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Hockey pioneer James reveals rough journey in book

by Jon Lane

NEW YORK -- One night during Val James' rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres in 1982, he was faced with a test of character.

The opening pages of James' new book, "Black Ice: The Val James Story," he explains how following a game against the Boston Bruins, the Sabres bus was blocked by angry fans who threw a beer bottle into the windshield and demanded James, then 25 years old, show his face.

James, who is black, headed to the front of the bus with the intent of confronting the mob before he was ordered back to his seat by coach Scotty Bowman.

"That would have been a stupid move on my part," James said Wednesday. "I have to thank Mr. Bowman for seeing through all my anger and rage. I wasn't really mad. I was more ashamed and upset that my own countrymen would do that to me after I made it to the pinnacle of hockey. I was very disappointed. I don't blame the whole city of Boston, just a certain few.

"In a situation like that, it takes a lot of discipline."

The incident was a small sampling of what James had to tolerate throughout his hockey career, part of a story explained in graphic detail in the book published by ECW Press and written by John Gallagher and James. It took close to 30 years for James to come to terms with enduring the daily indignities he faced. Once he did, he knew he had to educate the public by telling his story of what it felt like to put up with and eventually overcome unspeakable cruelty.

"Imagine every three seconds being called something, whether you're of any ethnic nationality, or even a woman," James said. "Every three seconds for 20 minutes a period, which would equate to about two and a half hours in real time, and multiply that by 40, which signifies 40 games of the year, and 10 years, the span that I played.

"That's a lot of names. If you take a woman and all the names you can call her and use the same formula ... then you kind of get a rough idea of how it makes you feel. People can relate to that because now they have something tangible in front of them that they can actually relate to."

A little more than a year ago, James asked his wife, Ina, to review the first draft of his autobiography. What shocked her were tales not once revealed during 25 years of marriage.

"I didn't feel it was the type of weight she needed to bear," Val said. "It was bad enough I had it."

Once at a tournament in Ann Arbor, Mich., a man repeatedly called James racial names during warm-ups, mental abuse that put his hockey career on the brink. James wanted to quit. His mother wanted him to quit. His father left the decision up to him, and after deep thought James decided to keep playing.

"It was something that I wanted," James said. "After getting a taste of the hockey bug, it bites you hard and you can't let go. I had to prove to myself that I was strong enough to take all of this, and I did. There were a few bumps in the road where maybe I let my emotions get the best of me, but I was able to have enough discipline to take hold of and control them when it did happen. For me to go up in the stands and do something to the fans, that means I'm out of control."

Selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the 16th round (No. 184) of the 1977 NHL Draft, James played 14 games in the NHL before retiring in 1988 because of a shoulder injury.

In that short stay, James created a legacy, because like Jackie Robinson he had the guts not to fight back, to swallow his pride and persevere to where he can share his stories with others and hopefully make a difference in their lives.

"I want the people to know that there's going to be times where you're going to want to do things, but you have to use your discipline," James said. "There's going to be times when you deal with people you have to let your integrity level come up. We have honesty and honor, that's also a part of that. With all of those intact and [hard work], you'll get your goals.

"But should you lose a couple of those, it's going to be a long road to get to where you're going. I hope everyone understands that and that's what I hope they get out of this book. Because that's what this book represents."

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