By Tom Talbot
One of my first autograph experiences came full circle at a recent minor league hockey game.
When I was 10 years old, my best friend’s father scored a couple of premium tickets to the Rochester Americans AHL game. We would usually go to a handful of games each season and end up in the stairwells between periods playing mini hockey with a souvenir stick and a tape ball for a puck. My favorite player then was Amerks tough guy, Val James. Back in the glory days of hockey, fighting was a lot more prevalent. There was usually an enforcer or “goon” on each team that would primarily be used when a little fisticuffs was needed.
James was different than these guys though – he had a different confidence about him. His other difference was noticeable, too – James was a black man in a white man’s game. In fact, he was the first American-born black man to play in the National Hockey League in 1982. No one wanted to fight James – he was the most feared enforcer in the league. He laced up the skates 252 times for the Amerks and racked up nearly 500 penalty minutes. He had all his teammates’ backs, which made the Amerks a confident, tough team to beat.
In the game that night, James was involved in an early first period beat-down and was tossed out of the game. It was usually James doing the majority of the giving and not a lot of receiving. My friend and I hustled down to the locker room, something they allowed you to do back then when the players were more accessible. Out comes this mountain of a man in a trench coat, a bit intimidating to 10-year-old boys. But as he leaned down and spoke with us, he was the most polite and gentle player I had ever met. Wasn’t this the guy that was just pounding some poor lug at center ice? He shook our hands and signed our sticks, and I was hooked on collecting autographs. If only every other sports star I would meet from that point on had the class of Val James. After our encounter, James went into the crowd and took a seat – also something that never happens today.
James would get promoted to the NHL and played a short number of games for the Buffalo Sabres and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He would go up and down between the AHL and NHL and ranks his 1983 Calder Cup championship year with Rochester as one of his highlights. After all, he scored the winning goal. He retired from hockey due to a shoulder injury in 1988 after only 14 NHL games.
Maybe I was just too young or maybe no one talked about it much, but the reason why James has stayed away from hockey so long is rooted in the racism he was subjected to over the years. From fans tossing bananas onto the ice and chucking beers at him to the relentless name calling on and off the ice, it took a toll on his spirit. In Buffalo one night, fans surrounded the team bus and demanded he get off the bus. Coach Scotty Bowman told a furious James to go back to his seat. This nonsense was still going on in the 1980s?
Thirty years have gone by and James seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth. He was never around for Amerks alumni events and no one seemed to ever hear from him. Then out of nowhere it was announced that James had written a book and wanted to get involved with hockey again. My first sports hero was going to be holding a book signing before a game. His book Black Ice: The Val James Story was available for purchase.
I was more excited for my twin sons to meet him, and we stood in line telling all the old stories. A guy behind me in line played with him in college and was his roommate. He hadn’t seen him in many years as well.
Well, James didn’t disappoint. He took his time shaking everyone’s hand and signing his full signature: Valmore James. Kind of ironic that a tough guy that made his living pummeling opponents on the ice was born on Valentine’s Day and subsequently named in honor of the holiday that symbolizes love. It was clear that James felt truly honored on this “Val James Day.” The line was held up because he took as much time as each fan wanted. I told him my story and he thanked me for bringing my boys to meet him and purchasing his book. I still have that old 1980s autographed stick somewhere – piled away with many other memories somewhere in my basement.
As I sat down to read the book, I was shocked to hear James’ first-person accounts of all the racism and hatred that surrounded him. But there was also all the great stories from his career. And the overwhelming positive response to the book. James was hurt by all the hatred, but he was not bitter, and he used this hurt to motivate him in his career. He said the folks from Rochester treated him as family, and he has always had a special place in his heart for the Rochester Amerks. I’ve always had a special place for my first autograph – and the gentle giant that put his pen to stick for a couple of wide-eyed 10-year-old boys.
Welcome back, Val.