By Will MacLaren
Many decades ago, reaching the NHL was, in many cases, one part skill, one part luck. In this time before the streamlined scouting services that define player development in the 21st century, the right person needed to come along at the right time and place a contract under a player’s nose to set their professional course. At the time, the phrase “hidden talent” held something of a double meaning.
Then there was Herb Carnegie, the player who not so much hid in plain sight but, because of the color of his skin, had the persona of the Invisible Man placed on his head like a laurel of poison ivy. “My grandfather knew he was one of the best,” said Carnegie’s grandson Rane. “He felt he deserved an opportunity to try and see how he’d compete against the best of the world and unfortunately never got that. There was a lot of disappointment there.”
Herb Carnegie may not have been allowed to test himself against the very best in the world. But if Rane has anything to say about it, his grandfather will finally be enshrined alongside the greatest names in the history of the game.
To that long-overdue end, Rane and his family have put together a petition that now boasts more than 9,000 signatures. At the same time, they’re creating a proposal highlighting Carnegie’s Hall of Fame credentials that they intend to submit to the organization’s board of directors by March 2022 in advance of next year’s candidate vote. Rane feels the petition promotes a dual purpose. “In a way, people can show support for the triumph for equality while also supporting putting my grandfather in the Hall of Fame where he belongs,” he said. “(Some people) may not be comfortable with certain displays of solidarity…but everyone loves Grandpa!”
Recent developments have also been put in place to further engrain Carnegie’s legacy as a philanthropist. In early June, the not-for-profit organization The Carnegie Initiative was launched to promote opportunity, inclusion and equality at all levels of the game. “We feel this announcement will help make an ironclad case for his induction,” Rane said. “It will secure what I feel should be an eventuality.”
Rane’s evaluation of his grandfather is accurate. On three occasions (1946, 1947 and 1949), Carnegie was named MVP of the Quebec Provincial League/Quebec Senior League, the senior circuit that Maurice Richard played in before jumping to the Montreal Canadiens. There, Carnegie not only turned heads but earned the respect of fans, foes and teammates alike.
One of his teammates at that level was Jean Beliveau. Before embarking on his legendary career with the Canadiens, Beliveau skated alongside Carnegie with the Quebec Aces during the early 1950s.
In his book, Jean Beliveau: My Life in Hockey, written with Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz, Beliveau knew why his fellow Ace would not follow him into the NHL. “It is my belief that Herbie was excluded from the NHL because of his color,” Beliveau said. “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 his color was an issue with the NHL, but it wasn’t with them.”
Regarded by many as the best Black player never to play in the NHL during the Original Six era, Carnegie was offered a tryout and an unflattering minor-league deal with the New York Rangers in 1948 when he was 28. It was reportedly for less money than he was earning in the Quebec League. But that was the closest he ever came to the NHL. Instead, he spent nine years in Quebec’s top senior league and another in Ontario’s before retiring from the game.
Though frustrated, Carnegie turned those setbacks into positives. Following his playing days, he became a successful businessman with Investors Group and, in 1955, created Future Aces, the first registered hockey school in Canada.
As the years piled on, so did the recognition: the Orders of both Ontario and Canada and induction into the Canadian and Ontario Sports Hall of Fame. By the time he died at 92 in 2012, Carnegie was nothing short of a legend.
In an effort to gain recognition from the Hockey Halls of Fame, Rane, a talented player in his own right as a star with the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads followed by five years in the pro ranks, has taken recent tragedies and turned them into linchpins of awareness for the benefit of his grandfather’s cause. “When George Floyd was murdered, it really woke something up in me,” Rane said. “A lot of great initiatives and projects and dialogues were started, and I was getting a lot of calls from my Caucasian friends, who wanted to show their support and allyship, if there was anything they could do to let them know.”
Rane appreciates the influx of support and awareness that have finally begun to creep into the game at more than a cursory trickle. But the plight – or slight, if you will – of his family causes these statements and sentiments to ring somewhat hollow. “You’re talking about Hockey is for Everyone and eradicating racism,” he said. “Well, if you’re really serious about it, give my grandfather his roses. Until we do that, I have to question why everyone who’s trying to eradicate racism is not doing what they need to do to get my grandfather into the Hall of Fame. He endured all of it. I’m hoping the allyship we’re seeing is going to bring this change along.”
At day’s end, Rane’s singular goal is to prevent his grandfather from becoming the Invisible Man yet again. “Just based on the resume, how do you say no?” Rane said. “He was a great man who had no personal issues at all. In fact, the only controversy he generated was by being Black. Here’s a guy who was Black, blind in one eye, playing hockey during an apartheid-era yet made himself the most vulnerable person by trying to help others.
“I’m hoping for a surprise call from the Hall saying we’re going to induct your grandfather this November,” he said. “We need to come together more than ever. This is a chance for the Hall to step outside the norm and include just one more person, because it’s the right thing to do.”