Shut out, but still scoring

Herb Carnegie dreamed of becoming the Jackie Robinson of the NHL, but colour barriers wouldn’t come down until a few years after his playing days were done.

Herb Carnegie and Jean Beliveau may be the two classiest guys ever to don a hockey uniform. They were also friends for six decades, having met when Beliveau was a fresh-faced rookie with the Quebec Aces and Carnegie was at the end of a career that many felt should have included a real shot at the NHL.

Herb Carnegie and Jean Beliveau may be the two classiest guys ever to don hockey uniforms. They were also remained good friends for six decades, having met when Beliveau was a fresh-faced rookie with the Quebec Aces and Carnegie, one of Beliveau’s mentors, was at the end of a career that many felt should have included a real shot at the NHL.

This story first ran in The Globe and Mail on March 25, 2006. Herb Carnegie died in 2012, but I’ve posted the yarn here in December, 2014, at the request of a couple of people who read my posts about the now late Jean Beliveau, who also figures prominently in the tale.

By STEPHEN WICKENS
Imagine growing up hockey-crazed, making yourself plenty good enough for a shot at the big leagues, and then learning the NHL is off limits because your skin’s the wrong colour.

The average Canadian male would be crushed or incurably bitter. But for Herb Carnegie, who lived that scenario, the experience somehow became the motivation for more than a half-century of giving back to Toronto.

“There’s still a wound,” Mr. Carnegie said last week, at his kitchen table in the Donway Place seniors residence. But Mr. Carnegie — 86, widowed and blind — is in no hurry to speak of life’s injustices. He prefers to talk about the volunteers who have helped him provide scholarships for young people and about his Future Aces creed, which has been adopted by nearly 200 Ontario schools to help kids develop positive attitudes.

It’s for these accomplishments that he will be honoured Thursday at a 50th-anniversary Future Aces gala at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Next month, he will present 30 teens from five provinces with scholarships based on academics, need and commitment to their communities. In June, York University is awarding him an honorary doctorate to go with the Order of Canada membership he received in 2004.

“I’d loved the game since I was 7½,” he says after the discussion is steered back to hockey. “We’d play all day on ponds in Willowdale, then listen on the radio to Foster Hewitt and Hockey Night in Canada. I wanted to be a Maple Leaf.”

But that loyalty led only to heartbreak in the late 1930s, when he learned that Leafs owner Conn Smythe was telling people he would pay $10,000 “to anyone who could turn Carnegie white.”

Pigmentation might have ruled out the Leafs, but the smooth-skating centre wouldn’t drop his National Hockey League dream — even if his dad urged him to go to university, instead of “wasting time on a league that will never accept a black man.”

For a while, the younger Carnegie hoped to prove his dad wrong. He was a three-time team MVP in the Quebec Senior Hockey League, which sent Hall of Famers Jean Béliveau, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante to the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens. And colour barriers were falling in other sports — football (1946), baseball (1947) and basketball (1950).

“I followed Jackie Robinson closely,” Mr. Carnegie says of the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball. Before he made the Brooklyn Dodgers, Mr. Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, not far from Sherbrooke, Que., where Mr. Carnegie was playing hockey. It wasn’t long after Mr. Robinson’s breakthrough, Mr. Carnegie says, that “I got my invitation to the [1948 New York] Rangers training camp.”

That camp was the closest Mr. Carnegie would get to the NHL. By some accounts, he clearly belonged, but the Rangers offered only a minor-league spot — for which he would have to take a pay cut and uproot his family. In exchange, he would maybe get a shot the next season as a 30-year-old rookie. Instead, he returned to Quebec and didn’t even get a call when two of the Rangers’ centres were hurt in a car crash.

“No NHL team had the guts,” he says, making a comparison with baseball manager Branch Rickey, who gave Mr. Robinson his break.

Many who saw Mr. Carnegie play in his prime say he should have had a shot at the NHL, including Mr. Béliveau, a young Quebec Aces teammate during Mr. Carnegie’s final years.

“There were only six teams then, 120 jobs,” Mr. Béliveau says. “But 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.”

The NHL admitted its first black player, Willie O’Ree — who played for the Boston Bruins — in 1958. But by then Mr. Carnegie was four years into retirement from hockey, back in North York and well on his way to a new life, including his Future Aces (which he started as a hockey school before it evolved into a motivational program for young people), a successful 32-year career as a financial planner and two national seniors golf titles.

“Closing the door on hockey was hard,” says Mr. Carnegie, who credits his late wife, Audrey, with providing much-needed support.

“It was scary,” he remembers, suddenly finding himself in his mid-30s, a black man in WASP Toronto, with four kids and no career prospects.

