I had first heard of Val James in 1997 when I read Ross Brewitt’s book Sabres: 26 Seasons in Memorial Auditorium. There is an excerpt in the book where current Sabre at the time Randy Burridge was being interviewed about his memories of the old Aud. Burridge grew up in Fort Erie, Ontario which is just over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo. In fact, many former Buffalo Sabres during the 1970s and 80s lived in Fort Erie and made the commute over the bridge. In his memories of attending Sabres games as a youth in the early 80s, Burridge recalled memorable battles between the Sabres and the Boston Bruins, and after initially drawing a blank on the player’s name, was able to recall Sabres behemoth Val James being involved in those rough and tumble games in particular, especially during Buffalo’s 3-1 playoff series loss to the Bruins in 1982; Val James played in 3 of the 4 games against Boston.
In 1982, I was all of 2-years old so I had no recollection of Val James. But after reading Burridge’s memories of this imposing Sabres player I became quite interested in knowing more about him. During college with the Internet at my fingertips I did a Google search on James and was surprised to see that Val James is African-American, and was also in fact the very first U.S.-born black player in the National Hockey League. My interest piqued even more so, and my mind was blown as to why there was little to no information about the NHL’s first U.S.-born black player.
Years proceeded to go by. Somewhere during my mid-20s I purchased a DVD collection of Buffalo Sabres hockey fights throughout the team’s history. Most of the videos are on YouTube today, and you occasionally see Sabres fans sharing them on Facebook. I felt like I hit the jackpot when I found that included in the compilation was a rare gem of Val James squaring off with Bruin legend Terry O’Reilly. Finally getting a chance to see James in action, I also stumbled across Val’s scrap with another Bruin, Keith Crowder, while digging for more fight videos of James online. From watching these old videos of Val, you could easily see the power and strength that he possessed, and the wherewithal of being on the ice to protect his teammates. The footage also made you wonder how James didn’t last longer in the NHL, especially when he obviously was imposing and could hold his own with the game’s toughest.
Some great footage of Val James on the Sabres bench getting some work done on his face after taking a high-stick around the eye during the 1982 playoffs against the Boston Bruins:
Almost exactly a year ago, coinciding with Black History Month, Val James’ autobiography was released, Black Ice: The Val James Story. What a privilege to read this book! It wasn’t just video footage or vague recollections of him; this was Val’s own story, in his own words, and I was finally able to learn about his life. I have read a multitude of hockey biographies and autobiographies, but I have to say that Val James’ is one of the best!
In particular, I enjoyed reading Val’s memories of his 1982-83 American Hockey League season with the Rochester Americans; the farm team of the Buffalo Sabres. The Amerks won the Calder Cup trophy that season under the direction of coaching legend “Iron Mike” Keenan. Val’s teammates on that team including 4-time Stanley Cup champion Yvon Lambert, journeyman netminder Phil Myre, longtime NHLer Randy Cunneyworth, and other former NHL players Jim Wiemer, Gary McAdam, J.F. Sauve, and goaltenders Paul Harrison and Jacques Cloutier.
If you have not read Black Ice as of yet, I strongly encourage you to do so. Especially those of you who are like me and have always wanted to know more about the somewhat legendary Val James. I am also glad to see that since Val’s release of the book that he is actively involved and visible in Buffalo and Rochester with both the Sabres and Amerks alumni. You hear nothing but good things about Val and how he is such a nice person; beloved by fans, teammates, and the communities that he was a part of.