On This Day: Val James Became NHL’s First African-American Player

On Nov 1st, 1981, barriers were broken and new pathways formed as Val James became the first African-American to play in the NHL. The Buffalo Sabres played the Philadelphia Flyers on home ice, defeating them 6-2 in the early season matchup, and James wore twenty-nine as his number. Fast forward to the present, and the organization is making sure to recognize this accomplishment.

The Sabres will be hosting Val James night on Nov 6th when they face off against the Detroit Red Wings. It was overlooked and needed to be honored correctly to show the sacrifices he made to get to the highest level of hockey. It’s not about his impact on the ice; it’s about how he inspired thousands of future players from not backing down after racial confrontations.

His Journey To The NHL:

James wrote an autobiography titled “Black Ice: The Val James Story” on Feb 1st, 2015, detailing how difficult it was to become an NHL player. Not only was he the first African American player to skate in the NHL, but he also was the first black player of any nationality to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1987.

(via @BuffaloSabres on Twitter)

A common theme in his book is the sense of loneliness that he always felt, such as the racial slurs directed on road trips. His teammates always tried to support him, but as he said, “they couldn’t sympathize with what I was going through.” This moment of being recognized and not forgotten has been a long time coming for James and the NHL. The pain and suffering cannot be overlooked and acknowledged to learn and grow as a community.

Paving The Way For Future Generations

Racism is still prominent in the sporting landscape, but it is no longer silenced how it once was. There is still room to grow in terms of representation of the African American community in hockey, but the number is growing. Kyle Okposo is one of the examples leading in that category, as the current Sabre has dealt with discrimination in his entire life, not just his playing career. He took it upon himself on April 3rd, 2019, to welcome youth Hockey player Roshaun Brown-Hall, who was subjected to racial slurs, and helped him through that moment. He took it upon himself to help a younger player in need in the way that James never had.

Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres
Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

As well, P.K. Subban and his brother Malcolm exemplify in this conversation, as both have been quite outspoken on the topic of inclusivity in the sport. Looking at Scotiabank’s new commercial, “Hockey for all”, Subban finishes the video by saying, “Go back where we belong? This. This is where we belong?”

Wayne Simmonds has been subjected to racial taunts and gestures that have been pointed his way, but he never backed down from them. On Sept 22nd, 2011, a fan threw a banana onto him after the team lost in a shootout to the Red Wings, which sparked outrage amongst the hockey community. Simmonds used his power as a role model to call for change after the racist event in a Ukrainian Hockey League game. He also had this to say when it came to people of colour belonging in the sport.

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“To know that I got to play, and potentially have my children play hockey to face these types of incidents, I can see why people of colour don’t want to play hockey. I can see why parents are completely afraid to put their kids into the sport. I’m the same way as well. I’ve faced a lot of these things myself, and I don’t even know if I’d want my kids playing hockey to be quite honest.”

History was made 40 years ago, and James’ struggles and perseverance to represent in a sport predominated by white men has led to the game growing today.

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