Last night, I finished reading one of the best hockey books I’ve read in a very long time. If it weren’t for the fact I have a job, I would have likely finished this book in one evening. It was that good.
Remember Val James? You don’t? Let’s go back in time roughly thirty years. The NHL had twenty-one teams. Team USA had recently won the gold medal at Lake Placid. The Leafs sucked, but it wasn’t long ago when they played more than one Stanley Cup Playoff round in the spring. In Buffalo, one of the most feared fighters ever to lace on a pair of skates made his debut for the Sabres.
Valmore James, who was born in Ocala, Florida and grew up on Long Island, became the first black American hockey player to play in the NHL. He was brought up by the big club for one purpose – to deal with the Boston Bruins. Val took care of business, but it came at a high personal cost. Black Ice is his story.
The book doesn’t just tell how Val became the best fighter of his era. You also learn about the racism he dealt with along the way. The third chapter absolutely made me cry. Like Val, when I was in third grade I thought I was just like everyone else until a complete stranger – in my case, a kid my own age -- called me a racial slur. And then other kids joined in. When I got home from school, I remember crying to my parents and telling them, “I don’t want to be a Mexican!”
Strangely enough, Val and I share one thing in common. There are those who endure racist taunts, and then there’s the way Val and I handled things. It was refreshing to see I wasn’t the only one who didn’t take shit from anyone. You call either of us a racial slur, then you be prepared to, um, “back it up”.
For those of you who want to know what professional hockey was like in the late 70s to the mid-80s from a player’s point of view, you have to pick up this book. It is filled with stories from his time on Long Island, Canadian junior hockey, the EHL, AHL, and his brief stints in the NHL. For a preview, click on this link and enjoy the first two chapters.