Val James On Breaking the Colour Barrier for the Leafs

Looking back on the career and impact of one of hockey's trailblazers.

He might not be the most notable enforcer to ever don ‘28’ for the Leafs, but Val James holds a unique place in Maple Leafs’ lore nonetheless.

On November 24th, 1986, James stepped onto the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens (or as we know it today, Aisle 7: ‘Chips, Dips, and Salty Treats’) for his first game as a member of the Leafs. It was James’ second stint in the NHL, having broken through seven years earlier with the Sabres. James’ tenure with the Leafs would be short-lived, as he lasted only four games with the team, and put up no goals, no assists, and fourteen penalty minutes. Regardless of the stat line though, James made an impact, as thirty years after Willie O’Ree broke through the NHL’s colour barrier, James became the first African-American player to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The journey to that moment was far from easy for James. In his memoir ‘Black Ice’, James recounts the abhorrent racism he faced coming up through the game, from entire stadiums chanting racial epithets to fans tossing bananas on the ice, to (in typical Boston fashion) a mob of Bruins fans surrounding the team bus and tossing beer bottles at the windows, demanding James exit the bus and face them.

While hockey has made efforts to improve the accessibility and diversity of the game since James retired, the racist attacks he experienced have not been eradicated from today’s game. Just two weeks ago, Devante Smith-Pelly of the Capitals was subjected to racial taunts by Blackhawks fans (during ‘Hockey is for Everyone month no less), attacks eerily familiar to the ones James faced nearly thirty years ago.

- Advertisement - 

James now resides in Niagara, sandwiched between the two cities that gave him his shot in the NHL. We spoke to him about a pro hockey career that spanned fifteen seasons, the racism he faced in the game, and what it meant to finally have an African-American hockey player represent Team USA at the Olympics.

Grandstand Central: When you were coming up in hockey, who were some of your idols and heroes you looked up to?

Val James: I looked up to the Bobby Hulls, the Bobby Orrs, the Wayne Cashmans, Ted Lindsay, guys like that. Gordie Howe, because he was still playing at the time. It was a smaller league and you got to know the players a little more intimately back then.

Plus it feels like players are a lot more guarded now. Whether it’s the media training or team rules, players seem less willing to share or speak candidly.

VJ: Yeah you’re right. It’s a little bit of both. They grew up on camera and speaking into a microphone. They’re also schooled to represent the NHL a certain way and they’ve gone to great lengths to make that happen. That’s one of the changes in the game, as well as some of the rules. The game is a lot faster now and the athletes are incredible. These days, there are guys 6’4-6’5 that that can skate like the guys that were 5’10 in my time. It’s amazing to see.

Speaking of the way the game has changed, you were known as one of the most feared fighters of your era. I was actually watching your fight with John Kordic right before we hopped on this call. Are you sad to see enforcers (and to a degree, fighting) going extinct?

I’m not sad about that. I’m happy to see that the guys are actually able to handle themselves a little better now and everyone can protect themselves. In this kind of game, tempers are still going to flare up, so you have to be able to protect yourself at some point. As for taking fighting out of the game entirely, I think it would be bad because guys would retaliate more with sticks, knee-on-knee collisions, and dirty hits.

So if fighting were banned, the violence would still be there, it would just manifest itself in other ways?

Exactly. If you don’t have a way to release the pressure cooker, you’re going to have other problems develop.

Do you ever wish you had been born later, and arrived in hockey in a different era, let’s say in the 90’s or even in today’s game?

No, not really. Knowing what I’ve been able to do and what I’ve achieved is satisfying enough. It would have been nice to start the game earlier, at seven or eight years old — I was 13 when I got started. Having more time to develop would have been nice. But I was still able to get to a point where I made it up here to Canada to play in the junior system, as we didn’t have one in the states at that time.

What did you think about playing in Canada?

The talent level was much better. The players were more developed and more skilled at a younger age. That’s what we were striving to try and integrate into the American system. Now they have those systems for training players with that kind of promise, and they go on to play for the Olympic team or pro teams. That’s something that we didn’t have in our day. Now you can get good hockey training everywhere.

And the Leafs definitely benefited from that, with Auston Matthews hailing from Arizona and coming up through that system.

The proof is in the pudding. I was kind of shocked myself when I’m thinking ‘wow from Arizona’ and then I kind of looked around a bit and said, well, yeah, they do have the hockey development program down in those states.

Speaking of the Leafs, you broke the colour barrier for the team when you played for them in 1986. Despite the team’s recent embrace of its history, there hasn’t been much fanfare in your achievement. Have you spoken to anybody from the organization about recognizing this in a more formal way?

I haven’t, and I didn’t think they would be interested in something like that, otherwise, they would have already come up with it. So who knows. That may be something in the future. You can’t sell them short yet, or say they totally forgot, right? I am hoping that if the Leafs develop a program for the inner-city, like so many other NHL clubs are doing now, that once they get their program on the road, they would come and say ‘Would you be able to do something like this for the organization?’ But until that day, until they decide to, that’s neither here nor there. But you bring up a valid point. Like maybe a little nudging, and they’ll come around.

