Val James

val james
First U.S.-born black player to play in the NHL, Val James shown here with the AHL Rochester Americans.

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!

black ice
Val’s autobiography, “Black Ice: The Val James Story”

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.

 

 

 

 

Eric Boulton: The True Last of His Kind

He has played all of one game this season. And for that one game, all of 8:28 in ice time. He is 39-years old, making him one of the oldest players in the NHL; truly ancient for a hockey player. With all the talk about John Scott being selected to the NHL All-Star Game, and as a captain no less, it bothers me that most have forgotten about Eric Boulton. If John Scott is believed to be a true enforcer, then he is also not the last true enforcer, nor is Scott the oldest or most experienced. That honor would go to Boulton.

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In his 20th season of professional hockey, New York Islanders forward/enforcer, Eric Boulton.

After Jaromir Jagr (43-years old), Patrik Elias (39-years old with an April birthday) and Dan Boyle (39-years old with a July birthday), Eric Boulton (born in August of 1976) is the fourth oldest player in the NHL for the 2015-16 season. Boulton began his professional career in 1996 with the Charlotte Checkers of the East Coast Hockey League, and during the 2000-01 season began his NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres. Eric Boulton’s mentor and linemate when he first broke into the NHL was legendary enforcer, Rob Ray, one of only a handful of players to record over 3,000 penalty-minutes in their careers.

As a native Buffalonian, I have fond memories of Boulton’s time in Buffalo. Boulton and Ray were teammates and linemates on an aggressive fourth line for parts of three seasons, which was often centered by Erik Rasmussen. I recall a toe-to-toe battle in particular that Boulton once had versus “The Russian Bear” Andrei Nazarov when Nazarov was with the Phoenix Coyotes.

Boulton’s NHL career would carry him onto stops in Atlanta with the since relocated Thrashers, in New Jersey with the Devils, and now currently in New York with the Islanders where he has played for the past three seasons prior to this current season. Boulton was actually a mainstay for the Atlanta Thrashers for 6-years, including that team’s one lone playoff run during the 2006-07 season.

Consider Boulton a goon if you would like. During his playing career, he has certainly fought all of those players whom, fairly or unfairly, have been deemed as goons at one time or another. Just name them: Nazarov, Tie Domi, Donald Brashear, P.J. Stock, Steve McKenna, Peter Worrell, Wade Belak, Eric Cairns, Georges Laraque, Jim Cummins, Brad May, Sandy McCarthy, Jim McKenzie, Scott Parker, Stephen Peat, Chris Neil, Milan Lucic, … need I go on? Most of those players have now gone onto greener pastures. Boulton is still here.

In 649 NHL games, Boulton has scored 31-goals and tallied 79-points total, while racking up 1,419 penalty-minutes total. He has played 20-years of professional hockey. I do not care what your standpoint on fighting is – you cannot knock an individual who has done their profession for 20-years.

While the true enforcer in today’s NHL is basically non-existent, one cannot argue Boulton’s longevity. And while the accolades may go to John Scott, likely due to his abnormally large size which makes him stand out rather than for his own longevity or skill (whether it be pugilistic skill or hockey skill), I believe Eric Boulton should receive some form of acknowledgement for his time playing the game of hockey in the best sports league in the world. Please do not forget him. This will likely be his last NHL season.

 

 

Highlighting an unsung hero: Jiri Hrdina

*Note: This is an article I wrote in November 2011 for my old blog, “Hockey Thoughts”. After watching 43-year old Czech hero and hockey legend, Jaromir Jagr, score his seven-hundred and thirty-sixth career regular season goal last night (1/5/16 against Buffalo), I felt inspired to re-post this entry on my new blog to share thoughts on a forgotten Czech and former teammate of Jagr’s, Jiri Hrdina.

Jiri Hrdina

Season after season goes by in the National Hockey League. As a decade or two passes, players that were once household names, at least casually, are often long forgotten when their playing days end and new favorites quickly take their place in the daily conversations of the hometown fans. Though most of these players are not within the Hall of Fame, may never have been on an All-Star team, nor do they hold any league or team records, their accomplishments during their careers may in fact hail them as unsung heroes. Players who made a difference with the way that they played hockey, but have been overshadowed by the game’s truly great players. Still, as unsung as they may be, they did make a difference.

Case in point is former Calgary Flame and Pittsburgh Penguin, Jiri Hrdina. During a time when only a handful of Czech-born players skated the NHL arenas of North-America, and certainly no Soviet-born players as of yet, Jiri Hrdina made his NHL debut at the age of 29 as one of the very few players in Western-hemisphere hockey to hail from the Eastern-bloc. This was still a short time before the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Dominik Hasek, Petr Nedved and a larger influx of players from Czechoslovakia (later to be separate countries of Czech Republic and Slovakia) would make their country a breeding ground for highly talented hockey superstars who would run rampant in the NHL on an ongoing basis. Jiri Hrdina would join the NHL and the Calgary Flames during the 1987-88 season.

Born in one of the World’s most beautiful and most remarkable cities, Prague in the former Czechoslovakia, Hrdina’s successes in the NHL in a relatively short career are remarkable in and of themselves. After debuting with the Flames for a mere nine games in ’87-’88, in which he scored 2-goals and added 5-assists for 7-points (along with 1-playoff game that year as well), Hrdina would only play in four full NHL seasons from 1988 through 1992. In three of those four seasons though, Hrdina would win Stanley Cup Championships. There is likely no other player in NHL history with a better percentage of championships compared to the number of seasons played. Yet there is little to no mention of Hrdina’s noteworthy accomplishment amongst hockey circles these days.

