I don’t remember seeing the Broad Street Bullies play. No Dave “The Hammer” Schultz. I don’t remember the wild days of the World Hockey Association. Bobby Hull losing his toupee in an on ice fight is only an anecdote, not a memory. Same with Mike Milbury beating a fan with a shoe. I was a kid in the 70s, but I remember Les Habs more than the Big Bad Bruins. SLAP SHOT is an amazingly funny and strange film, but it bears no relation to the hockey I remember watching as a kid. Even the roughneck Red Wings of the mid-80s with Bob Probert and Joey Kocur and Dennis Vial paled in comparison to that. And I don’t remember Valmore James playing for the Buffalo Sabres or the Toronto Maple Leafs. I was living in Los Angeles by the time he came up to the NHL, and hockey on television was sparse – and that’s just local Kings games. East Coast games were largely non-existent.
BLACK ICE: THE VAL JAMES STORY by Valmore James with an assist from John Gallagher is a neat encapsulation of the time, the 1970s minor league hockey world and the early 1980s NHL. But with a decidedly uniquely viewpoint. Val James was first US born African-American to play at the NHL level. Going back to Willie O’Ree in 1958, there had been a handful of Black Canadian players at the time of his call up to the Sabres, including contemporaries Grant Fuhr and Tony McKegney, but James truly was an innovator of his time, traveling to Canada as a teen to play junior hockey, billeting with Canadian families. Rare were any Americans doing that in the early-70s. His subsequent minor league hockey career does read like a distaff SLAP SHOT with carousing, pranking, on ice fighting and off ice antics, but with a more intimate flair. The famous and the forgotten of the hockey world get equal billing in the stories James shares. It’s an insider’s look at that particular time and place. A world gone now. One of bus trips and cramped locker rooms. Of fans climbing into the benches with the players.
The real meat of the book though is James unabashed recounting of the racism he consistently encountered through his career. From being relatively sheltered until his early teens in Long Island, New York where his dad was the manager/jack of all trades for the Long Island Arena to his foray at 16 into Canada and beyond – the vilification and racism he encounters is simply horrifying. A money doll with a noose around its neck in the penalty box. Watermelons thrown on the ice. Continued taunting. His first NHL game with the Buffalo Sabres marred by a post-game stoning of the team bus. These stories are very stark, and a reminder of how small, how petty, our world can be. Small town Pennsylvania and New England environs are easily magnified to the rest of the American experience. James is blunt and largely unsentimental in this journey, allowing the actions to speak for themselves.
James’ style works well in telling his story. It’s rather like sitting with James, having him there laughing, crying, telling his story. There’s not a lot of polish to his words. But there is heart. And there is honesty. Just as he doesn’t shy away from the brutality, he isn’t afraid to open up his own hurt, his own joy, his own anger, and yes, his own tears. He opens the book with weeping. Not your usual hockey stance. There are lapses, as there must be in a largely anecdotal biography such as this, into locker room humor and juvenile pranks, but those moments only humanize James more, round out his character. And he is a character, as interesting as any other of that period in hockey.
Be assured too – this is a hockey biography. An old-fashioned hockey biography. Of an old-fashioned hockey player. While not obviously relishing in the perceived role of goon that was placed on him over his career, and not considering himself one, James nonetheless espouses a very tradition bound version of ice hockey with a need for tough guys, and for fighting. He recounts a credo of fight for fight, of honor in the violence. It’s almost gladiatorial in concept. He goes out of his way to disparage the modern game with players hiding behind their helmets and not willing to fight after they have provoked. Skill tempered with physicality. He makes an interesting argument, talking about the space he created for the skilled players to actually score, to show the beauty of the game. But then regales us with tales of bench clearing brawls, concussions. Marc Tardif’s shattered skull. I don’t know the answer to that. It is an interesting argument that James makes however.
The biggest unmet desires I had for this book were largely outside the scope of James himself. I would have loved to see an annotation of his career. So many junior and minor league teams are mentioned. It’s the hockey historian in me I guess. I want to know what the goals scored in 1977 were, and the penalty minutes accrued. It would give another side to the story. He recounts how he was not a goal scorer, and yet there are goals that clinched championships, goals that sounded the ended of franchises. These stories are fascinating, but I would like some career context as well. The photo section is rather sparse as well. I’d love to see more of James in the 70s minor league uniforms. Images largely unseen nowadays. I do love that those in the book are in color, as the garish Orange of the Erie Blades shines through, but to see more of them, like some glorious Rochester Americans.
ECW Press out of Canada has done a fantastic job in packaging and presenting BLACK ICE: THE VAL JAMES STORY in hardcover. Out since February 2015, check it out at their website: http://www.ecwpress.com/books/black-ice
If you are a hockey fan. If you are a US history fan. This is one you should check out.