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The Buffalo News Book Club for April: “Black Ice” by Val James

Valmore Curtis James was a Buffalo Sabre for a mere flash.

He played hockey here – just a handful of games – and also for the Toronto Maple Leafs, in Rochester, Erie, Pa., and other places.

But his presence and legacy in this city is significant for another reason.

Val James’ career as a professional hockey player – which ended at age 30 – marked the first time an American-born black man played in the NHL. It was also the first time someone born in Florida played for the league.

James spoke to The Buffalo News earlier this month, to mark the selection of his book – “Black Ice: The Val James Story” – as the April choice of The Buffalo News Book Club.

“Black Ice,” which James co-authored with Pennsylvania resident John Gallagher, was published two months ago by ECW Press.

“It was time,” said James, of the book. “I had already seen the other end. The pro life.”

“Now I had experienced life on the other side.”

James, born on Valentine’s Day in 1957, works at an Ontario business. “Black Ice” is the story of his life – from his early years in Florida, then learning to skate and play hockey, to his later pro days and after.

It covers his playing days in Buffalo, among other parts of his life.

Speaking of some of his teammates back then – guys like Lindy Ruff and Larry Playfair – James called them “great guys.”

In a passage in the book about James beginning his time as a Sabre, James and Gallagher write in “Black Ice”:

“Nick Polano had convinced Sabres GM and legendary Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman to sign me to the organization. Nick told Scotty that I could ably fill the role of peacemaker for the team, a role I had played for Nick in Erie. On Nick’s word alone, Scotty gave me a contract. The first day I took to the ice at the Sabres camp, Scotty ran up to Nick. ‘Hey Nick, did you know there’s a big black guy out there?’ Nick hadn’t thought to mention to Scotty that I was black. I was never one to exactly ‘blend in’ on a hockey rink anyway. So, you might say that I did manage to get noticed in my first camp with the Sabres.”

In the book, collaborated on with Gallagher, James had to make some hard choices upfront. One of them was to decide to include some tense scenes and some language that is raw, about the sort of experiences he had while a hockey player.

He did that so readers now can see what it was like for him then, James said. The first page in the book is an example: It’s a quick scene of the Sabres leaving a game against Boston, in 1982, and the derogatory treatment directed at James – including the use of a racial epithet against him.

“I want you to open the cover, read that section and be like, ‘Holy cow, that happened in the ’80s?” James said.

James was known in the hockey world as a tough guy who would get into fights and otherwise be an enforcer for his team. His book describes the hard work that went into his career – starting when he first learned to skate, around age 13.

Some of his attitudes and approach to life James chalks up to his parents. (“Honor is everything,” he said, at one point, while chatting with The News. “It doesn’t matter what you do.”)

His dad, Henry, who worked for many years at the Long Island Arena, was an example to James of strong work ethic and motivation. He put in long hours, and didn’t sleep much.

His mom, Pernella, “wasn’t a hockey fan,” he said. She didn’t attend many of his games. But, James said, his mother was an example in her own way. “She was the one who gave me the softer side of life,” he said.

James – a storyteller who recounts tales from his playing days with gusto – retired from hockey at 30 after an injury.

Some things about hockey have changed since he played. Others, James said, haven’t.

Today, he lives in Canada with his wife of more than 20 years, Ina.

He said that he looks back on Buffalo hockey fans with fondness.

“Buffalo fans – they support their team,” he said. “On the whole, the Buffalo fan is a very loyal fan.”

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The Buffalo News Book Club has a couple of copies of “Black Ice,” by Valmore James and John Gallagher, to send out to some readers of our Book Club stories.

Write to the Book Club and tell us why you would like a copy of “Black Ice.”

You can reach us at: bookclub@buffnews.com or by mail at The Buffalo News Book Club, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y., 14240.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com