Since 1893, thousands have competed to hold, hoist, and have their name engraved on the Stanley Cup. Unfortunately one legendary hockey player did not; and it wasn’t for a lack of effort or skill. Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto on November 8, 1919; the son of Jamaican parents who immigrated to Canada in 1912 as 20-somethings, in search of a better life.
Growing up in North York, Carnegie showed a determined spirit from a young age, often fighting for what he believed in. In elementary school his principal banned him from arriving at school too early, as he would fight back when other schoolmates threw racial epithets his way. That racism would follow Herb Carnegie throughout his life, but his will, determination, and sharp moral compass would set him up for a lifetime of impact, on and off the ice.
When it came to hockey, Carnegie enthusiastically took to ice skating, using frozen ponds near his childhood home in North York as his practice rinks. “I’d loved the game since I was 7½ … We’d play all day on ponds in Willowdale, then listen on the radio to Foster Hewitt and Hockey Night in Canada. I wanted to be a Maple Leaf,” Carnegie told The Globe and Mail in 2006.
Carnegie entered the world of minor league hockey as a teenager, playing for the Toronto Young Rangers in the Ontario Hockey Association, where jeering crowds would often yell things like, “get that black bastard!” At the age of 18 Carnegie’s play caught the attention of Toronto Maple Leafs’ owner Conn Smythe. And while Smythe marvelled at Carnegie’s athleticism and play, it wasn’t enough. After one of his practices, Carnegie’s coach Ed Widley told him that “Smythe allegedly said, “he’d take you tomorrow if he could turn you white.” And while this left him shattered, Carnegie would use it as fuel for his future success. Smythe’s statement was later confirmed in a tape of favourite stories sent to Herb by famed NHL referee Red Storey.
After the Young Rangers, Carnegie left high school to play for the Buffalo-Ankerite Bisons, a semi-pro team in the Northern Ontario Senior League. 1941 saw the union of the first all-black hockey line in the league. With Carnegie as Centre it included his older brother Ossie and Vincent ‘Manny McIntyre’ from New Brunswick. They were definitely crowd pleasers and the media dubbed them as the “Brown Bombers”, “Dusky Speedsters”, “Dark Destroyers” and later in their career, the “Black Aces.” They helped the Bisons win two league championships. Carnegie would continue to fill up the stat sheet, and scored a jaw dropping 127 points in 56 games for the Sherbrooke Randies.
After this feat, the New York Rangers came calling. At the age of 28, would Carnegie finally get the chance to fulfill his dream of playing in the NHL? Well, kind of. After being invited to training camp and impressing the Rangers brass, he was offered three minor league deals, but all for less money than he was making in Quebec. He turned them down.
While some hockey historians argue that Carnegie missed an opportunity to seize a dream, his daughter Bernice saw it differently telling the Ottawa Citizen, “he wasn’t thinking so much that he could be No. 1… Father’s heart was with his family, and his responsibility was to us. So if they were going to offer him less money to go farther away from home, he felt he needed to honour his responsibility as a father and a husband. He never once said he was sorry that he chose family over hockey.”
Carnegie would return to Sherbrooke, Quebec and reunite with his former “Black Aces” line. It would be the final time they would play together and they made it count, notching an astonishing 142 combined points in 63 games, leading the team to a second place finish.
The following season Carnegie would trade jerseys and play for Quebec City’s, Quebec Aces. There he would help mentor linemate and future NHL hall of famer Jean Béliveau, who was already a fan of Carnegie before playing together. Béliveau would sing Carnegie’s praises by saying, “Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker. In those days, the younger ones learned from the older ones. I learned from Herbie.”
Carnegie would round out his hockey career in 1954 with the Owen Sound Mercury’s of the Ontario Hockey Association’s Senior A league. And while he left the game of hockey with an endless list of accomplishments and stat sheets that would make anyone dizzy, it was only the beginning.
“The greatest accomplishments came after his hockey career,” said daughter Bernice Carnegie, adding, “he was only a hockey player for seventeen years, but the 50 or 60 years after that he did so much to make a difference for so many.”
