In keeping with Carp’s countdown theme, we have 42 days to opening night. With apologies to Mariano Rivera and the five Rangers who wore it (Artem Anisimov, Paul Fenton, Dave Marcinyshyn, Greg Moore and John Tripp), the most famous #42 belongs to Jackie Robinson.
Hockey fans know that Willie O’Ree became the first black player in the NHL, but what fans don’t know is how the Rangers had, not one, but two chances to break the color barrier a decade earlier. The Blueshirts invited Herb Carnegie to training camp prior to the start of the 1948-49 season. Herb, along with brother Ossie and linemate Manny McIntyre, formed the Black Aces – a line that dominated the semi-pro Quebec Senior Hockey League.
In his book “Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey”, Cecil Harris offers up Hall of Fame referee Red Storey’s opinion on Carnegie.
“Herbie was the leader [of the Black Aces]. They couldn’t have gone anywhere without Herb,” Storey related to Harris. “He was good enough to play in the NHL. It was strictly color, not talent, that kept him out.”
Another example of Carnegie’s talent is detailed in a quote allegedly offered by Toronto boss (and original Rangers’ GM) Conn Smythe who supposedly said, “I will gladly give $10,000 to anyone who can turn Herb Carnegie white.”
It is unknown if Smythe really did utter that quote or a similar one where Smythe allegedly stated, “He said he’d take you tomorrow if he could turn you white.”
The Rangers appeared ready to follow a plan similar to the Dodgers by starting Carnegie off in the minors before bringing him up to the NHL. Unfortunately, Carnegie balked at this plan and Harris quotes a 1973 Toronto Sun article where Herb explains his reasoning.
“I missed the NHL by the stroke of a pen. 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. I was 29 (actually 28) at the time and I didn’t feel like playing there. For 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.”
The Rangers actually made three minor league offers with their final option being a $4,700 contract to play in New Haven. That offer was only $400 less than what Carnegie earned playing semi-pro hockey in Quebec. Harris noted that the NHL minimum was $5,000 so Herb could have been on par with his Quebec League salary had he made the NHL.
While one can understand why Carnegie would be slow to trust any NHL team given Smythe’s alleged statements, it is possible that he might have made the Rangers opening night roster anyway.
The Blueshirts top two centers were among four players injured in a car accident six days prior to the start of the season. With Buddy O’Connor and Edgar Laprade injured, Carnegie could have gotten his chance at the NHL sooner rather than later – a point Carnegie lamented some 50 years later.
“I have to take to my grave that lost opportunity,” Carnegie explained to Sherry Ross in a February 1998 Daily News article.
While the Rangers were unable to integrate the NHL in 1948, they were the first NHL team to sign a black player – Art Dorrington in 1950.
“A friend of mine in Nova Scotia got me a tryout with a team in New Milford, Conn., so I gave it a try,” Dorrington related to John McGourty of NHL.com in August 2008. “The Rangers asked me if I would like to play for the New York Rovers, their affiliate in the Eastern Hockey League. The team was on the road so I walked around New York City for a couple of days. I was getting homesick and bored and wanted to go back to Connecticut, so the Rangers told me to go play a week for the Atlantic City Sea Gulls and they’d take a look at me there. I did well in my tryout and the coach asked if I could finish the season there and I did.”
Unfortunately for Dorrington, his career was shattered in 1957 when he suffered a broken leg 11 games into his return to the EHL after missing a year due to military service. He made one final EHL comeback during in 1960, but retired for good after five games.
—- Anthony Mastantuoni