“I had this feeling of being shut out. When I would hear about freedom and democracy, our great way of life and all this, I would say, ‘Don’t tell me that stuff! Show me!’ ”

But then Mr. Carnegie started coaching kids. “It was like therapy,” he says. “Their smiles, the support of their parents — it was fuel for my soul. I’d found my purpose in life, and it all built from there.”

Mr. Carnegie is not a religious man, though he thinks his spirit may have been nurtured in some way by attending a Baptist church as a child. He credits loving parents (immigrants from Jamaica in 1912) and his in-laws, the Redmons. He also speaks of “a great gift, a life lesson,” he took from a high school coach at what was then known as Northern Vocational School.

“His name was Bob Crosby, and it’s like I can still hear his voice,” Mr. Carnegie says, explaining that he and the coach had just heard a racial slur from the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens. “Bob leaned down and told me, ‘The way to answer that is to turn the red [goal] light on.’ ”

Mr. Carnegie wrote his Future Aces creed in part to help himself get past his post-hockey pain, but he soon realized that the idea of living according to words such as attitude, co-operation, education and sportsmanship was universally applicable. Today, if you go to the website [http://www.futureaces.org], you’ll find the creed in 15 languages, and according to Mr. Carnegie, “we’re working on more.”

Jim Colby, 61, who attended the first Future Aces hockey school at the old open-air Mitchell Field rink on McKee Avenue, sees himself as lucky in life. “But it was really lucky that I got to know Herb,” he says. “At the hockey school, I was 12 or so, and my self-image was pretty battered. But this guy thought I was fine — and I was a crappy hockey player.”

Mr. Colby, who went on to earn a PhD and become a language tester for the Department of National Defence, saw no evidence Mr. Carnegie felt hard done by. “Herb never lost his temper, even in what must have been his lowest times. He commanded respect, but we all loved him,” Mr. Colby says.

Jean Béliveau, considered one of the classiest men ever to play hockey, calls Mr. Carnegie a true hero. “As a human being, when you see all he’s done . . . even today, he’s still contributing. Every Canadian should know his story,” says the NHL legend, who will be part of a taped tribute at Thursday’s event.

Tonight, it will be like old times.

Mr. Carnegie will sit by the radio, listening to the Toronto-Montreal game. “I’ll cheer for the Leafs, of course,” he says. “Nobody with the present team was ever unfair to me.”

And would he trade all his accomplishments of the past 50 years for a chance to go back in time and play in the NHL?

“I’ve had people say, ‘Thank God you never made it, because you probably would never have done all these things.’ Well, that may be, but we can never be sure.

“I don’t know how to answer,” he says, voice cracking. “When it came to hockey, I wasn’t a coloured kid, I was just a Canadian boy dreaming of the NHL, like all the others. I wanted that so badly.”

Once and for all, is it Beach or Beaches?

beaches

A slightly abbreviated version of this story ran on Feb. 4, 2006, in The Globe and Mail. Singularists prevailed in the online poll weeks later, the new street signs were installed without protest and the Beaches BIA changed its name to The Beach BIA. Sandra Bussin was defeated as city councillor in 2010 and Glenn Cochrane died in June 2012. I was raised in the area but won’t have a firm opinion until I see better evidence.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s budgetary shortfall looks impossible, there’s no end in sight for gun violence or poverty, and no imminent start dates for long-discussed waterfront and transit proposals.

So maybe we should have known it was too good to be true when word leaked out of old Toronto’s east end last month that the seemingly interminable and sometimes nasty Beach vs. Beaches fight was finally over.NEVILLE.sign

“It’s going to be ‘the Beach’ — not ‘the Beaches,'” Neil Macdonald said with conviction on Monday about the wording of new street signs planned for the lampposts of Queen Street East between Lockwood Road and Neville Park Boulevard this summer.

“Personally, historically, I think it’s more accurate to call this ‘the Beaches,’ but this time we’re taking the path of least resistance,” said Mr. Macdonald, chairman of the Beaches Business Improvement Area. “The [Beach] singular crowd are the most militant, while the ones who call it ‘the Beaches’ don’t seem to care too much.”

Maybe Mr. Macdonald underestimated the passion of the pluralists — by Thursday, the BIA’s landmark decision was rescinded and the odds of peace in our time appeared as slim as ever. If anything, the war is in danger of serious escalation in the coming weeks as the BIA prepares its website for a little community consultation.

“Well, here we go again,” former CFTO-TV reporter and long-time Beacher Glenn Cochrane said with a loud laugh when told that Mr. Macdonald believes that the impending cyber-battle will provide “a definitive one or the other, a final choice” — maybe within a month.

As far as anyone can tell, Beach/Beaches hostilities go back at least 50 years, and in that time neither side has produced the arsenal of evidence needed to settle matters once and for all. Hard-line Beach types have long tolerated names such as the Beaches Lions and the Beaches Library (where it’s Beaches in stone on the 1916 branch building). They have also embraced the Beaches International Jazz Festival, and haven’t been overly vocal about the relatively recent naming of the political riding, Beaches-East York.