Hrdina was a very solid two-way player throughout his career. As a versatile centerman, Hrdina excelled in his own end of the ice and also contributed offensively against the opposition. Coming to the NHL at 29, Hrdina’s best years were likely spent while still playing in his homeland and playing on the international stage. While with Team Czechoslovakia in 1984, Hrdina helped lead his team to a Silver Medal at the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. Likewise, Hrdina medaled with Team Czechoslovakia on five separate occasions at the World Championships of hockey, winning gold in 1985, a silver in 1982 and 1983, and bronze medals in 1987 and 1990. By the time Hrdina made the jump to North-America he was already a very well accomplished and decorated hockey player.

Hrdina playing with Calgary Flames
Alumni during the Heritage Classic.

With his track record of Stanley Cup championships, Hrdina’s success with winning obviously continued throughout his career in the NHL. Hrdina’s finest season came during the Calgary Flames’ championship season of 1988-89. This would be Hrdina’s first full season in the NHL and he registered 22-goals, 32-assists for 54-points in 70-regular season games; a fine performance for a first full season in the league. Though Hrdina was certainly instrumental in bringing the Stanley Cup to Calgary, his contributions are much in the backdrop when considering that Hockey Hall of Fame players Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Al MacInnis, Joe Mullen and Joe Nieuwendyk were members in the forefront of that championship team, along with all-star players Theoren Fleury, Brad McCrimmon, Gary Roberts, Gary Suter, Mike Vernon, Hakan Loob and Rob Ramage. With so many big names and so much talent on one hockey club, it is not really surprising that Hrdina’s contributions to that championship team were overlooked.

The 1989-90 NHL season would be the one season in which Hrdina did not win a Stanley Cup in his NHL career. Statistically, it would be his second-best season though, notching 12-goals and 30-points in 64-regular season games. While this Calgary Flames team was mostly comprised of the same players and staff from their championship team of the season prior, they would fail to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions, losing in 6-games in the first-round of the playoffs to Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings.

The next and final two seasons of Hrdina’s career would bring him two more Stanley Cup championships, though this time with the Pittsburgh Penguins. In December 1990, Hrdina would be traded from Calgary to Pittsburgh for tough-guy defenseman Jim Kyte. Considering Hrdina’s skill and winning experience the deal was rather lopsided in more ways than one. In Pittsburgh Hrdina would find himself on the third or fourth line used mostly in a limited role, for like the Flames, the Penguins were laden with a vast array of talent including one of hockey’s greatest players ever Mario Lemieux, along with an additional mix of Hall-of-Famers, future Hall-of-Famers, and other all-star players like Jaromir Jagr, Kevin Stevens, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Mark Recchi, Paul Coffey, Larry Murphy and former Calgary teammate Joe Mullen.

Jiri Hrdina with the Pittsburgh Penguins –
brought in to tutor fellow countryman and
18-year old Jaromir Jagr.
Again, it is not any real wonder that Hrdina would be forgotten amongst a group of this calibre. However, at least one person would not forget Hrdina’s impact on the team, as fellow Czech and upcoming superstar Jaromir Jagr would greatly benefit from his fellow countryman’s guidance and tutelage during his rookie season in the NHL. At the time, Jagr was only 18-years old, and Hrdina, having lived in and played in North-America for a few seasons longer and being over 10-years Jagr’s senior, would prove to be quite instrumental for adjusting the young Czech superstar to the NHL-brand of hockey, life in North-America and adopting the English language. Hrdina and Jagr would be nicknamed the “Czechmates”and suffice it to say that at least some of Jagr’s outstanding success in hockey both globally and in the NHL can be attributed to Hrdina and the mentoring he provided during their two seasons in Pittsburgh together. The Penguins would go on to defeat the Minnesota North Stars in six-games of the Stanley Cup Finals that first season in Pittsburgh. Hrdina saw limited action in the Finals, only appearing in Game-3, but he played in 14 of Pittsburgh’s 24-playoff games that season, record 2-goals and 2-assists in that stretch. Jagr would play in all 24-playoff games, registering 3-goals and 10-assists.

The 1991-92 season would be Jiri Hrdina’s last in the NHL and would also see the Penguins repeat as Stanley Cup champions, this time defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight games. Hrdina would get his name enscribed on the Stanley Cup for the third and final time. He would also appear in all 21-games of the Penguins playoff run that season, picking up 2-assists along the way. Meanwhile, his “student” Jagr would become the youngest player in NHL history to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals at 20-years old, finishing the playoffs with 24-points in the 21-playoff games, and well on his way to super-stardom in the NHL. Hrdina would retire in 1992 after this last championship.

These days Hrdina busies himself as an amateur scout with the Dallas Stars. Though his playing days may be behind him, there are few players more celebrated as a champion than Jiri Hrdina. And while he was greatly “unsung” as a player perhaps mainly due to the fact that he was buried by a long list of some of the greatest players to ever play the game, who happened to be his teammates at the time, attention must be paid to the fact that he became a champion so frequently across such a short period of time. For his achievements and perennial championships, Jiri Hrdina should not be forgotten.