Sports

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

In "Black Ice" Val James shares his story as the first Black American to play professional hockey.
In “Black Ice” Val James shares his story as the first Black American to play professional hockey.

David Sommerstein, NPR

 
(NPR.com)—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.”

 

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