Street signs are something else.

Locals on both sides of the issue haven’t forgotten August 1985, when blue and white signs proclaiming “The Beaches” appeared between Hammersmith and Bellefair Avenues. Anger erupted within hours, but it took until October for the Beach faction to get the city to remove them.

“It was ugly,” said Gene Domagala, who was on the city’s historical board at the time. “I was called in by the mayor [Art Eggleton] along with both city councillors [the late-Dorothy Thomas and Tom Jakobek].

“The media got involved. There were hundreds of letters. A lot of people turned nasty,” Mr. Domagala remembered. “The old-timers said only outsiders and newcomers would ever say ‘the Beaches.’ They were livid that the Queen Street businessmen [who were behind the initiative] hadn’t consulted residents.”

Mr. Domagala, a fount of local historical knowledge, tends to say “the Beach” in casual conversation, but he doesn’t try to tell others what to say. He liked the decision that the BIA has now rescinded, but said, “We’ll never placate everyone.”

At the height of the battle in 1985, long-time resident Mary Campbell told a Toronto newspaper that even though many people say the Beaches, “It’s always been the Beach . . . This [the Beaches signs] only feeds the error.”

Ms. Campbell, whose views haven’t changed, is president of the local historical society. She says her parents, who came to the area before the 1920s, always said “the Beach.” Early in the week she was pleased upon learning the BIA plan: “The Beach” at the top of the new signs with a designation on the bottom of each for one of the area’s four beaches — Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine.

But she’s upset with the new BIA plan not because she’s against choice or consultation, but because she thinks a Web poll will be unfair.

animal“I don’t have Internet, and that’s probably true for other older people who know the truth,” Ms. Campbell said. “Maybe it’s time to organize and find out who else won’t take this lying down,” she said, adding that a possibly acceptable compromise would be Queen Street signs for the Balmy, Scarboro, Kew and Woodbine beaches that drop “the Beach” and “the Beaches” altogether.

Of course, the fact the area once had four distinct beaches is used by pluralists to argue that “the Beach” is an illogical term. They also say that “the Beaches” has a long history of common usage. Singularists counter that “the Beach” is just as logical because it has been one community since the four neighbourhoods merged.

And round it goes.

Mr. Cochrane doesn’t take sides, but he correctly predicted early in the week that the BIA would find it had foolishly jumped the gun by not consulting residents first.

“There could be a severe chastising this time too,” said Mr. Cochrane, who moved to the area 40 years ago and writes a column called Beach(es) Beat for a local weekly. He doesn’t think a similarly diplomatic use of parentheses would work on street signs.

He also sees danger in consultation because Beachers can’t agree on neighbourhood boundaries. “Will someone’s opinion count if they live north of Kingston Road? Real estate agents have long had a very flexible view of what they can sell as the Beach.”

There are two things that nearly everybody in the area can agree on: The older the Beacher the more likely he is to be a singularist, and that the views tend to be passed down through families. And an informal poll taken this week outside two neighbourhood institutions — the Garden Gate restaurant and the Beaches Library — showed both sides fairly evenly split. When asked which name they prefer, 24 residents said “the Beaches,” 19 said “the Beach,” while four were undecided and two abstained.

One of the abstainers noted that he has lived in the area since the 1930s and hates the Beach/Beaches debate because it always turns to pejorative talk about outsiders and newcomers. He said that in his youth, it was Catholic-hating Orange Lodge members who insisted on Beach rather than Beaches.

So perhaps a compromise is in order: Might alternating Beach and Beaches on every other post work?

beachNot in the opinion of the local city councillor, Sandra Bussin, who also refuses to state her preference. Ms. Bussin, who says she doesn’t believe a Beach/Beaches battle will become an election issue, said the citywide replacement program in the area is on hold until matters are settled.

Mr. Macdonald says it will now be fall at the earliest before new signs — however they are labelled — are up.

Meanwhile, some Beachers, like Hugh Cooper, just can’t take the debate seriously.

“The Beach? Wasn’t that Kramer’s cologne on Seinfeld?” he asks with a laugh. “It would be just like this neighbourhood to have it out again. It’s a great place to live, but it would be better if people took stuff like litter more seriously, or if they put their energy into helping seniors or Cubs and Brownies.”

The better way to honour Sam Sniderman and help the TTC

A Toronto museum is a great idea, but putting the iconic spinning-disc signs from Sam The Record Man’s flagship store in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life. Sam’s spirit should be surrounded by life and music, and in doing so we could take care of one of the TTC’s outstanding headaches.

samSam Sniderman was a music man, and one thing to know about music is that, unlike man, it has the potential for immortality.