In 1955 Carnegie founded the Future Aces Hockey School. Located at Mitchell Field in North York, Future Aces would become the first registered hockey school in Canada. And while Future Aces taught young people the skills of the game, it provided much more.
Carnegie many years later during an interview with Trans World Sport news, revealed these feelings about why he started the hockey school. “From my point of view, I was excluded from hockey…I wanted something inclusive. And the idea came to me – if we have the fundamentals of the game of hockey, why can’t we have the fundamentals of how to live? And what are they?”
A year later Carnegie would introduce the Future Aces creed; an acrostic based on the word ACES which would act as a guiding tool for what he believed embodied the qualities of a good person and citizen. In the 2019 rerelease of the book, A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story, co-author Bernice Carnegie explained that being Future Aces means, “taking responsibility for who you are, what you do and how your behaviour affects other people. It means demonstrating respect for yourself and others.”
The Future Aces philosophy would soon become a movement, extending well beyond hockey and finding its way into hundreds of schools, impacting thousands of lives.
In 1987 Carnegie along with his wife Audrey and daughter Bernice established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation; a non-profit charitable organization established to, “inspire and assist youth and adults to become the best they can be as responsible and caring citizens in their communities.” The organization’s mandate involved working with schools, community organizations and corporations to, “reinforce and enhance character-building initiatives that promote harmony and, as a result, deter bullying, violence, racism and religious intolerance.”
To date their national scholarship program has awarded more than $860,000 to students engaged in humanitarian service and volunteerism. And while dedicating so much of his post-hockey life to inspiring and helping others, Carnegie also made time for individual pursuits. In 1964 Carnegie joined Investors Group making him the first black Canadian financial advisor at the company. He would go on to work for them for 32 years, setting many company records and becoming an inductee in the IG Ontario Hall of Fame.
When he wasn’t at a desk in an office he was at a tee box on a golf course. “In the realm of athletics, his golf exceeded his hockey” says Bernice Carnegie. And as hard as that is to fathom, it is also hard to argue. Like most things he took a swing at, golf came naturally to Carnegie who as a youngster would whack golf balls with his brother on his parent’s property. As a teenager he would regularly hitchhike nine miles to the Thornhill Golf Club where he learned the nuances of the game while earning pocket money caddying.
In high school Carnegie would win his share of golf championships; those winning ways continued in his latter years, securing two Canadian men’s senior amateur championships (1977, 1978) as well as 22 others.
“Everything he touched he did it with purpose and a feeling of wanting to be the very best that he could be” recalls Bernice Carnegie. That spirit and tenacity also helped him with his pursuit…as an inventor.
In 1968 he would patent the “Carnegie System”; a magnetic instructional board which coaches could use as a tool to demonstrate plays, replacing verbal and handwritten diagrams. Always one to give back Carnegie said this of the invention, “hockey has treated me very well in the past, and now I want to do something for the betterment of the game.” The “Carnegie System” would find its way into the coaching systems of top teams, and was an early prototype to what is used by NHL teams today.
Another invention and educational tool developed by Carnegie was, “Pass and Score”; a fun board game to help players and spectators learn the fundamentals of hockey. He would also create a similar game for football; both games were sold at Eaton’s.
Carnegie’s lifetime of individual accomplishments were only matched by his remarkable philanthropy. And while he never chased praise, praise often found him. During his life Carnegie was inducted into 13 sports halls of fame, received the Order of Canada, the Order of Ontario, three Queen Jubilee medals, along with many other awards and distinctions. A school and an arena were named in his honour. Carnegie and the Future Aces were also featured as heroes in two special issues of Marvel’s, The Amazing Spider-Man comics titled, “Skating on Thin Ice!” and “Double Trouble.”
Herb Carnegie would pass away on March 9, 2012 at the age of 92, leaving behind an undeniable legacy.
“He was a quiet man; he was a humble man; he was a creative man; he was a caring man. And people saw that in him and respected him for it,” said Bernice, adding that her father would often say, “I just want to leave this world a better place than I found it.”
A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story
By Herb Carnegie with Bernice Carnegie
320 pages. ECW Express, 2019.
Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey
By Cecil Harris
224 pages. Insomniac Press.