Although ice hockey evolved from simple stick and ball games from the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, it was in Canada where the modern sport as we know it was developed. The first indoor hockey game was played in Montreal in 1875. By the 1880s, amateur hockey leagues began to pop up and professional hockey began around 1900.
Today it is Canada’s game and features an international cast of players as well as an impressive roster of Canadian players across the globe. Sadly however, hockey is not as ethnically diverse as its country of origin and as of the mid 2000s, the NHL had a mere 17 Black players. That’s surprising when you consider the lives and impact of two of the sport’s great pioneers, Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree.
Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto in 1919, the son of Jamaican parents, and began his hockey career in 1938 with the Toronto Young Rangers, a junior team on the OHL. Although offered a spot with the New York Ranger’s minor team, Carnegie found he was better paid sticking with Canada’s minor league system and finished his hockey career this side of the border. Upon his retirement in 1953, Carnegie founded the Future Aces Hockey School to develop respect, tolerance, diversity and sportsmanship amongst young people. By 1987 he had established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation to provide bursaries to youth to attend college and university.
For his work as a sportsman, philanthropist, mentor, and writer, Carnegie received numerous awards including both the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee Medals, the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.
Willie O’Ree also played a huge role in breaking down barriers for black hockey players, becoming the NHL’s first black player. Wille O’Ree played his first NHL game as a member of the Boston Bruins on January 18th 1958 making him the first black player in league history. The NHL now has more black players than ever before, with many giving back to the game of hockey and contributing to its expansion in communities all over the world.
O’Ree was often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” for breaking the black colour barrier, he also shared many of the tribulations of being the only person of colour in a predominately white sport. During his career, both at the NHL and minor leagues level, O’Ree dealt with racism with a positive outlook, ignoring the opinions of his naysayers and continuing to play the game he loved, leaving the critics to get over it.
Retired from hockey by the age of 43, O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and in 1988 was recruited to become the director of youth development in the diversity task force of the NHL. In 2010, Willie O’Ree received the Order of Canada, which is the highest civilian award available to a Canadian citizen, in honour of his work as a dedicated youth mentor in Canada and the US.