In January 1958, Willie O’Ree of the Boston Bruins became the first African-American player in the National Hockey League, but few of even the most ardent hockey fans know that the New York Rangers nearly broke the league’s color barrier a decade earlier. Prior to the start of the 1948-49 season the team invited a black semi-pro player named Herb Carnegie, a Canadian of Jamaican descent, to training camp. Carnegie, along with his brother Ossie and fellow lineman Manny McIntyre, formed “the Black Aces”—a line that dominated the semi-pro Quebec Provincial Hockey League, where Herb was a three-time most valuable player.
“Herbie was the leader; they couldn’t have gone anywhere without Herb,” referee Red Storey told author Cecil Harris in Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey. “He was good enough to play in the NHL. It was strictly color, not talent, that kept him out.” The Rangers were rumored to be planning to mirror the strategy used by the Brooklyn Dodgers in signing Jackie Robinson in 1945. (Brooklyn started him in the minors, where he played the 1946 season before joining the Dodgers in ’47.) Carnegie, who was nearing 30 years old, balked at the plan. But the Rangers were persistent. They made him three minor-league offers, topped by a $4,700 contract which was $400 less than what Carnegie was earning as a semi-pro. Harris noted that the NHL minimum at the time was $5,000, so Carnegie would have matched his minor-league salary had he gone straight to the NHL. Instead, he passed.
“I missed the NHL by the stroke of a pen,” Carnegie told The Toronto Sun in 1973, as quoted by Harris. “Frankie Boucher was coaching the New York Rangers in 1948, and he told me he thought I was a good player, but he wanted to be sure whether I could play in the NHL. So he suggested I sign and start playing in New Haven … in those days there were not too many 30-year-old players in the NHL, and I knew that if I didn’t make it immediately, I wouldn’t get another chance.”
Actually, it was quite possible he would have made the opening night roster anyway—and be celebrated as the sport’s first black player instead of O’Ree. The Rangers’ top two centers were among four players hurt in a car accident six days prior to the start of the season. Carnegie might have gotten his chance to skate on NHL ice sooner than he imagined, a point he lamented years later. “I have to take to my grave that lost opportunity,” Carnegie explained to Sherry Ross in a February 1998 New York Daily News article.
Earlier this year, on March 9, Carnegie died in his hometown, Toronto. He was 92.
Anthony Mastantuoni is from Pelham, N.Y.