Throughout Black History Month, Sportsnet will release weekly features examining sport’s connection to black communities in Canada and celebrating the lives and accomplishments of black athletes, coaches and executives.
Angela James needed just five games at the first-ever IIHF Women’s World Championship to announce herself to the world. She hit nearly every opponent in her path. She scored 11 times. She and her 13 points led Canada, clad in their pink-and-white jerseys, to a gold medal.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall was then a teenager, one of more than a million people who tuned in to watch the first-ever worlds on TV back in 1990. “She dominated,” the two-time Olympic gold medallist says of James, the woman she’d later call a teammate. “There was no one who could take over the game physically like Ang.
“She was, I think, the first superstar of women’s hockey.”
She was. And if she were playing today, James’s story would be well known, that of a black youngster who escaped a dangerous neighbourhood thanks to her other-worldly skill on the ice and a physical style we’ll never see again in a women’s game that no longer includes body-checking. But because she never played at the Olympics, on the biggest stage available to female hockey players, one of the most influential women to ever lace up a pair of skates was denied the full spotlight. It’s a shame—for James, and for fans of the game—because her story is unlike any we’ve heard about a hockey star. And there will never be another player like her.
James was raised in the predominantly white, low-income neighbourhood of Flemingdon Park in Toronto’s north end. Her mother, Donna, brought up six kids on her own. James and her siblings’ days were spent mostly outside playing, where “you had to watch your back a little bit,” she says. “There were a lot of people in unforgettable circumstances.” She rattles off a list that includes the suffering inflicted by drugs, addiction, suicide and rape.
James started playing street hockey at eight, and ice hockey in the local boys’ league at nine. That didn’t last long, though. “I played one season, then all of a sudden the executive felt that girls shouldn’t play hockey,” James says. Quite the coincidence: The decision came after James won the scoring title.
She continued to play in a nearby girls’ league, while struggling through school (she nearly dropped out in high school) and getting in her fair share of fights. One day in grade school James was swarmed and beaten up by a group of girls. She paid them back “my way, one at a time,” she remembers. (Which means? “Exactly what it sounds like,” she says now, laughing quietly at the memory.)
Some days she’d get in a fist fight on the walk to school and continue on to class. Some fights were the result of straightforward clashes between personalities, she says, but “some were racial, I think.”
By the time James was a teenager, Flemingdon Park was changing, with more black families moving into the neighbourhood. James could feel the tension, “but hockey was always my escape,” she says.
By then, James was known as a local hockey phenom. She was so dominant she played against 20-somethings at the senior level while she was in high school.
“I remember getting the snot literally knocked out of me,” James says. “Then, finally, I grew. It was like, ‘OK, revenge for all these years that you guys beat up on me.’ From that point it was my style. I didn’t know any other way to play. Hitting was part of the game and I loved it.”
James earned the nickname “The Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Hockey” after a college season at Seneca in which she registered 50 goals and 73 points in 14 games (more than a hat trick per game, on average), but Campbell-Pascall says James was closer to Gordie Howe in her style of play.
“She hit people to another country, you know what I mean?” Campbell-Pascall says. “She had that viciousness, yet she was so sweet and nice off the ice, similar to Gordie.”
Danièle Sauvageau, who coached Canada to its first-ever women’s hockey Olympic gold in 2002, was behind the bench in Quebec when James was in her prime.
“Every time she played here in Quebec [with her club team, the Toronto Aeros] it was like this tornado was showing up,” Sauvageau says. “She was physical, and she had the best shot in women’s hockey at the time. Scoring-wise she was a threat every time she stepped on the ice, and she was so intense. An amazing skater as well.”
Melody Davidson, who coached James at the national level in the mid-‘90s, recalls the first time she saw James play.
“This player stepped across the red line, let a shot go and scored,” Davidson recalls with a laugh. “It was a quick introduction. Angela was a player before her time in terms of her talent level.”
Campbell-Pascall calls James “the best ever” at single-handedly impacting the outcome of a game. At the 1994 world championships, the Americans were out to an early lead in the gold medal game. “Ang took over,” Campbell-Pascall says. “She got a hat trick, just like that.” Canada went on to win 6-3.
That was the third of four world championship gold medals James would win in her career. But her accolades extend well beyond that heap of gold: She remains the only black player in history to captain Canada at the senior international level. In 2008, she became the first black woman inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame (when president René Fasel called, James thought it was a friend playing a joke), and she was one of the first women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame two years after that. James was such a prolific scorer that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League named its top-scorer trophy the Angela James Bowl.
Still, despite all the fine play and recognition, James’s influence on this game was ultimately limited by a decision she says now defines her career. She was controversially cut from the 1998 Olympic team, and missed out on the debut of women’s hockey at the Winter Games. Though she didn’t know it, James, then 34, was suffering from Graves’ Disease, which diminished her strength and caused her to lose weight.
James remembers walking into a room to see the coaching staff, and head coach Shannon Miller telling her she’d been cut. “I was shocked,” she says.
“I think you’re making a mistake,” James told them. Then she walked out and packed her bags. She went home to Toronto and cried for days. She didn’t watch a single minute of the Olympic tournament. Canada lost to the Americans in the gold medal final.
“I believe to this day she should have made that team,” says Campbell-Pascall. “She was always a difference maker … I played defence, but I think she should have made the team over me. I thought that was a really big mistake.”
Campbell-Pascall says James’s absence from the Games cost the hockey world—and fans who didn’t get a chance to see James on that stage.
“People would have known her name,” she says. “Her story would have been told. That great story of AJ growing up in basically the projects. There’s no one I know in hockey who’s faced as much in their life as Ang and [accomplished] what they did. The adversity she faced throughout her life and her ability to excel—it’s incredible.”
James believes her legacy lies in the fact that she came back and made the national team again after getting cut ahead of the Olympics. Her final international tournament was a Three Nations’ Cup a year later, in 1999.
“I was able to play in four world championships and I’m very grateful for that,” she says. “I did everything I needed to do, and I didn’t leave anything on the table.
“I have no regrets.”
Fans who didn’t get a chance to see James at her best should, though.
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