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'No One Was Tougher': The Story of the NHL's First Black American

Val James was the first black American in the NHL. The story of what he went through to get there is heartbreaking.
Art by Nate James

"Hey, you, you're nothing but a fucking nigger."

The puck hadn't even dropped when Valmore "Val" James heard someone yell at him from the stands. He turned and looked.

"You nigger. Who told you it was okay for a nigger to play ice hockey?"

With those words, a white spectator ended James's excitement. He was just 14 years old, a kid playing on the Long Island Ducklings Bantam All-Star team—a kid finally getting a chance to play away games. The real kind. The ones with long road trips and shared rooms. It couldn't get any better for a night watchman's son who'd learned to skate only a year earlier.


And here James was, in the tournament final, visualizing the next play, when he heard those words. He couldn't get it out of his head. He couldn't fathom the insult—he hadn't done anything to the man, after all. "Why did he hate me?"

But he did know where that word came from, and what it represented.

"Every time someone heard that word they were either being shot at, they were being whipped, or they were being killed," he says now.

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Val James would go on to become the first black American in the National Hockey League, playing for the Buffalo Sabres in 1982. But he learned early on to accept that whatever he did, wherever he went, however he played, he would "always be a 'nigger'" to the jeering crowds. He recounts that journey, the shouts of "spook," "coon," and "jungle bunny," haunting him at every arena, in his soon-to-be released book, Black Ice, written with John Gallagher.

"Imagine the worst thing someone can call you," James, now 59, says from his Niagara Falls, Ontario home. "Then imagine that being said to you every three seconds. For 60 minutes of hockey. 40 games a year. Over a 10 year period. That's what it was like for me."

In 1960, when James was three, his parents moved to Long Island from Ocala, Florida, with the hope that their son wouldn't have to go through the racial discrimination they had experienced. "Florida was still the Deep South at that time. Jim Crow was alive, and well," he says. "You could never be treated like a real person there." His parents hoped that he wouldn't have to go through life thinking of himself as a "piece of property."


They set up a one-room home in a white neighborhood in Long Island. James soon had five other siblings, but the family had no electricity or water until he was 10. Eventually, his father, Henry James, went from picking crops and working odd jobs to becoming the night watchman of the Long Island Arena.

James spent some of the best days of his childhood in that arena. He had to do some hard labor—pushing the shovel behind his father's Zamboni between periods and helping him fix whatever needed fixing, but he had the best seats at every home game of the now defunct Long Island Ducks. He also had something almost no other black kid growing up in the '60s had—an ice rink to skate on.

James perfected skating during the midnight hours when the rink was empty, all the while trying to dodge Timber, the family doberman. He thought if he could conquer a hungry dog, he would be able to keep up with the toughest guys on the rink.

But none of that prepared him for what waited in the stands. A hard lesson learned not just by James, but his few predecessors as well.

In 1958, Willie O'Ree from New Brunswick, Canada, broke the color barrier in the NHL when he played for the Boston Bruins. He lasted only two seasons in the league before being pushed to the minors. O'Ree often said that fans shouted, "Go back to the South," and, "How come you're not picking cotton?" when he played.

O'Ree was gone from the NHL by 1961 and the league would go 13 years without a black player. Mike Marson, another Canadian, broke in with the Washington Capitals in 1974. Marson told Cecil Harris, the author of Breaking the Ice: The Black Experience in Professional Hockey, that he got sick of the "garbage" he had to deal with because of his race. Chants of "niggers go home," were fairly common even in the late '70s, Marson said. He would often get racist hate mail from hockey fans, one of which said: "you're skating on thin ice black boy. The nigger is going to die if it thinks it belongs in a white man's game"


Marson played five years with the Capitals, but his NHL career ended there. The Capitals, meanwhile, drafted Bill Riley, the third black player in the league's history, in 1974. They played him in just one game that year. Between 1958 and 1988, only 15 black players made it to the league. Most black players in the NHL had short careers and were ignored by the largely white media covering the game.

And that is largely why James's efforts stood out—not just because he was black, but he was an American in a Canadian sport. When he moved to Midland, a small town two hours north of Toronto, to try out for junior leagues, James figured he was the only black American in the town, and there was little he could do that would make people look past the stereotypes associated with black men from the U.S.

"I had a double whammy going," he said over the phone. "First I was an American playing a Canadian sport, which the Canadian people at the time didn't want us to play, and plus I was black."

Still, James was able to make friends on the Midland Flyers team of the Junior C league because of his attitude—namely, he'd take a bullet for his teammates. But it proved more difficult to get fans to like a black teenager. "We were supposed to be carrying guns, we were gangsters, drug dealers—we were all of the above for them. I had to convince the people around that I wasn't the stereotype," he says. Unfortunately, his best efforts would often find deaf ears.


It was while playing for the Quebec Remparts in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that he realized "in French, maybe the most beautiful language in the world, the word 'nigger' is still 'nigger.'"

"It's a hell of a thing when you have to wonder if you would have been better off if you had been called 'nigger' more often when you were growing up," he adds.

On his way to games, while his teammates on the bus would be mentally preparing to take the ice, James had to prepare for something else: the hatred that would inevitably be thrown at him due solely to the color of his skin.

Things didn't change when he moved back to the U.S. in 1978 to play in the Northeastern Hockey League for the Erie Blades. People waved bananas at him, threw chicken wings on the ice, mocked him with watermelons. At a game in Johnstown, James recalls that fans showed up with life-size posters of a "jungle looking character with a bone through his nose, hair all up, grass skirt on, and holding a spear in his arm."

He laments that there was no way to silence the crowd. But he did everything he could on the ice to silence his opponents. He came to be respected for his tough play, and even though James was an enforcer, his contemporaries recall him as someone who was fair, and played by a moral code. Erie Blades trainer Mike Caron said of James in his biography: "There were a lot of tough players in the league back then. A lot of heavyweights. Val James was the best of all the heavyweights in the league. No one was tougher."


A seven-game run with the Buffalo Sabres in the 1981-82 NHL season saw James prove Caron's point. The Sabres were playing against the Boston Bruins when he found himself facing down legendary enforcer Terry O'Reilly at the Boston Garden in 1982. O'Reilly was nicknamed Bloody O'Reilly for his dirty play, and getting the best of him in a fight was unheard of. James knocked him down twice.

But playing in the Boston Garden also led to the darkest moment of James's career. After the game was over, and the Sabres were ready to leave, an angry mob blocked their team bus. Scores of people were shouting, "Send out the nigger." Someone hurled a beer bottle at the bus, and the front windshield splintered. James had trained himself for almost a decade to not let things like this get to him, but he couldn't control his emotions that day. Tears streamed down his face.

James wouldn't play in the NHL again until the 1986-87 season, when famed coach John Brophy called him up to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He stepped on the ice for only four games. Towards the end of his contract, when James told general manager Gerry McNamara that he wanted to explore his talent beyond the enforcer position, James says this was the response he got: "If you even try to touch that fuckin' puck, I will bury you so deep in the minors no one will ever be able to find you again."

James writes in his book that he left much of his passion for hockey in McNamara's office that day.

However, the pall racism cast over his career hasn't changed his love for the game itself. Ask James if he'd be willing to go through the whole experience all over again—the taunts, the threats, the tears—and you'll get a simple answer.

"I'd do it again in a heartbeat."