BLACK HISTORY MONTH PROFILES OF COURAGE: VAL JAMES
Val James was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 16th round, 184th overall in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft after playing two seasons in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) for the Quebec Remparts. He never played in any regulation games for the Red Wings, but played several seasons, in the late 1970s, for the Erie Blades, in the Eastern Hockey League (EHL). James's propensity for using hip checks garnered notoriety in the Erie County Field House, home of the Blades.
Val James was a revered enforcer — during short stints for the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980s. He signed with the Buffalo Sabres on July 22, 1981, and made his NHL debut for the Sabres during the 1981–82 NHL season, playing seven games. James became the first Black American to play in the NHL when he debuted with the Sabres and was the first native-born Floridian to play in the NHL.
James was an unlikely hockey pro: He was born in Florida and grew up on Long Island, the son of a migrant farmer. He didn't lace up skates until he was 13. In 1983, while playing in the American Hockey League (AHL), under the direction of rookie coach Mike Keenan, James scored the winning goal for the Rochester Americans in the Calder Cup. James' next NHL stint came in the 1986–87 NHL season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, playing four games.
As an African-American, James often faced situations at all levels of his career where he was the victim of incidents of racial prejudice from opposing fans, and, sometimes, opposing players. James faced vicious racism from the youth leagues on up, and one despicable incident was captured at a minor league game in Virginia by a CBS film crew. Fans sitting with their families were yelling the most vile, racist slurs you can imagine and a 17-year-old kid with a watermelon proudly showed the camera Val James' name was written on it.
James says he retaliated the only way he could: He checked the opposing players harder and punched more viciously. But mostly he kept the pain inside.
James played half his career at Buffalo Sabres' minor league club, the Rochester Americans, or the Amerks, as they're known. He was beloved there, and he was the best fighter on the ice that the Amerks ever had. The packed arena would chant his name — 'Val! Val! Val!' — and they'd send him out and he'd fight.
James and his wife, Ina, dropped off the map after an injury forced him out of hockey. He did building maintenance and taught at a local hockey school in Niagara Falls, Ontario. She worked with people with disabilities. They rarely talked about his life in the pros.
"I couldn't watch hockey for about 10 years," he says. "And when I did come back to watching hockey I could only take 15 minutes of it, and then I'd have to turn it off. Because all the things would start again."
It took decades of soul searching to talk about it.
Fans would taunt him by throwing bananas on the ice and hung a monkey doll, in a noose, over the penalty box, says John Gallagher, who co-wrote James' new autobiography, Black Ice: The Val James Story. "I don't have any animosity towards the things that have happened, I just know that they happened, says James. When he was the only black man — not only on the ice, but in the entire arena — the strength and the courage that he had, it was remarkable. That's the lasting legacy of his story.
Perhaps, through the book and the message that's coming through, we can change a few minds and have people look at people as individuals instead of by the color of their skin.