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Going for the gusto: Val James, author of Black Ice, reflects on a groundbreaking hockey career

When Val James walked out on the ice at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York, to participate in a ceremonial pre-game puck drop earlier this month, it was something of a homecoming for the one-time NHL enforcer. It was Friday, Feb. 13, the day before James’s 58th birthday, and he was back on the home ice of the Rochester Americans, the American Hockey League team he played left wing for between 1980 and 1985.

Val James credit Kwame Damon Mason

Val James (photo by Kwame Damon Mason)

“Oh, man, that was unbelievable,” says James about the reception he received on his return to his old stomping grounds. “Just wonderful.”

The hometown crowd had reason to cheer. In 1983, James scored the game-winning goal in the final round of the championship against the Maine Mariners, clinching the Calder Cup for the Amerks (as they are colloquially known) in a 4-0 series sweep.

But if James is remembered beyond the environs of upstate New York, it is likely for two things: the force of his fists, and his status as the first African American to play in the NHL, first in a handful of games with the Buffalo Sabres during the 1981–82 season, then a brief stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986–87. “I wanted to stay in the NHL a little longer,” James says now, with a note of wistfulness in his voice. “I asked to play, I should have asked to stay.”

However brief his tenure in the ranks of the NHL, James will live in history for his role in helping fracture the league’s colour barrier, an achievement that is all the more gratifying given the endemic racism he endured coming up through the minors and on into his moment of glory as a pro stickhandler. (Canadian Willie O’Ree was the first black player in the league, in 1958.)

James tells his story in Black Ice (co-written with John Gallagher), a new book from ECW Press that is garnering a fair bit of attention south of the border thanks to the former athlete’s remarkable life story and the trials he faced as an African American in a predominantly white game. The book opens with a vignette on the Buffalo Sabres’ bus following a 1982 game against the Boston Bruins. Despite his reputation as a feared on-ice brawler, James is reduced to tears of shame and anger as the result of a hurled beer bottle that accompanied vicious racist taunts from aggrieved Bruins fans.

The prejudice didn’t come exclusively from fans, though this was the source of the most virulent strain. James points out that racist attitudes and rhetoric found their way onto the ice as well. “When I came through, there were a lot of players who would say to me, ‘Why are you here? You’re supposed to be playing basketball or football,’” he says. “Then they’d go on a little later and get a bit stronger with their words, but since you’re standing on the ice, that’s not a very wise thing to do. I’ve tuned up quite a few people over that.”