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Black History Month

Black History Month spotlight: James realizes dream with Sabres

Forward is first U.S.-born black player in NHL

by John Kreiser @jkreiser7713 / Managing Editor

As part of the NHL's celebration of Black History Month, will highlight great moments and important figures in black hockey history each day throughout February. Pioneers like Willie O'Ree, Angela James and Grant Fuhr will be featured.

Today we look at Val James, first United States-born black player in the NHL.

Val James got a late start in hockey. He was born in Ocala, Florida, and didn't wear skates until he was a 13-year-old rink rat at Long Island Arena in Commack, New York, where his father worked as operations manager.


[RELATED: Complete Black History Month coverage]


James left at 16 to pursue his hockey dreams, playing two seasons with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Detroit Red Wings selected him in the 16th round (No. 184) of the 1977 NHL Draft but never signed him. However, after three seasons with Erie in the Eastern Hockey League and Northeastern Hockey League, the Buffalo Sabres did.

After opening the 1981-82 season with Rochester of the American Hockey League, James became the first U.S.-born black player to play in an NHL game, against the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 1, 1981. It was a one-game cameo, but he earned another call-up, this one for six games, late in the season.

Then it was back to Rochester, where James scored the Calder Cup-winning goal for a team coached by Mike Keenan in 1983. In November 1986, he played his final four NHL games, becoming the first black player in the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Off the ice, James was gracious and affable. But when the puck dropped, he was the type of player who protected more skilled teammates and made everyone a little tougher.

"If you were just a smaller guy, you felt tougher because you had this guy to back you up," Randy Cunneyworth, his teammate in Buffalo and Rochester, told ESPN in 2015. "That's what a guy of that stature can do to enhance team toughness."

A shoulder injury ended James' hockey career in 1988, and he stayed away from the sport for a decade, the memories of some of the racial taunts he endured during his career too fresh in his mind. But he began to think more about everything he'd gone though, and in 2015, he told his story in the book "Black Ice: The Val James Story," detailing the daily indignities he faced and how he overcame them to realize his dream.

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