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Val James shares his stories on hockey and racism in new book 'Black Ice'

Val James was the first American-born black player

Val James was the first American-born black player in the NHL. Photo Credit: Handout

Val James understands he is no Jackie Robinson. His milestone as the first American-born black player in the NHL is a mere historical footnote compared to the man who broke baseball's color barrier a generation earlier.

But the contrast in their legacies is not the only difference in their stories, and that in itself tells a fascinating tale. See, unlike for Robinson, bravely showing restraint in the face of abuse from racists was not an option for James.

"A non-threatening image would hardly be an asset to a hockey enforcer; I could only be effective if I was feared," James writes in "Black Ice," a new autobiography co-written with John Gallagher and published by ECW Press.

"For me, turning the other cheek would mean a one-way ticket back to Long Island."

Wait . . . Long Island?

Yup, the NHL's first African-American - emphasis on "American" - was not from Minnesota or New England but rather Stony Brook and Hauppauge, and he never wore skates until he was a 13-year-old rink rat at Long Island Arena in Commack, where his father worked as operations manager.

It is a tale largely forgotten, other than by those with a fetish for old-time, minor-league hockey fights, of which James was a storied practitioner, or fans of teams in Erie and Rochester with long memories.

But by briefly making it to The Show with the Sabres in 1981-1982 (and later the Maple Leafs in 1986-87), he made history and achieved a dream - one that came at a steep cost.

It is no shock from a 21st-century vantage point to learn Robinson faced racism at every turn in 1947. But James' story takes place in the late 1970s and '80s, in rinks across North America, where things scarcely seemed to have improved since Robinson's day.

Partly that was a function of James' agitating role as an enforcer, partly because of his rarity as a black man playing a predominantly white sport. But none of it was excusable - certainly not by James.

On one hand, he universally was viewed as a gentlemanly combatant who honored the enforcers' code. On the other, he frequently took out his anger at how he was treated by fans and opponents through furious on-ice beatings.

Teammates tried to be sympathetic, but there was only so much they could do.

"There was no one else in the building that looked like me, either on the ice or in the stands," James writes. "As a black man in a white sport, I was all by myself."

While racism is the thread that binds the book, it is far from the only story to tell from James' raucous hockey life, which captures a minor-league era immortalized in the 1977 film, "Slap Shot." (Sure enough, James has some colorful memories of facing the notorious team from Johnstown, an inspiration for the movie.)

He also encounters a variety of important hockey characters along the way, from a very young Mike Bossy, to his early mentor, John Brophy, to the 1980 Soviet hockey team, to some of the most memorable fighters of his era.

A young coach named Mike Keenan trusted James as a player beyond his fighting ability, and he responded by scoring the Calder Cup-winning goal for Rochester of the AHL in 1983.

The mercurial Keenan, whom James admiringly calls "a maniac," and the front office promptly parted ways after the championship season. Sound familiar?

James turns 58 on Feb. 14. His first name -- Valmore -- was inspired by the holiday on which he was born.

He now lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario, but the book makes clear part of him always will be a Long Island kid who initially lived in a Stony Brook home without electricity or running water, and who learned to skate at a long-gone arena in a long-ago era in Long Island hockey.

Of all the places in James' travels, the one where he faced the least discrimination was the Suffolk County home he adopted after moving from Florida as a 3-year-old. He left at 16 to pursue his hockey dream in Canada.

In the book he laments the demise of the drafty old barn where it all began and the loss of a gathering place for his old hockey pals, now middle-aged and dispersed.

"We had come to the arena to learn to play hockey," he writes. "While there, we also learned the value of hard work, loyalty, and above all, friendship."

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