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If not now, then when?
That’s the question Rane Carnegie kept asking himself as he watched the Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the world this summer. His late grandfather Herb Carnegie was a star hockey player in the 1940s and ’50s but never got an opportunity at the NHL level because he was Black.
Herb turned that hardship into a life’s work promoting inclusion, anti-racism and empowerment, making such an impact on Canadian society he has a school and an arena named after him in Greater Toronto. He was also awarded the Order of Canada in 2003.
Yet with everything he achieved as an athlete and community giant, Herb was never inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is such an oversight most people around the game tend to assume he must already be a member.
But he isn’t and his grandson decided now is the time to change that. Rane launched an online petition a month ago on change.org to rally support to get his grandfather into the Hall and it already has close to 5,000 signatures.
“The next step is I need to get in front of a committee member and get my grandfather’s name on the docket,” said Carnegie, who was a star with the Halifax Mooseheads from 2004 to 2006. “What I’ve learned since starting this petition, oftentimes they’ll say ‘This person or that person isn’t in the Hall of Fame, what a tragedy.’ But the tragedy is they’ve only been nominated one or two times and they’ve been eligible for 15 years. So maybe in the first year of eligibility they’ll get on the docket but it might be a stacked year and they don’t get in. But if you don’t reapply, you’ll never be elected into the Hall of Fame.
“So this is just the infancy and, to be honest, the petition is just a nice additional piece to the puzzle. While the petition, from what I’ve learned now, is great as a way to get the awareness out there and to get people talking about my grandfather, at the end of the day it really doesn’t mean (anything) if you don’t do all the other stuff.”
On the strength of his hockey resume alone, Herb Carnegie is deserving of induction into the Hall. He dominated Canadian semi-pro leagues in the 1940s and ‘50s, winning the MVP award in the Quebec Provincial League in 1946, 1947 and 1949. He and his brother Ossie, along with Manny McIntyre, formed the first all-Black line that spawned numerous racially-charged nicknames like the Ink Spots and Dark Destroyers.
One of his teammates from those days was Jean Beliveau who famously called Carnegie one of the best players he’d ever seen.
"I witnessed Herb’s brilliance,” the Montreal Canadiens icon told Kevin van Steendelaar of SB Nation. “There was no question that the years I spent with him still evoke some of my best hockey memories. Herbie was a super hockey player, a beautiful style, a beautiful skater, a great playmaker. Those days the younger ones learned from the older ones, I learned from Herbie."
Fellow Habs legend Frank Mahovlich used to watch Carnegie play in Timmins, Ont., in the early ‘40s and once said: "I was just so amazed at the way he played. He was much superior to the others on the ice. The Black line was so amazing because of their great skills – the skating, the passing, the goal scoring. I was a centreman for many years. I might have envisioned myself going down the ice like Herb Carnegie."
But despite reverence from contemporaries of that standing, Carnegie never got his chance to play with and against them in the NHL because of the pervasive racism of the day.
The barrier didn’t come down until 1958 when Willie O’Ree made it into the Boston Bruins’ lineup. O’Ree went on to appear in a total of 45 NHL games and has been a dedicated ambassador for the league’s diversity programs for decades. He was inducted into the Hall in 2018.
“Jean Beliveau has played with a lot of Hall of Famers and Stanley Cup champions so for him to have said that speaks to my grandfather’s ability,” Rane said. “Also there was Conn Smythe’s alleged comment back in 1938 that if they could turn my grandfather white, they would take him tomorrow for the Leafs. … Back in the 1930s there were still segregated schools so that tells you what it was like.
“So if there’s the founder of the Leafs (Smythe) who the (trophy for) MVP of the NHL playoffs is named after saying that, and you also have Jean Beliveau saying that my grandfather was one of the best players ever that he’s played with, then that should be enough. ”
The closest Herb ever got to an NHL break was in 1948 when the New York Rangers offered him a minor league contract. But to accept it would’ve meant a huge financial sacrifice he couldn’t afford.
Carnegie had three kids and would’ve earned half as much playing in the Rangers system than he was making in Quebec. It just wasn’t an offer he could accept.
So Herb eventually retired in 1954 and started a career as a financial adviser in Ontario. But his real passion was his community work. Carnegie immersed himself in trying to change society so generations that came after him wouldn’t have to deal with the same discrimination and heartbreak.
Herb, his wife Audrey and daughter Bernice went on to launch the Future Aces Foundation and inspired thousands of kids over the years to embrace more progressive and inclusive values. The Carnegie family’s labour of love has also provided scholarships to thousands of underprivileged students over the years.
“At first he and my aunt Bernice and my grandmother were driving around to schools to talk about character-building initiatives and sharing his story of what he went through,” Rane said. “He really believed the future of our world is in the hands of our kids. So how are we going to create a better opportunity for people like myself or my children so they don’t have to experience what my grandfather did? So in 1987 they started this charity and we were adopted into the TDSB, the Toronto District School Board, which is one of our biggest partners.
“After he passed (in 2012) it would be my aunt that would do that and now I’m there. Now we’re trying to develop a more broadened and in-depth anti-racism program offering. We’ve been talking about this since 1987 and now we’re just going to address it more directly, instead of just dancing around it because now is the time to be able to feel secure and share how we truly feel we need to treat each other.”
Rane is in the running to take over as chairman and president of the foundation in the fall, while also growing his mentorship and hockey development company in suburban Toronto. He was also just named the first-ever Black head coach at the AAA level in the Whitby, Ont., minor hockey association and can’t wait to share his knowledge from a decade as a major junior and professional player. And if it is ever called for, he can also pass on the lessons his grandfather taught him as a kid when he was trying to thrive as a minority in a predominantly white game.
“On more than one occasion growing up in hockey I was either called the N-word, told to go play basketball, called monkey and a bunch of other things,” said the former Mooseheads captain, who always wore No. 7 like Herb. “And I didn’t have a father. I was raised by three women - my mom and my two sisters - so I was very emotional. Oftentimes I would call my grandfather after experiencing one of these days and his way of cheering me up was to say ‘Rane, if they’re not saying anything about you then you’re doing a bad job.
“Good, bad or horrible, if they’re saying all those things, it’s because you’re out there and you’re being noticed and they just don’t know how to recognize talent, so keep persevering and be worried when they don’t say anything. If they don’t say anything about you, then maybe you should think about a different career. He used to always say that to me and he also used to always tell me that you can’t score goals from the penalty box. That was a life metaphor as well. All these people that do negative things and say all these hurtful things, they’ve been living in the penalty box their whole life and they don’t know what it’s like to score a goal and be part of a team.”
And in his spare time, Rane will persist in his goal to get his grandfather the recognition he is overdue with the Hall.
“I truly feel that we’re going to get my grandfather into the Hall of Fame, whether it’s this year, the year after that or whenever it might happen because I’m the one taking the mantle and I know every year I’m going to go through the same process,” he said. “They’re going to be sick and tired of hearing from me so if not now, then when? That’s what I’ve been posting on my social media - if not now, then when? Given where we are as a world and as a society with racial injustices and social injustices, all of that, if we can’t get my grandfather - who was denied the opportunity to play in the NHL because of the colour of his skin - into the Hockey Hall of Fame now, then it’s going to be almost damn right impossible to do it later. This is the time.”