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Val James, the NHL’s first Black player born in the United States, turns 66 years old Tuesday, 40 years after he first played professional hockey.
Joining the likes of Jackie Robinson in professional baseball, Val James was a pioneer, becoming the first Black American to play in a White-dominated professional sports league.
Drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1977 NHL Draft, James was revered for his checking abilities. After spending several seasons playing in the American Hockey League in the late 70’s, James’ big shot came when the Buffalo Sabres signed him in the summer of ‘81.
“I got my first shot to play with the Sabres,” Val James said in an NHL.com interview. “It’s all an adrenaline rush is what it is.”
Unlike Willie O’Ree, who was the first Black hockey player to break the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, but born in Canada, Val James was born in Florida and began playing hockey while his dad worked at an ice rink.
“I’d get on the ice, and I’d stay on the ice until like one or two in the morning,” James said. “And I did that for two years.”
Val James: First Black, American-born, NHL player turns 66
Fellow teammate Danny Gare recalled just how menacing James was and why other hockey players feared him.
“We had some tough games coming up during that stretch,” Gare said, “and I remember when [the coach] called him up and he came into the room, I forgot how big he was. He was a massive man.”
In a sport like hockey, where defenders are sought out for their size and checking ability, James’ talent was unmistakable, even with the obstacle of a color barrier.
“At the time I wasn’t thinking about being the first African American to play,” James said. “I was thinking about just getting a chance to play in the league.”
James played a total of 11 games in his NHL career before a shoulder injury forced his retirement in 1988. After retirement, James wrote Black Ice: The Val James Story where he discusses the untold stories of enduring and overcoming discrimination and becoming an inspiration for future generations.