But the Buffalo Sabres and the NHL are changing James’ low-key approach Sunday by paying tribute to the 63-year-old retired forward on the 39th anniversary of his first NHL game for overcoming stark racism throughout his career and helping to pave the way for other Black players born in the United States to enter the League.
“I feel very humbled,” James said. “I’m very honored at the fact that they wanted to actually play it up a little bit more than they have in previous years. It also gives me a little bit more of a footprint in the sport of hockey as a person of color.”
The Sabres unveiled a video tribute to James on Sunday that features footage and photographs from his first NHL game, against the Philadelphia Flyers at War Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo. It is narrated by Sabres television analyst Brian Duff.
Buffalo will award 10 scholarships to the Sabres’ Learn to Play program in James’ honor to give kids their first opportunity to play hockey. The team will work with the Sabres’ S.C.O.R.E ball hockey program to identify potential scholarship candidates.
Team president and co-owner Kim Pegula sent congratulatory messages to James via social media, recognizing his historic contribution to hockey.
“On this day back in 1981, Val James advanced the sport of hockey in a very important way,” Pegula said. “He laced up his skates for the Sabres and became the first Black American to play in the National Hockey League. As we work to create greater opportunities for people of all backgrounds across all walks of life, we continue to be influenced by Val’s accomplishments. We are proud to have him as a member of the Buffalo Sabres family.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said when James donned a Sabres jersey 39 years ago “he did more than become an NHL player.
“He became the first Black American player in the NHL and a powerful role model for Black children in the United States to see themselves reflected in hockey,” Bettman said. “The NHL joins the Sabres in acknowledging Val’s historic achievement and his contributions to ensuring hockey is indeed for everyone.”
James had a brief NHL career. He played seven regular-season games and three more in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with Buffalo in 1981-82, and four regular-season games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986-87. However, his legacy is undeniable.
At least 15 U.S.-born Black players have played in the NHL since James’ debut. They include Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman Seth Jones, Sabres forward Kyle Okposo, former Winnipeg Jets defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, Minnesota Wild forward Jordan Greenway, who became the first Black player on a U.S. Olympic hockey team in 2018, and former Sabres forward Mike Grier, who was an assistant on the coaching staff of the New Jersey Devils last season.
There are more in the pipeline. Five Black players born in the United States — goalie Isaiah Saville and defensemen K’Andre Miller, Marshall Warren, Jayden Struble and Jordan Harris — were among the players of color selected in the 2018 and 2019 NHL Drafts.
“Val James once said that he never thought of himself as a trailblazer — but the entire hockey world should recognize that he is one,” said Kim Davis, NHL senior executive vice president, social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs.
James’ accomplishment wasn’t widely recognized when it happened in 1981. The Sabres defeated the Flyers 6-2 and the headlines from the game were the two goals scored by Buffalo left wing Tony McKegney, a Black Canadian player, the NHL regular-season debut of Flyers rookie goalie Pelle Lindbergh and a gruesome right ankle injury to Philadelphia defenseman Bob Dailey that effectively ended his career.
“I don’t think anyone actually thought about it,” James told NHL.com last year. “I never thought about it at the time either. I thought about it later, which was a great achievement for me in my own mind, but I think it kind of slipped under the radar.”
James was a late bloomer hockey-wise. He was born in Ocala, Florida, and didn’t put on a pair of skates until he was 13 and his father, Henry, was working at the Long Island Arena in Commack, New York — then the home of the minor league Long Island Ducks — as its operations manager
Three years later, James left home and played two seasons with Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The Detroit Red Wings selected him in the 16th round (No. 184) of the 1977 NHL Draft but never signed him.
James spent more than a decade in the minors playing for teams in the American Hockey League, Eastern Hockey League, Northeastern Hockey League and International Hockey League before a shoulder injury forced him to retire after the 1987-88 season.
He endured unimaginable levels of racism along the way, on and off the ice, especially at road games in Southern states. “CBS News Sunday Morning” captured a particularly disturbing scene during a game in Virginia in 1981 where most of the crowd chanted a racial epithet at James.
James said he persevered through the indignities because he wasn’t going to let anything or anyone deter him from his ultimate goal.
“I would say that it showed many people that you didn’t have to worry about who or what you were, that you could actually go out and pursue a sport,” he said. “Our race really didn’t have a foothold in the game when I was playing — and even to this day, we don’t really have a foothold. But at least now we have more individuals getting those chances to play. And, hey, now we’re getting people of color getting drafted in high rounds. That never would have happened 30-40 years ago.”
The Blue Jackets’ Jones became the highest Black U.S.-born player taken when he was selected by the Nashville Predators in the first round (No. 4) of the 2013 NHL Draft. Forward Quinton Byfield, who is Canadian, became the NHL’s highest-drafted Black player when the Los Angeles Kings chose him with the No. 2 pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Forward Auston Matthews, who is Mexican-American, made history four years earlier when the Maple Leafs chose him with the first pick of the 2016 NHL Draft.
James said he owes his career to allies like the late coach John Brophy and former NHL coach Mike Keenan, who believed in him and gave him opportunities to play. He said the highlight of his pro career came in 1983 when he scored the goal that gave Rochester — Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, then coached by Keenan — the Calder Cup championship.
“When you’re persevering through uncharted territory, there are going to be a lot of people that are going to come out to your aid to help you, and in my case that’s exactly what happened,” James said. “I appreciate all the help these people gave me because they took a hell of a chance coming out to help a Black person at that point in time.”
Photos courtesy: Bill Wippert/Buffalo Sabres