As First Black American NHL Player, Enforcer Was Defenseless Against Racism

Feb 26, 2015
Originally published on February 27, 2015 10:03 am

The first black American hockey player in NHL history is telling his story almost 30 years after he retired.

Val James was a revered and feared fighter — known in hockey as an enforcer — during short stints for the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980s. But he was defenseless to the racist taunts and slurs that showered down on him from opposing teams' fans.

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."

The "things" were harrowing memories of being one of the only black men in what was still considered by many at the time to be a white man's game.

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.

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. Yet he became the first U.S.-born African-American to reach the NHL — preceded by several black Canadians — in 1982 when the Buffalo Sabres called him up for seven games.

James faced vicious racism from the youth leagues on up, Gallaguer says. In the book, they describe footage a CBS news crew captured at a minor league game in Virginia.

"You had individual fans sitting with their families yelling the most vile, racist slurs you can imagine," Gallagher says. "You had a 16, 17-year-old kid with a watermelon, and he was proudly showing it to the camera, and the watermelon had Val James' name 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.

It took decades of soul searching to talk about it, James says. And now he's enjoying a recognition his fans say is long overdue.

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, says longtime season ticket holder Rachel Konz.

"He was the best fighter on the ice that the Amerks ever had," says Konz. "We'd chant his name — 'Val! Val! Val!' — and they'd send him out and he'd fight. Awesome."

James says writing his book has been therapeutic, and its message is simple.

"I don't have any animosity towards the things that have happened, I just know that they happened," he says. "And 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."

Despite stars like P.K. Subban and Evander Kane, ice hockey remains a stubbornly white sport. Only about 5 percent of NHL players are black, years after James played. Gallagher says James' story can inspire another generation.

"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's remarkable," he says. "I think that's the lasting legacy of his story."

There's another reason Val James is such a fan favorite here in Rochester. In 1983, the enforcer, the guy who's supposed to muscle space for other players, scored the winning goal for the league championship.

James says he can now reclaim the joy of that goal, and of a sport he loves.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The first black American hockey player in NHL history is telling his story almost 30 years after he retired. Val James played short stints with the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1980s. He was a revered and feared fighter, known in hockey as an enforcer. But he was defenseless to the racist taunts and slurs that came at him while he played. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN, BYLINE: This story starts at the end of a career, after an injury forced Val James out of hockey in 1987. He and his wife Ina dropped off the map. They built a private life in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He did building maintenance and taught at a local hockey school. She worked with people with disabilities. And they rarely talked about his life in the pros.

VAL JAMES: Like, I couldn't watch hockey for about 10 years. 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 then all the things would start again.

SOMMERSTEIN: Those things were harrowing memories of being one of the only black men in what was still considered by many at the time to be a white man's game.

JOHN GALLAGHER: The throwing of bananas on the ice, the monkey doll in a noose being hung over the penalty box.

SOMMERSTEIN: John Gallagher co-wrote James's new autobiography, "Black Ice: The Val James Story." James was an unlikely hockey pro. He was born in Florida. He grew up on Long Island, the son of a migrant farmer. He didn't lace up skates until he was 13. Yet, he became the first U.S.-born African-American to reach the NHL in 1982, when the Buffalo Sabres called him up for seven games. From youth leagues on up, Gallagher says, James faced vicious racism. In the book, they describe footage as CBS News crew captured at a minor league game in Virginia.

GALLAGHER: You had individual fans sitting with their families, yelling the most vile, racist slurs you can imagine. You had a 16, 17-year-old kid with a watermelon and he was proudly showing it to the camera, and the watermelon had Val James's name on it.

SOMMERSTEIN: James says he retaliated the only way he could - he checked the opposing players harder. He punched more viciously. But mostly, he kept the pain inside. It took decades of soul-searching to talk about it, James says. And now he's enjoying a recognition his fans say is long overdue.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome back, Mr. James.

JAMES: Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Welcome back. Good to see you again.

JAMES: It's good to be back.

SOMMERSTEIN: Hundreds of people wait in line for an autograph on Val James Night at a recent home game of the Rochester Americans. The Amerks as they're known, are the Buffalo Sabres' minor league club. James played half his career here and he was beloved, says long-time season ticket holder Rachel Konz.

RACHEL KONZ: He was the best fighter on the ice that the Amerks ever had. We'd chant his name - Val, Val, Val - and they'd send him out and he'd fight - awesome.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Please welcome to the ice former Rochester Americans forward, Val James, for tonight's ceremonial face-off.

(APPLAUSE)

SOMMERSTEIN: After dropping the first puck, James gathers himself in a private room, a huge, slightly dazed smile on his face.

JAMES: This is incredible. This is - all the fans are wonderful. It's like - I can't believe it. I'm kind of overwhelmed, but not really. You know? I guess I should just soak it up, like a nice thick piece of bread, eh? (Laughter).

SOMMERSTEIN: James says writing his book has been therapeutic, and its message is simple.

JAMES: I don't have any animosity towards the things that happened, I just know that they happened. And 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.

SOMMERSTEIN: Despite stars like P.K. Subban and Evander Kane, hockey remains a stubbornly white sport. Twenty-eight years after Val James, only about 5 percent of NHL players are black. Co-author John Gallagher says James' story can inspire another generation.

GALLAGHER: 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's remarkable. I think that's the lasting legacy of his story.

SOMMERSTEIN: There's another reason Val James is such a fan favorite here in Rochester. In 1983, the enforcer - the guy who supposed to muscle space for other players - he scored the winning goal for the league championship. James says he can now reclaim the joy of that goal and of a sport he loves. For NPR News I'm David Sommerstein. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.