Hockey is a worldwide sport, but it really is a small world. I was attracted to Black Ice – The Val James Story as a lifelong Buffalo Sabres fan and I was amazed at the number of familiar names and people that James crossed paths with not only as a native of Western New York, but also having spent over a decade working in Erie, Pennsylvania where James played with the Erie Blades of the EHL.
Black Ice tells a story that is astonishing on so many levels; starting with the amazing fact that James embarked on a professional career just six years after first strapping on a pair of skates and the incredible journey that career took him on, coupled with his sheer determination to overcome the racial animus and taunts that he was subjected to both on the ice and off.
James toughness, grit and willingness to never back down from a fight won him a legion of fans and the respect of his peers. James and co-author John Gallagher do an amazing job of weaving personal recollections with running commentary from team mates, opponents, coaches and front office personnel and truly retain the subjects voice throughout. They manage to transport the reader back into the big barns and shed arenas that James the hockey player grew up in. While the movie Slapshot was an exaggerated version of life in the EHL, James’ story and the cast of characters that populate it show that the movie was far off the mark.
While nearly everyone is familiar with Jackie Robinson’s tale of breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball; very few are likely familiar with the unlikely story of a Florida born son of migrant workers who journeyed north with his family and ended up the first U.S. born, African American in the NHL. The Val James story is one that is truly long overdue in its telling. While Canadian born Willie O’Ree is credited as the first black player in the NHL, I think James’ story all the more incredible. His legacy and the trail he blazed deserve that acknowledgement.