In the opening pages of “Black Ice,” a 12-year old Valmore James is teaching himself to ice skate after-hours in a darkened hockey arena. Meanwhile, his pet dog is making a game of emerging from the shadows, knocking James to the ice, and running away. James believes that if he could learn to skate while dodging a charging Doberman, he would be able to avoid getting hit when playing hockey.
But during his career, it was other hockey players who would try to avoid getting hit by James. In his autobiography, “Black Ice: The Val James Story,” we follow James, as he makes the unlikely journey as a young man, transplanted from Florida to New York, who learns how to play hockey as a teenager and becomes the first African American to skate in the NHL. We also learn about the endless racially-charged hatred that he had to endure because of the color of his skin.
“Black Ice,” co-authored by John Gallagher, takes us through every step of James’ hockey career — from the long-defunct New York Metropolitan Junior League, to Junior A in Quebec City, stops in various minor leagues, and eventually short stints with the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. At every level of play, James was recognized as a formidable enforcer. “He mastered his role better than any player in the AHL,” says Mike Keenan, who coached James for a season with the Rochester Americans. “No one was tougher.”
James’ pugilistic talents were honed by retaliating to the many racist taunts spewed by his opponents or the opposing team’s fans. As he explains early in his book: “It was really quite simple. If the other team won’t give you that respect, you had to take it…It was a lesson not found in any training manual.” James had several fights with players who went on to become NHL heavyweights, such as Marty McSorley and John Kordic, and usually bested them. According to James, a young Bob Probert refused to fight him in the minors; that certainly makes you wonder what kind of mark James would have left on the NHL if he was given a legitimate chance.
Usually loved by his hometown fans, James was equally hated on the road; partially because he was his team’s toughest player, but mainly because he was black. At one minor league game, spectators hung a toy monkey in a noose behind the penalty box. When James played with the Sabres against the Bruins in Boston, their team bus was attacked by a racist mob. Sadly, these are just a few examples of the many vile memories James shares.
While racism shaped his career in some ways and may have inhibited it in others, so much of James’ story is funny and upbeat. One great memory involves James and some of his junior teammates accidentally going to a gay bar, then trying to sneak out and get home without their coach discovering they broke curfew. Another time, James and his minor league teammates treated some visiting opponents to a locally-brewed beer that caused diarrhea when drank in large amounts. James also had some great momentts on the ice, too, but I won’t spoil those here. “Black Ice” does not read as a sad tale of “should haves,” but as a proud story of accomplishment; a story of a man who played pro hockey and enjoyed almost every moment of it.
Quote that epitomizes “Black Ice”: “It took little courage, and less brains, to bombard me with racial slurs from the safety of the bleachers. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to change their minds. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t be able to kick their asses either, as long as I wanted to keep playing hockey. And I wasn’t going to let them force me out of the game I loved. While my opponents knew very well that I was not one to turn the other cheek, I had no choice but to swallow the abuse hurled at me from their fans. To the haters, I was an easy target. My skin was dark. My hair was kinky. There was no mistaking me for a white guy with a tan. Big and black, I was the bogeyman to these cowardly racists. There was no one else in the building who looked like me, either on the ice or in the stands. As a black man in a white sport, I was all by myself.”
What I like about “Black Ice”: James delves right into his path to a hockey career, jumping back here and there to his early childhood, but really focusing on the hockey. Each stage of his career is covered usually in one or two chapters, moving his story along at a brisk pace.
What I don’t like about “Black Ice”: The book left me wanting more, but in a good way. James doesn’t really talk about his life post-career, or how he had to cope with transitioning from being a professional hockey player to life outside of hockey. Also, knowing that his NHL career was just 11 games, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad while reading this book. I constantly wondered what James would have been like in the NHL in the late 1980s and early 1990s if things went differently.
James may have been the first African American to play in the NHL, but that’s just a small part of his fascinating story. ■