How Conn Smythe's racism kept Herb Carnegie from achieving his NHL dream

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Hall of Fame inductee Herb Carnegie never got his shot to play in the NHL because of Conn Smythe's racist views. (Getty Images)
Hall of Fame inductee Herb Carnegie never got his shot to play in the NHL because of Conn Smythe's racist views. (Getty Images)

Less than 24 hours after the National Hockey League handed out the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s playoff MVP, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced Herb Carnegie would be inducted as a builder with the 2022 class. The two moments, while separate, will forever be connected by the historic, and racist, statement Conn Smythe, the man, once made about Carnegie.

Carnegie was one of the best hockey players in the game in the 1940s, winning Quebec Provincial League MVP honours in three consecutive seasons. During that time, Conn Smythe, the long time owner and general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, said, as recalled by Carnegie in a CBC Sports interview a decade before his 2019 passing, “I was good enough for the Leafs. Cause according to Conn Smythe, ‘I would take Carnegie tomorrow for the Maple Leafs if someone can turn him white.’”

The impact on Carnegie, only 18 years old when that message was delivered to him, crushed his hopes for a hockey career. “How would you feel?” he continued. “I can’t forget it. Because he cut my knees off. He broke my legs. It’s horrible. So I don’t want people to go through that.”

In fact, as it has been quoted many times, Smythe stated he’d give any person who could “turn Carnegie white” $10,000. The quote was attributed to Smythe’s attendance at a Toronto Young Rangers practice, Carnegie’s team at the time, during the 1938-39 season. Following the practice, the owner of the Young Rangers, Ed Wildey, relayed the message to Carnegie.

Carnegie was born, and died, in Toronto, and dreamed of playing for the Maple Leafs, but because he was Black, that dream could not be realized. He grew up skating on ponds of Willowdale, a neighbourhood now considered part of North York, just outside Toronto’s downtown. Playing pond hockey during the day, Carnegie would return home like other Toronto youths to listen to the Maple Leafs on the radio.

Advancing to play semi-professional hockey in Quebec, Carnegie skated alongside fellow Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Jean Béliveau, who was the NHL’s first recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965. Béliveau knew Carnegie’s ability from their time together, and also knew why Carnegie did not make the NHL, "...Herbie was very good – a real playmaker who scored his share of goals, a beautiful skater. I will say he never got a fair shot, and it was because of his skin. Everyone in our dressing room loved him. You need those players to win championships."

Smythe wasn’t the only member of the NHL’s original six to recognize Carnegie’s talent without equitable action. In 1948, Carnegie, 28 at the time, was invited to try out for the New York Rangers and was subsequently offered a minor league contract. Carnegie did not accept as he was making more money playing in Quebec and recognized that lesser skilled players were already signed to NHL contracts with the Rangers. That same season, Larry Kwong broke the NHL’s colour barrier with those New York Rangers. Kwong, a Chinese Canadian, however, played only one shift in the third period of his only game and never returned to the NHL, despite his skill.

Carnegie entering the Hall of Fame is a major step forward in recognizing historic oppression and the anti-Black racism that upheld hockey’s colour barrier. It doesn’t, however, change the history of who Conn Smythe, and other founding fathers of the NHL, were.

As Steve Simmons wrote about the Conn Smythe Trophy in a Toronto Sun editorial, “The trophy that goes to the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs is named for Smythe. Named for a racist. It shouldn’t be any more.”

Smythe’s bigotry was not singular toward Carnegie or the Black community. As one fan wrote about Smythe to the Toronto Star, "He not only discriminated against black athletes but would not hire young Jewish men to sell programs and refreshments at Leafs games. He traded away defenceman Alex 'Mine Boy' Levinsky because Al was Jewish." Similarly, Smythe banished one of the NHL’s first Jewish players, Joe Ironstone, from the league, saying he would never play another game after Ironstone asked for more money to backstop the Leafs. In his only game with Toronto in the 1927-1928 season, Ironstone recorded a shutout. Smythe was also discussed in the book, Antisemitism in Canada: History and Interpretation edited by Alan Davies. In 1939, Smythe expressed public displeasure when a group of Jewish owners received a franchise in Buffalo, New York. When confronted by the Canadian Jewish Congress on his comments, Smythe claimed he was “unable to understand” their concerns.

With Conn Smythe’s history, the question stands: should the NHL rename the Conn Smythe Trophy? The precedent exists. In 2021, the Baseball Writers Association of America renamed their highest award, the J. G. Taylor Spink Award, in order to address Spink’s history of racism. A current push also exists to rename the Lou Marsh Trophy, annually awarded to Canada’s top athlete. Marsh’s anti-Indigenous writing and comments, specifically toward famed runner Tom Longboat, have come under rightful criticism recently, as have his antisemetic claims.

In advocating for Herb Carnegie’s recognition by the Hockey Hall of Fame, his grandson Rane Carnegie told Sportsnet, “In my opinion, this is how you can show that you’re not just a non-racist, you’re also an anti-racist. You’re an advocate; you’re an ally; you want inclusion; you want diversity; want equal opportunity; want equity. You want all of these wonderful things.”

While the Hockey Hall of Fame achieved some of these goals through recognizing Carnegie and Willie O’Ree, the existence of the Conn Smythe Trophy, named for the man who chose not to sign Carnegie to an NHL contract unless someone could turn the legendary Black athlete white, still looms as a beacon of inequity over the league.

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