I love the idea of a Toronto museum, but recent suggestions in the Star and Post that we hang Sam The Record Man’s homeless signs in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life — not just in the city he loved, but across Canada.

Gratuitously affixing the spinning discs to the Ryerson building rising on the site of Sam’s store would be nearly as bad, though it feels as if my alma mater deserves some such punishment for cheesing out in this affair.

samsign2But opportunity to do Sniderman proud, make someone some money and contribute mightily to the Yonge Street strip and the city beyond, lies just south, on the other side of Gould Street. The spirit of Sam and the signs in question deserve a space with music and life, a healthy mix of uses to keep things happening at all hours. The site of the old Empress Hotel is perfect on several levels.

Sadly, we’ll never have the Empress back. It was allowed to slide into disrepair during Yonge’s seediest days. It was then destabilized in 2010 and torched a year later.

I mostly recall the red-brick 1888 landmark as Music World, a latter-day Sam’s competitor. In the early 1980s, when I was a Ryerson student, there was also a dingy second-floor burger joint with uneven floors. The baskets of fries were huge and filling. I loved them drenched in vinegar, with beer on the side.

MUSICBut having grown up in Toronto, I somehow knew the place had been Edison Hotel in the ’60s. I was aware of the former buzz — maybe from radio ads of my boyhood, maybe from osmosis, or maybe from co-workers old enough to legitimately spin tales of the great nights on Yonge. They’d seen the Hawks (later The Band), the Ugly Ducklings, the Mandala, Sparrow (pre-Steppenwolf) and the Mynah Birds; they’d frequented the Le Coq d’Or, The Embassy, The Colonial and The Hawk’s Nest.

The tales made me feel I’d been born too late.

Sam was an essential part of that Yonge Street — and Yorkville and much more. Most of the big names from the second half of the 20th century owe much to the efforts he made, especially in the years before CanCon legislation (though he was also instrumental in getting Ottawa to ensure Canadian broadcasters played Canadian music). He was much more than a retailer with charisma and a catchy sign, he helped get Canadian talent onto  the world stage.

According to longtime Maclean’s music critic Nick Jennings, author of a great 1997 book called Before The Gold Rush, Sniderman “built a reputation as the greatest promoter of domestic talent that Canadian music ever had.” 

Veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc lists the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, Triumph, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Raffil, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Liona Boyd, Loreena McKennitt, Sloan, Barenaked Ladies and many others as artists indebted to Sniderman.

Not every music fan closed the deal at Sam’s. I often went home with a yellow bag from A&A’s, two doors up the street (only Steele’s Tavern separated the rivals). But every trip to that part of downtown included a visit Sam’s, and we’d often see Sam in person.

Recent commercial property transactions and current condo developments mean big changes and a lot more life are coming to Yonge. I kind of sense a new golden age in the works. With luck, it will bring enough life to support some good new club-style live-music venues. The place to start is at the fenced-off Empress/Edison site, now being used as a staging ground for the Ryerson construction.

As an urbanist, I don’t much care specifically what goes on the upper floors there, though it should be a primary use other than residential. That’s because the lower floors need a big space for bands, dancing and the Sam’s signs, spinning for people who will appreciate them and their Yonge Street context.

But wait, if we exercise a little foresight, we can turn the basement and part of the ground floor of this building into part of the long-overdue north entrance to Dundas Station, which somehow slipped behind Castle Frank and Donlands in the TTC’s controversial and conceptually challenged second-exits program.

Done properly — in conjunction with a larger development — a second entrance for Dundas can be accomplished at a very favourable price (and, of course, Dundas was an essential stepping-off point for so many of Sam’s customers). Ryerson and the TTC had been in talks to work the north entrance into the Student Learning Centre that’s under construction, but we’re told that talks fell apart.

If the Empress site has to be expropriated, so be it. The public badly needs it to bring the sixth busiest TTC station up to the most basic standards of fire safety, not to mention allowing it to connect better with a rapidly growing university. And it’s not as if we were shy about expropriation tactics at sleepy Greenwood and Donlands a few years back.

Maybe, if necessary, we can have Build Toronto carry the public interest from there. Maybe BT can work in conjunction the current owner, Lalani Group, to ensure a solid economic case and an attractive and appropriate structure rises above the musicians and revellers and TTC customers — and that Sam’s sign.

Call the club Sam’s if you like. Maybe it can be a showcase for both long-respected and up-and-coming Canadian bands. Maybe Robbie Robertson could be the host on opening night, with specials guests of his choosing (as long as I get a ticket).

Of course, it won’t all pan out this way, but this type of blue-sky discussion is needed for many obvious reasons.

The only way I can support putting the signs in the same building as a museum, is if that Toronto museum is part of the upstairs space.

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