Wednesday, 8 June 2016

TBC: Black Ice

With the passing of the legendary Muhammad Ali this past week, it seems somewhat appropriate to discuss another African-American's struggle to gain respect in his chosen sport. Valmore Edwin James overcame a ton of obstacles to become the first American-born, African-American player in the NHL, but he was subjected all sorts of unfathomable hardship once he reached the pinnacle of his sport including racism and stereotyping. Teebz's Book Club is proud and honoured to have the opportunity to review Black Ice: The Val James Story, written by Valmore James and John Gallagher and published by ECW Press. I thought I knew Val James' story pretty well before reading the book, but it turned out that what I knew was barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mr. James' career.

Valmore James only played two seasons in the NHL, but James made waves as the first American-born, African-American player in the NHL and was the first player of African-American descent to wear the Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. Born in Ocala, Florida, he is eldest of seven children. His father, Henry James, moved the family north to Long Island where Val found a new love in the sport of ice hockey! He started as a youngster in the old Met League, eventually reaching the NHL for seven games with the Buffalo Sabres in 1981-82! While he was known for his pugilistic skills on the ice, he was a very capable hockey player who scored some big goals in some key moments in his career! Today, Val and his wife, Ina, live in Niagara Falls, Ontario with Val doing work for the NHL and his own speaking engagements.

John Gallagher is a former New York City police officer who turned his attention to the courtroom. He became assistant district attorney in New York City before moving to Washington, DC where he served as a White House Fellow. John and his family currently live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he works as a federal prosecutor.

Black Ice is a biographical account of Val James' career and how he got to play in 11 NHL games among the various highlights of his career. However, Black Ice is also a perspective on the abuse that James was forced to tolerate at the hands of players, fans, and management over his 14 seasons in pro hockey. For all the good that James accomplished, it seems that society was intent on holding him back mainly due to the color of his skin.

Henry James, Val's father, moved the James family north in search of better work opportunities, and he found it on Long Island at an arena where he would turn a general labor job into a full-time arena manager position. Henry would spend the majority of his days at the rink where he would drive the zamboni, fix arena structures and the ice, and still find time to coach a hockey team that would see the growing Val join! What seemed like a foreign idea at one point was now becoming Val James' top priority as he worked to improve his hockey skills!

Thanks to some key individuals with whom his father made friends, Val found himself moving to Canada where he played for the Midland Flyers in Ontario. Val found that the racism that occasionally was thrown at him on Long Island suddenly became much more rampant as he worked his way up the ladder of success in the hockey world. Fans and opposing players often taunted him with racial remarks which normally led to James getting angry and pummeling someone in retaliation. As word of his pugilistic skills made its way from team to team, the opposing players quickly learned not to set James off with their remarks!

After a successful run in the QMJHL with the Quebec City Remparts, Val James found himself drafted by the Detroit Red Wings 184th overall in the 1977 NHL Entry Draft! While his foray into his first NHL training camp didn't go so well, James landed in Sioux City, Iowa where he suited up for the USHL's Muskateers as a senior league team. From there, his road saw him travel to Mississauga, Erie with the EHL's Blades, and Buffalo where he took a shot at making the Sabres in 1981-82. While his coach, Scotty Bowman, didn't give him a shot out of training camp, James went to Rochester as Buffalo's AHL affiliate and really made a name for himself.

James never put up more than nine points in an AHL season, but the fans and his teammates loved him because he was intimidation on ice. Everyone knew of James' ability to fight, and he never refused a scrap if he felt that someone was taking liberties with one of his teammates or himself. However, the racial taunts still followed him in his career, and one such taunt while he was with the Sabres from fans in Boston required restraint that brought James to tears.
"As I sat on the bus, replaying the game in my mind, a loud crash snapped me back to reality. I looked up to see the front windshield had been splintered by a beer bottle. A crowd of Bruins fans gathered in front of the bus. They were obviously less impressed with my performance than I had been. They started shouting, 'Send out the nigger!' I stood up and started towards the front of the bus but Scotty told me to sit back down. I returned to my seat, trying to hide the tears that had started to flow from my eyes. My teammates looked away, pretending that they hadn't noticed me crying."
There are multiple examples of this kind of behaviour from fans and players alike in Black Ice, and I'm not sure that I would have the resolve to deal with it like James did. Granted, his fists usually did the talking and the lessons would be beaten into the heads of those that offended him, but he endured these taunts and insults for his entire career. It definitely took its toll on him, but this book exposes this period of time where these types of insults were commonplace.

Make no mistake that there was success on the ice for Val James that often endeared him to fans. Everyone loves an enforcer, and he certainly made sure that the skilled players on his various teams got the room they needed to score goals and win games. Val James won three EHL titles and the 1983 Calder Cup with the Rochester Americans, and both cities have honoured him and the teams that he had him employed. While some of the vitriol thrown his way was definitely fans and players trying to get in his head, it's disappointing to know that some of it was purely due to Val James being black.

I really enjoyed Mr. James' biography in Black Ice. It's an honest, stream-of-consciousness style of writing that captures the highs and lows in Mr. James' career, but it doesn't whitewash any of the ugliness of the era that he played in. Hockey was violent and ruthless in the EHL and AHL during his career, and the racism used against him was certainly more prevalent in society than it is today.

Black Ice is probably best-suited for a mature reader with some of the language used in the biography. However, because the stories are real in terms of one man's experiences, they come across powerfully. Val James' career and accomplishments should be celebrated due to all that he achieved considering he didn't start hockey until he was 13, but Black Ice is a stark reminder that his spirit and resolve in the face of rampant racism were as big as the heart in his chest. Because of this, Black Ice absolutely deserves the Teebz's Book Club Seal of Approval!

You can find Black Ice in most bookstores and libraries, and online at the ECW website! Pick up your copy of this powerful biography today!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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