments wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows in the era. When it came to the hockey world, Carnegie was, to borrow the title of his autobiography, a fly in a pail of milk. He knew it, and with little other choice, he embraced the challenge that came with it.

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