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Val James not bitter about abuse

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Val James Honored By Amerks (2:25)

Katie Strang speaks with Val James, the first African-American to play for the AHL Rochester Americans and the first U.S.-born black player to skate in the NHL, about returning to Rochester to be honored. (2:25)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- After Val James was forced into an unceremonious retirement by a shoulder injury sustained in a game playing for the Baltimore Skipjacks more than 27 years ago, he chose to leave the game entirely.

Wounds needed tending.

It was not just his ailing shoulder, or his hands, which famously delivered so much swift and exacting punishment during his career as an enforcer. It was the scarring that remained from the sort of daily debasement that most cannot even begin to fathom.

Imagine hearing the worst insult someone could conceive about you. Now imagine hearing it every three seconds, from a crowd full of strangers, 40 times a season.

From 1978-79 to 1987-88, James played in the minors, with a couple of choice call-ups to the NHL -- first with the Buffalo Sabres and then the Toronto Maple Leafs, putting up 30 PIMs and zero points in a total of 11 games -- and the racially charged slurs he heard in opposing rinks never became any less painful. Each time he was singled out by some ignorant fan or rock-headed opponent, it was a reminder of the hatred still lurking.

Each one was a painful barb that latched on and festered.

After he retired, James couldn't watch hockey for 10 years. He told his wife, Ina, whom he has been married to for 27 years, about none of it. It hurt too much, and he didn't want to recall the times he had felt diminished, humiliated and alienated by the nastiness of others.

On Friday night at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, N.Y., he heard none of that.

"Val James Night" was a subtle affair, nothing like the pomp and circumstance of a 1,000th-game ceremony or lavish retirement. James was accompanied by Ina and longtime friend and former teammate Paul Pacific, whom Ina jokingly refers to as the couple's "spiritual adviser."

But it was James alone who sauntered out to center ice to drop the puck in a white Amerks jersey. The crowd welcomed him with a lengthy ovation, a large contingent rising to their feet to applaud. The fervent fan base welcomed their former beloved tough guy back to where he won the Calder Cup championship in 1983.

As bad as it was on the road for James, Rochester had always embraced him as one of their own.

"They treated me like family," he said.

The first U.S.-born black player in the NHL, James' career has never garnered the same type of recognition reserved for fellow pioneer Willie O'Ree, the Fredericton, New Brunswick, native who first broke the color barrier in hockey when he appeared in a game for the Boston Bruins in 1958.

But James encountered many of the same hurdles as O'Ree as one of the few minorities playing a predominantly white sport.

In his book, "Black Ice: The Val James Story," James details the daily indignities he faced. Fans threw bananas on the ice, taunted him from the stands and hurled beer at him. An angry mob in Boston once cracked a team bus window, demanding the "n-----" come out as he and his Sabres teammates left the rink following a game against the Bruins.

After a humble but rather idyllic upbringing in Long Island, the abuse he encountered as a hockey player, primarily in road arenas, was a shock. While the myriad of insults James heard throughout his career angered him, they also fueled his rage. That wasn't always a bad thing for a man who made a living with his fists. In his day, James was known as one of the most fearsome fighters, pummeling his opponents and developing a reputation as someone who rarely saw the losing end of a scrap.

"I will say he was the perfect heavyweight," said New York Rangers assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld, who coached James in Rochester during the 1984-85 season. "He was loved by his teammates. He had the perfect disposition. I've never seen anyone tougher."

His mere presence made opponents wary, and his teammates enjoyed that protection.

"He was a guy that made everybody tough," said James' former teammate Randy Cunneyworth, who now works as a player development coach with the Sabres. "If you were just a smaller guy, you felt tougher because you had this guy to back you up. That's what a guy of that stature can do to enhance team toughness."

Said one former NHLer, who never played against James but heard enough of his prowess to be glad he didn't: "That dude is a legend. He scared guys. That tough."

His reputation is not lost on today's players, either. Adirondack Flames heavyweight enforcer Trevor Gillies had never met James, but had heard enough about him to know he'd appreciate his playing style.

What surprised so many who didn't know James beyond his imposing physique and punishing fists is what a warm, genuine character he was off the ice. Cunneyworth chuckled when he recalled the first time his wife met James after a game. James had, as per usual, been in the middle of some fantastical brouhaha during the game but seemed nothing like a quick-tempered brawler when the skates came off. He came up to Cunneyworth's wife after the game and extended his hand, introducing himself.

"It was funny. The wives and girlfriends wondered how off the ice he could be this gentle guy and [on the ice] such a fierce competitor, but it was absolutely true," Cunneyworth said.

Even now, James' demeanor hardly seems congruent with the reputation that precedes him. Gregarious and affable, he makes his way through his old home rink, shaking hands with old friends, stopping to chat and share stories along the way. Amerks legend Jody Gage sought James out to invite him to a golf outing this summer. While James often plays diplomat, Ina is the spitfire sentry of the two. She is both sweet and spirited. When asked whether she feels protective of her husband, knowing now what he has been through, she joked about her own ability to "drop the gloves"

"I know what he can do, but he hasn't seen what I can do!" she said.

She and James live a simpler life than when he was bouncing around between various hockey ports in North America. They reside in Niagara Falls, New York, where James works at a water park and the two largely avoid the Internet; "off the grid," as they say.

The process of telling James' story has brought the two closer together. Before he unearthed the turbulent memories, James said he was often prone to being short with others, getting irritated easily. When he first agreed to write the book with John Gallagher, a hockey buff and former NYPD officer, he knew that digging up all that stuff would be difficult. There were times when even Gallagher wondered whether the endeavor was worth the pain it might bring to the surface.

"It was very difficult for him. He explained it to me that he buried these experiences deep inside him and they kind of festered there," Gallagher said. "They cut coming out just as they did going in, and I was nervous maybe it wasn't a good idea. I didn't want to cause him any anguish."

But both James and his wife insisted they keep going.

"The book was a therapeutic aid," James explained.

What surprised Gallagher most was not the severity of the abuse James endured, but how he dealt with it.

"How forgiving he was," Gallagher recalled. "He did not forget. He remembered everything, but he was not angry. He was not bitter."

James hopes others don't have to go through anything like what he did. He's not naive enough to believe that racism has been eradicated entirely, but he hopes that experiences for today's black players in the NHL -- guys such as Wayne Simmonds and Evander Kane -- are much more positive than the ones he played through in the 1980s. But looking back, James does not rue his plight. He wouldn't trade any of it, in fact.

"This is what made me, me," he said.

And that was the man the Rochester fans were honoring Friday night. His lasting memories on the ice will no longer be ugly ones.

In one word, James said of the night: "Magical."