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

Tuning people up was one of the things the player was most noted for. From the beginning, James was a feared on-ice enforcer, notable for the number of battles he engaged in with some of professional hockey’s toughest guys. As an Amerk, James took on an “up-and-comer” from the Baltimore Skipjacks named Marty McSorely. (“I must have popped him with a half-dozen shots right on the kisser,” James recalls in Black Ice, “and I didn’t catch one in return. It was really no contest.”)

cover_Black IceWhen he was called up to the Buffalo Sabres, it was for the express purpose of having him tangle with notorious Boston Bruins pugilist Terry O’Reilly. James remembers being a 14-year-old, watching O’Reilly cold-cock Brad Park of the New York Rangers and thinking, “When I see this guy on the ice, I’m going to fight him.”

Friendly and soft-spoken in a way that belies his fearsome reputation, James’s sense of confidence that he would eventually get the chance to square off against O’Reilly is palpable, and speaks to the inner drive and determination that allowed him to realize his ambition. “I wanted it so bad that I would have done anything to get it,” James says of his desire to play pro hockey. “There was nothing to deter me.”

Born in Ocala, Florida, and raised by an equally determined and passionate father in Long Island, James grew up with his eyes squarely on the prize of one day making it as a pro hockey player. He was assisted by his fists, and his willingness to use them. “The thing was that, in my case, it was something I was really good at, so I was pushed down that path. I didn’t go out to maim people, I didn’t go out to hurt people. But if you’re messing around with someone you shouldn’t be messing around with …”

James remains unabashedly pro-fighting in hockey, seeing it as a necessary means of defusing pent-up aggression on the part of testosterone-laden men who are in a position to do real damage in the absence of such an outlet. “You’ve gotta realize that guys are skating around with razor-sharp blades on their feet and they have a stick that you could club someone over the head with – you could kill someone with that stick if you really wanted to,” James says.

However, James was also remarkably adept at leaving the battles on the ice and maintaining a friendly camaraderie with his hockey antagonists in a more social setting. “If you’re pissed off with someone and you’re out having a beer, you’re not going to take it into a bar or a restaurant,” he says. “It’s like, okay, I’ll wait and I’ll be pissed off once more when we play that team. You kind of turn it off at that point and then once you see the team again you turn it back on and go for the gusto.”

Gusto is something that characterizes James’s attitude toward his hockey career, both on-ice and off, though his current incarnation as a civilian is typified by a streak of unbridled humility. “When you’re an athlete, you’re pampered, everything’s given to you, you’re living a pretty nice life,” James says. “I never once, when I did get away from hockey, told anyone that’s what I played. I wanted them to accept me for me, not because of some Maple Leafs emblem that’s hanging over my head.”

Still, while you can take the man out of the NHL, it’s harder to take the NHL out of the man. After a torn muscle in his shoulder derailed his sports career, James distanced himself from the game and the public sphere while he worked out his conflicted feelings about his legacy and the pervasive racism he had faced. These days, he seems able to embrace the sport with something resembling equanimity, and even gets noticeably enthusiastic when asked about the current state of affairs, such as what it might take for the Maple Leafs to win a Stanley Cup.

“From what I see right now,” James says, “they need one more good defenceman, they need one offensive defenceman, they need two more 30-goal scorers, and they probably need two really good power forwards to get in there and dig the pucks out.” One thing that categorically will not work for them, James says, is attempting to buy a championship by lavishing money on expensive players. “When they do buy players, they’re not buying the right ones. They’ve gotta start buying guys like Evander Kane or the kid from the Erie Otters, players of that magnitude, that have talent that’s over the top and just needs to be honed.”


February 24th, 2015

12:17 pm

Category: People

Tagged with: Val James