To see Angela James play hockey was to witness something incredible. Her powerful stride left all competitors behind, and her bone-rattling body checks — back when that was still part of the women’s game — awaited anyone who dared catch up with her. She was, as many can attest, women’s hockey’s first superstar.
James grew up in a rough neighbourhood of North Toronto and skated her way through gender and race barriers as a young black woman playing what was long thought of as a white man’s game. She made it all the way to the international stage, and never met a podium she didn’t top — winning four world championship gold medals and registering 22 goals and 34 points in 20 games over those four tournaments. She paved the way for so many young Canadian women to go on to play hockey on the Olympic stage, even though James herself never could.
Though she’s long retired from her playing days, James’s legend continues to grow with every young woman who laces up the skates. In 2010, she became the first woman inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame — an honour she shared with Team USA star Cammi Granato. Whether or not she knew it at the time, James paved the way for young women everywhere — especially young women of colour — who, in James, also saw their own place in the game.
Sarah Nurse discovered James a little bit later in life. James was retired by the time the Toronto Furies forward and Olympic silver medallist with Team Canada learned of her story, but that didn’t stop Nurse from learning from her. You can see James’s tenacity reflected in Nurse’s hard-driving, dynamic style of play. We spoke to Nurse about James’s legacy and impact on women’s hockey.
Sportsnet: When did you first hear about Angela James?
Sarah Nurse: When I was playing with the [Ontario Women’s Hockey Association], they have the Ontario Winter Games and they actually named the teams after former female hockey greats. Team James was one of the team names, so I did some research and found out who she was. I was kind of disappointed that I hadn’t heard about her before — I was probably about 15 years old at that point. Just being able to hear a little bit about her and get to know about her career at 15 was pretty cool.
Once you started to learn about her, what was it about Angela James’s story that really resonated with you?
She sounded like an absolute beast on the ice. She sounded like she could take over games when she decided to turn it on and she seemed like such a dominant force, and that’s something that I have wanted to do in my own hockey career. I think she was so ahead of her time. You know, if she would’ve come around 10 years later, five years later, I think she would be one of the greats that people talk about on a daily basis. You know, everybody talks about Cassie Campbell and Jayna Hefford, who are absolutely fantastic hockey players. Angela kind of came just before that time, and she should absolutely be mentioned with hockey players like that.
What did it mean to you to see a black woman excelling in the sport that you loved, and that you wanted to pursue?
It was amazing. Just hearing about her story and kind of seeing her as a figure that I got to look up to, to say, ‘She did all this when it was just beginning — when women’s hockey really had nothing.’ She was really one of the pioneers for our game, and I think it’s so special and I’m so happy that she’s been recognized with the Hockey Hall of Fame induction.
Canada is such a diverse country. Do you feel like Canada’s game is making strides to better reflect that diversity on the ice?
Hockey was a rich white man’s sport for the longest time, and I think that I definitely see a switch. I see so many kids with such diverse backgrounds from, really, all over the world getting into hockey and excelling, and I think that’s evident in different demographics in the NCAA. I went to the University of Wisconsin and I was kind of the first black female hockey player there and there had been a couple black men on the men’s team and there are also some females who have committed to going to Wisconsin who are bringing a lot of diversity. I think it’s great.
What does it mean to you to be able to now take on a role for younger kids, sort of like Angela did for you?
I just want to inspire kids and make sure they know that they can do whatever they set their minds to. Know that they’re not held down by any societal standards or anybody telling them, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’ I think for most of my career, I’ve been focused on proving people wrong — it’s been one thing I’ve taken great joy in, and it’s been a driving force. So I really encourage kids to have confidence in themselves to prove people wrong and if they want to do something — ‘Why not them?’ — they can absolutely do it.
James had to overcome so many barriers as a woman of colour playing hockey. Do you feel you’ve faced some of those same obstacles, whether related to race or gender?
There have definitely been moments where I kind of felt like the odd man out. I mean, people would see my dad walk into a rink and I know at the beginning, 15 years ago, a lot of people were like, ‘What are you doing here…?’ There have definitely been some comments along the way. I think for me — my mom’s white and my dad’s black, I’m a mixed-race child — I’ve seen different sides of things and I’ve heard different things. I’ve kind of been able to brush it off and I guess my parents kind of kept me sheltered from that because they didn’t want things like that to affect me. My dad has always said, ‘I will take things on — it’s not for you to worry about.’ My brothers definitely have had certain comments and taunts I guess, but as society’s changing I hope that the number of those incidents goes down and I definitely see that coming in the future.
James has been called the ‘Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Hockey’ in that she was perhaps the best to play. She’s also been compared to Gordie Howe because of the toughness and grit she played with. What do you think of those comparisons?
I agree. I definitely think that she was a player that had a skillset and a talent that was way ahead of its time. There probably aren’t a lot of videos going back of seeing her play, but definitely that big powerful force and that dominance that she was able to present on the ice, is something, really, of beauty. And it’s definitely something I wish was recognized more. And I wish that she had the opportunity to play at an Olympic Games, so she would’ve gotten the credit and the recognition she deserved.
If you had to sum it up, how would you describe her legacy in the sport?
I think she leaves a lasting legacy and a huge impact to players like me, who have had different hurdles and barriers and obstacles that we’ve had to overcome. She was kind of that first one that really had to do that, and I think she paved a lot of roads for the rest of us coming along. She definitely had a pretty decorated career, and definitely one that needs to be celebrated.