Vaughan Muslim hockey program stands as lasting salute to Herb Carnegie

 (Submitted by Valeria Mitsubata - image credit)
(Submitted by Valeria Mitsubata - image credit)

You have to wonder what Herb Carnegie would be thinking if he were here now, days before his posthumous induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame's builder category.

Carnegie dedicated his life to breaking down racial barriers in the game he loved. He was pretty adept at playing the game, too, particularly in the 1940s.

Carnegie was a fine stickhandler and scorer, an elegant skater. In the old Quebec Senior League, he and his brother Ossie, and Manny MacIntyre formed a fearsome line called the "Black Aces". In 1947-48, playing for Sherbrooke in the Quebec Provincial Hockey League, Carnegie had 127 points in 56 games, including 48 goals.

Carnegie should have played in the NHL. Even Conn Smythe, the boss of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time, marvelled at his skill.

But it wouldn't be until 1958 that the first Black man, Willie O'Ree, debuted in the NHL, with the Boston Bruins. By that time, Carnegie's time as a legitimate hockey prospect was long past.

"People seem to have a heart today," he told The Toronto Sun back in 2005. "Back then, I don't know where their heart was, if they had one."

Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press
Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Being inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame

Carnegie, who died in 2012, dedicated his life to changing bitterness about the experience to purpose, speaking to school kids about good sportsmanship, positive mental attitude, cooperation and understanding with all people regardless of race, colour, or creed.

They will be celebrating that this weekend. This past Tuesday at MLSE LaunchPad in Toronto, as part of The Carnegie Initiative, people connected to the game gathered for a deeper dive into the Greater Toronto Hockey League's inclusion efforts. The GTHL is a massive youth hockey league that's been around for more than 100 years and around 30,000 kids play in the league annually.

The GTHL presented statements detailing progress in areas of equity, diversity and inclusion around the hockey community. There have been independent committee recommendations, action plans and execution — the GTHL board of directors is now comprised of a minimum 30 per cent BIPOC individuals, for example.

Courtesy Bernice Carnegie
Courtesy Bernice Carnegie

'True outreach program'

There was a panel discussion and  lots of talk and applause. But has there been enough progress, and how far do we still need to go? Would Carnegie be satisfied with the game's openness?

Programs are out there and spreading across the community. If you want to see a green shoot from Carnegie's legacy up close, head out every Sunday morning to Vaughan Sports Village. There, in two one-hour sessions, kids take part in the Vaughan Muslim Hockey program. Registration is maxed out with 60 kids.

You'll find first-generation immigrants, but also second or third generation who never knew this opportunity existed, where kids come out into a comfort zone, all in a welcoming environment. Muslim kids have gone on to graduate into Vaughan's House League program.

Ahsan Faraz Hadi, who's had all three of his kids — Zimraan (12), Eliza (10) and Summar (7) on the ice — calls it a "true outreach program."

"The kids go back and tell other kids in the community they play hockey, and how cool that is," he said. "They're proud of it. Kids will drag their parents [to the rink] early on a Sunday. But the parents are just as excited. They'll be sharing photos on social media with their families."

Submitted by Mark Keast
Submitted by Mark Keast

Learning curve

Barry Harte, president of the City of Vaughan Hockey Association, part of the GTHL, started it all with an outreach to the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community in 2011. A ball hockey event soon morphed into a learn-to-play, on-ice instructional program.

"It's been very rewarding, watching the program grow," Harte said. "Back at the beginning the kids would wear street clothes underneath their equipment, because they didn't know how to put the equipment on. They weren't taping up their socks, so the socks were falling down. It was a learning curve.

"We could laugh about it now, but I'm just extremely pleased with the interest, the appreciation that they show, seeing the kids out there taking their first steps, to where they are today."

Ice, sweater and socks, instruction and player photos are all free, plus the players get equipment subsidies.

Anthony Stewart, the former NHL player and now hockey broadcaster, touched on the need to bring immigrants into grassroots hockey to help grow the game in Canada. Stewart also heads up Hockey Equality, an organization dedicated to bringing more diversity and inclusion to grassroots hockey.

"As a white man, to go into a mosque and say we have this program, that's an agent of change, that's amazing to see, and that's how you grow the game," he said. "Getting them involved is crucial, because they are going to have kids, and they will get their kids involved. It's about building blocks, building momentum."