Angela James had the aggressiveness of Mark Messier and the skill of Mike Bossy. She was that good. But from a young age, she had to fight to play.
As a novice hockey player, her mother threatened legal action if James could not play in a boys’ league.
She played peewee hockey with boys three to four years older than her, but only for one year before that league said no.
“I played one season, then all of a sudden the executive felt that girls shouldn’t play hockey,” James says.
One wonders if that decision was based on James winning the league’s scoring title.
James was born on Dec. 22, 1964 in Toronto to a white Canadian woman and a Black American man.
She was one of six children raised alone by their mother in relative poverty in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood of Toronto. Her mother made enormous sacrifices to ensure James could play in a nearby girls’ league.
By the time James was in high school, she was playing with players in their 20s.
When she was 16, James joined the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League. She played in the league from 1980 to 1998.
In 1998, James played with the Toronto Aeros, rebranded the Beatrice Aeros, who joined the newly formed National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
James scored 38 goals and 55 points and was named the league’s MVP. The Aeros won their first NWHL title in 1999-2000.
James also played three seasons of college hockey at Seneca College. She was a three-time Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) scoring leader and earned the nickname of the, “Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Hockey,” after she scored 50 goals and 73 points in 14 games.
James was named the OCAA women’s hockey MVP in all three seasons, was a two-time OCAA all-star and the OCAA’s all-time leading scorer.
She led Seneca College to two championships in 1983-84 and 1984-85.
James was also a star in international hockey. She played in the first women’s world championship in 1987 in North York, Ont.
In 1990 James led Canada to the gold medal at the inaugural International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Women’s Championship in Ottawa. She scored a record 11 goals in five games.
She also led the women’s team to gold medals in 1992, 1994, and 1997.
A major disappointment occurred when James was left off the women’s team for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. This was the first time women’s hockey would appear at the Olympics, and everyone expected James to make the team as she was Canada’s most prolific women’s scorer for over a decade.
James remembers the moment head coach Shannon Miller told her she was cut from the team.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I think you’re making a mistake.”
James did not watch a single minute of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament. Canada lost to the Americans in the gold medal final. Hockey fans and all Canadians must wonder, “What if?”
Despite that Olympic-sized disappointment, James played her final international tournament at the 1999 Three Nations’ Cup. Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in a shootout, and James scored one of the goals. It was her last international goal as she retired from international play after the game.
James retired from competitive hockey after the 1999-2000 season with the North York/Beatrice Aeros of the NWHL. That season she scored 22 goals and 44 points in 27 games.
Following her retirement, James received numerous honours and was recognized for her hockey excellence.
She was inducted into the Black Hockey and Sports Hall of Fame and the OCAA Hall of Fame in 2006.
In 2008, James was the first Black woman, and one of three women inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame.
Another first for women’s hockey occurred in 2009, when the Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) amended its by-laws to allow women into their hallowed halls.
James was one of two women elected to the HHOF and said, “I’m really honoured to represent the female hockey players from all over the world.”
James was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2009 and she remains the only Black player in history to captain Canada at the senior international level in women’s hockey.
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.
“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.”
SOURCES: THECANADIANENCYCLOPEDIA.CA, HOCKEYCANADA.CA, HHOF.COM, OCAA.COM, SPORTSNET.CA, THEUNDEFEATED.CO