Jordan Greenway made history this year, as the first African American player to play for the US Men’s Hockey Team. What did it mean to you to see an African American player represent the United States at that level?

I think it’s great. It’s like finally, we’ve been able to develop a talent in the African American community that could make the American team and represents well. I’m very happy, and I send out all the best and want to congratulate him on his feat, because it couldn’t have been easy. A lot of competitors are out there trying for those spots.

February was ‘Hockey is for Everyone’ month in the NHL. In your opinion, what kind of barriers still exist for African American players in hockey?

Without a doubt, there are still there are a lot of kids out there that are young that don’t have the resources to actually pay for the equipment that’s needed to play the game. You still get to the point where you do get your base of children that do come to participate. But still, there’s so many that fall through the cracks and you can’t just go on and pick them all up off the street as they’re walking along — they have to want to participate and get away from some of the other things. That street life can seem enticing to them.

But the programs are doing what they’re engineered to do. They are tracking and they are exposing less fortunate individuals to the sport. From that group, you might one day see a Bobby Orr or Brad Park or Wayne Gretzky or a Sidney Crosby. They’re all there. It’s just a matter of developing them now and them having the heart to play the game, because you can’t teach that.

In your book Black Ice, you cite a number of incidents of racism directed at you while you were coming up in the game. Do you think hockey’s done enough to address the issue, or do you think that mentality still exists, and it’s just better hidden?

I think it’s been addressed well, but you know, like you said, it’s still hidden out there and we have come a long way since our days in the 80s, but we still have a long ways to go. It’s one of those things that you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t and someone’s gonna like it and a lot of people are going to hate it. So if you can, you try and satisfy the middle point. And once we’re able to move that middle point, so that people look at other people as individuals, instead of colours, we’ll be just fine.

You’ve talked about how you never saw yourself as a black hockey player until other people labeled you as such. How did you deal with that label and mentality?

It was one of those things, where a guy would be pointing at me from the stands and saying things. And finally, he just singled me out and came right down and pointed me right out as I was standing and taking shots on net during the warm-ups. So it was a little bit challenging to my psyche, I guess you could say. But bounce back and get back into it and keep going. If I let that stop me at that point I would never have gotten to where I got to and achieved the things that I did. I can say to the kids out there — it’s not just a race thing. There are all kinds of things that they can deter a kid from going on to be as good as they could be. It might be an ethnic thing, it could be a physical thing, or a mental thing, there’s always ways that children and even adults can find to break someone’s spirit where they don’t want to do something anymore.

And you’ve spoken about how you would try and turn those taunts from fans and use them to put a little bit more gusto into a check.

It would give me a little extra energy, a little extra charge you need sometimes to get your started. Some nights you get out there, and you just don’t have it and all of a sudden something happens, and you spark right back into it. Like they say, even if it’s a negative thing, try to take it and turn it around and use it to your advantage.

You’ve been away from the game for almost 30 years now. Do you still feel a connection with the NHL, and is being a hockey player still a core part of who you are?

I still feel that there’s something there. You never lose it, unless you just turn around and walk away completely and I haven’t done that so I do feel that I have a tie to it.

And you hear stories, 10-15 years later, from guys who made it, who watched you play. It’s always nice to think about the connections that you don’t see right away but come later on. It gets you charged up. I kept going forward and working, to get to where I wanted to go, and it’s a simple formula: determination, execution, perseverance, hard work, and heart.

Everyone listens to interviews, and think that we just mean those things are needed to make it in sports. But it’s for everyday life. If you’re a bricklayer, a carpenter, a millwright, an engineer, sure it’s a different world, but it’s all run pretty much the same way. You have to do the same things that get the success that you want out of them.

Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek
Dan Szczepanek is the founder and Editor in Chief of Grandstand Central, an outlet he helped launch in 2017 to look at the intersectionality of sports and world around it. He's a recovering ad-man, and former politics wonk.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


The Latest

cupping therapy

What is “cupping therapy” and does it actually work?

Cupping therapy came into the public eye when Olympian Michael Phelps was seen with circular bruise-type marks on his scapula (shoulder blade), neck, and shoulder. 

U.S. Women’s Soccer Wouldn’t Be Where it is Today without Jill Ellis

Jill Ellis has the most successful coaching career in all soccer history and after two consecutive World Cups, she's saying goodbye.
wendy hilliard gymnastics

Wendy Hilliard On Making Gymnastics Accessible

Plus, the meaning of life after sports.

The Rise of Major League Eating, America’s New Favorite Pastime

Major League Eating made competitive eating a successful, nation-wide sport and it all trails back to a hot dog eating contest from way back when.
Art Shamsky Amazin' Mets

Art Shamsky on Aging and the Amazin’ Mets

Plus, his thoughts on the Hall and missing out on the Big Red Machine.
The Saints Entertainment All-Stars

The Circus Surrounding Baseball in St. Paul

Don't be surprised if the Saints' Entertainment All-Stars steal the show at the 2019 American Association All-Star Game at CHS Field in St. Paul.