Herb Carnegie never played in the NHL. It wasn't for lack of ability, as he was considered one of the most talented players in Canada's semi-professional leagues from 1938-54. Rather, he and others believed it was because he was Black.
"He had a lot of roadblocks that were connected to racism," his daughter Bernice Carnegie told ESPN this week. "But he was so good at -- and I want to use a hockey term here -- stick-handling around things that got in his way. He had this spirit in him that said, 'I want to see change.'"
It's the spirit that has inspired The Carnegie Initiative, a just-announced, not-for-profit platform named in Herb Carnegie's honor. It seeks to promote the growth of hockey and ensure opportunity in the sport. What makes this effort unique is that it isn't tied to any hockey governing body; it's an independent initiative that will seek to tackle large issues in diversity while also being nimble enough to address specific community issues in a way that entities like the NHL cannot.
Bernice Carnegie co-chairs the organization with Bryant McBride, the NHL's first Black executive and co-producer of "Willie," the critically acclaimed documentary about hockey pioneer and Hall of Famer Willie O'Ree.
"There are so many efforts going on, both big and small, to help expand the game, and our goal is to shed light on those communities, as well as help those still being marginalized, change problems that exist. We will do it holistically and without any bias," McBride said.
Some big names in hockey have signed on to back The Carnegie Initiative. Board members include women's hockey pioneer Angela James, fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, former NHL coach Ted Nolan, Canadian Olympian Sarah Nurse, broadcasters Ron MacLean and Harnarayan Singh, as well as Pittsburgh Penguins president of hockey operations Brian Burke.
"We've made great strides," Burke told ESPN this week. "I'm optimistic for the first time in my adult life that we're physically seeing change. We're seeing BIPOC hiring in all sports at unprecedented levels. We've made tremendous progress, but it's far from over."
In short, the goal of The Carnegie Initiative is to advance change in the culture of hockey.
It will audit "governing bodies and other stewards of the game" to make sure their efforts are inclusive. It will be data-driven and academic, establishing and awarding grants to those who are doing work to address change in the sport in the U.S. and Canada. It will promote success stories from around the hockey world, from the grassroots to the board rooms, a balance that's important to Burke.
"It has to be a priority from the top and it has to be insisted upon by the grass roots. You need a push and a pull," he said. "A lot of it is because hockey was played exclusively by white men who went on to coach and then went on to be GMs. As the sport has diversified now, there are excellent candidates at every level."
What hockey people from diverse backgrounds need is an opportunity, which was something that players like Herb Carnegie weren't afforded during their playing days.
A Canadian of Jamaican descent, Carnegie was a legendary player outside the NHL. Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens famously called him one of the best skaters he ever played with, while both were with the semi-pro Quebec Aces. Herb Carnegie, his brother Ozzie and Manny McIntyre formed the first all-Black line in hockey, creating a sensation in Canada. Bernice Carnegie has press clippings that referred to the Carnegie brothers as "The Brown Bombers" and "The Dark Destroyers"; their line with McIntyre had them called "The Ink Spots" and "The Dusky Raiders" as nicknames.
Publicly, Herb Carnegie wasn't one to raise his frustrations about not getting opportunities to play pro hockey. But Bernice Carnegie admitted that he shared them with her privately through the years. "There were times that my father expressed his displeasure. But my mom and dad make a pact when he finished hockey that they wouldn't discuss the issues that he had, because they didn't want to taint us as kids into feeling that we couldn't achieve, that we couldn't make our goals. So we didn't talk a lot about racism back then and we didn't talk about it later. It was more about what we could do to make life better," she said. "He always had the next plan."
The next plan for Herb Carnegie was the Future ACES Hockey School, the first registered hockey school in Canada to teach hockey skills while emphasizing character development.
"It wasn't just about hockey. It was about how to be a good citizen in life," said Bernice Carnegie.
This is at the core of The Carnegie Initiative: Creating opportunities for people from diverse backgrounds to learn from the game but, just as importantly, improve hockey through their own experiences.
"It just makes sense that you would want everybody to be included. So that you could participate and learn from the best. When you exclude people, you're actually cutting yourself off from the opportunity to learn and grow. You're limiting who you could be," she said.
The Carnegie Initiative may help grow the legend of Herb Carnegie. He's in 13 different halls of fame, but has yet to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, despite having strong credentials for the "builder" category.
"Every time I speak about my father, the feeling for him is stronger and stronger. It's hard not to be proud of a man who was so committed to making the world better than when he found it," said Bernice Carnegie.