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Carnegie could have been first black NHL player, letter shows

Item donated to Hockey Hall of Fame was 1948 training camp invitation from Rangers

by William Douglas @WDouglasNHL / Staff Writer

Larry Berman was so excited about winning an important piece of hockey history at auction recently that he couldn't keep it. 

For $240, Berman obtained the August 1948 letter the New York Rangers sent Herb Carnegie inviting him to try out for the team, an overture that could have put him on track to become the NHL's first black player a decade before Willie O'Ree broke in with the Boston Bruins.

"You will please bring your own SKATES, and any other equipment that might prove helpful to you," reads the letter signed by Rangers manager Frank Boucher, a 1958 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. "And if possible, have your skates sharpened so that you will not lose any time in getting on the ice."

The letter along with an accompanying immigration note and the envelope that housed them may have cost Berman a few hundred bucks, but to him and the Hockey Hall of Fame, the items are priceless.

So instead of keeping them, Berman donated the items to the Hall on Saturday, handing them to Craig Campbell, manager of the Hall's resource center and archives, while the two attended the MeiGray Game-Worn Jersey Expo in North Branch, N.J.

"I don't know if any of us should own things like this," said Berman, a writer and sports memorabilia collector from Long Island. "I don't know where the dividing line is in what is a really cool thing to own or an interesting historical item versus something that's so personal that it's something the average person should not have."

Campbell said the Hall is happy to accept Berman's contribution.

"It's a training camp invitation letter, it says 'Madison Square Garden Corporation,' signed by Frank Boucher, one of our honored members, just from that sense, we're interested," Campbell said. "With respect to Herb Carnegie, we're interested based on his career and because we're a museum, and it's not just about those who are honored members within the museum. We're hockey's museum representing all leagues, all levels worldwide, so Herb Carnegie is part of that history."

Bernice Carnegie has kept much of that history in a Toronto-area rental storage unit over the years and decided in June the time was right to part with some of her father's medals, awards, photos and trophies.

But letting go of the invitation letter proved emotionally harder than she initially thought.

"That was the one thing I debated parting with, I was okay with everything else except for that," said Carnegie, a former executive director of the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation with her parents. "Then I thought, 'Well, if I let it go that means whoever gets it really, really, really wants it. If I don't let some of this go now, when I die I don't know if my kids will take the interest in making sure they get [it] to somebody who cares."

Berman cares enough that he hopes that donating the letter to the Hall will rekindle public interest in getting Carnegie, who died on March 9, 2012 at the age of 92, enshrined in the Toronto hockey museum.

If admitted, he would join O'Ree, goalie Grant Fuhr and Canadian women's hockey star Angela James as its only black members.

"I want the fact that this letter exists to be used as a springboard to get this man into the Hall of Fame as a builder because, in my opinion, if you read what a builder is, this man defines the category," Berman said. "He dedicated his life to sharing his principles with other people through hockey."

A builder, Hall guidelines state, is someone who has demonstrated "coaching, managerial or executive ability, or ability in another significant off-ice role, sportsmanship, character and contributions in his or her organization or organizations and to the game of hockey in general."

O'Ree, who made his NHL debut Jan. 18, 1958 at the Montreal Canadiens, played 45 NHL games over two seasons. He was enshrined in the Hall as a builder in November 2018, a nod to more than two decades as the NHL's Diversity Ambassador. 

Carnegie, the son of Jamaican immigrants to Canada, was a dazzling center who played in the Quebec Provincial Hockey League, the Quebec Senior Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey Association Senior A League and is widely considered to be the best black player never to play in the NHL. He played for the Quebec Aces from 1949-53, where he was a teammate with a hockey prodigy named Jean Beliveau.

He was part of the Black Aces, professional hockey's first all-black line that also featured his brother, Ossie, and Manny McIntyre. Carnegie won two scoring titles and three Most Valuable Player awards in the QPHL from 1944-48.

Carnegie attended Rangers camp in September 1948 and turned down three contract offers because they paid less than he was making in Quebec. The final offer would have required him to play the season at the Rangers' top minor league affiliate in New Haven, Conn., nearly two hours from Madison Square Garden.

Bernice Carnegie said her father rejected the offers because he had a wife and growing family to support in Quebec and couldn't afford the pay cut.

Hockey historians and sportswriters have debated since whether Carnegie erred by declining a Rangers offer that could have eventually led to an NHL roster spot or whether race ultimately played a role in him never making it.

In his autobiography, "Jean Beliveau: My Life in Hockey," the late Canadiens center wrote that "It's my belief that Herbie was excluded from the NHL because of his colour."

Cecil Harris, a black author who wrote "Breaking the Ice, The Black Experience in Professional Hockey," has said that he wished Carnegie had accepted the Rangers final offer because it mirrored the approach the Brooklyn Dodgers took that led to Jackie Robinson becoming Major League Baseball's first black player in 1947.

Carnegie retired in 1954 and achieved as much success off the ice as he did on it.

He was a financial advisor; started the Future Aces Hockey School, one of the first hockey academies in Canada; became a champion senior golfer; and developed the Future Aces Creed, a 12-point philosophy to help mold youngsters into responsible citizens.

He is enshrined in 13 halls of fame and was invested in the Order of Canada, one of the nation's highest civilian honors. Berman said he intends to push for a 14th by writing a public submission to the Hockey Hall of Fame next year advocating Carnegie's induction.

Bernice Carnegie is doing her part to keep her father's name alive in the Hall debate too. Canadian publisher ECW Press is re-releasing his 1996 autobiography "A Fly in a Pail of Milk: The Herb Carnegie Story," with new chapters written by his daughter.

Its scheduled release date is Nov. 8, what would be Herb Carnegie's 100th birthday and 10 days before the 2019 Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

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