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MONTREAL—Angela James walks through the side door of the Brampton arena before an afternoon hockey game begins, strolling at an easy pace, saluting players and hangers-on in the lobby with a friendly nod. Within minutes she’s approached by a shy, wide-eyed boy who wants her autograph.
Being female, mixed race and gay don’t often combine into a winning formula in sport, but today, 46-year-old Angela James will become the first woman inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in its 65-year history.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the event, in which former team USA captain Cammi Granato will also be inducted in a highly anticipated weekend of Canuck pomp and circumstance that will include celebratory rings, speeches, jackets, box seats to an NHL game, parties—all capped off by a ceremony broadcast live on TSN.
Although James' advocates have lobbied for years to allow non-NHL players (namely women) to enter the Hall, it wasn’t until 2009 that the Hockey Hall of Fame opened its doors to women. While a few pundits had their hockey garters in a twist about the change, most saw it as an important stride forward for the sport.
“I’m not at all ready, and I haven’t even thought [of my speech],” laughs James, adding that her close-knit family will attend the inauguration. As if it weren’t enough to break hockey’s gender barrier, James will also be the first lesbian mom among the NHL legends.
“[People] know what I am, who I’m with and about my family—I’m open,” she says. “But I don’t discuss my personal life. I’d rather know the score of last night’s game.”
James grew up in the mid-'60s, playing ball hockey and shinny on the outdoor public rink with the boys in Flemingdon Park, one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods. Girls didn’t play hockey at the time, which meant she had everything to prove and nothing to lose.
Out on the open ice, James exorcised frustrations, set free (and later focused) her boundless energy, and forged her toughness. Excelling early, she picked up all the best moves from the guys, learning to skate, deke, throw a hit and deliver a deadly slapshot.
Raised by a single mom, James was by all accounts the spoiled baby of five loving siblings. Her father ran a nightclub in Mississauga and sired other offspring as well (including Edmonton Oilers defenseman Theo Peckham.)
Even though money was tight, James credits the fierce loyalty and support of her immediate family, especially her tenacious mother, for her success. When James turned eight, her mother registered her in minor boys’ hockey at the local municipal rink (now named the Angela James Flemingdon Park Arena). That same year, 1973, James was the league's highest scorer and won the MVP award. “They kicked me out because I was a girl,” says James flatly. “They didn’t like that I won all the awards!”
There wasn’t much to do in the newly built Flemingdon Park development where James grew up in the early '70s—its reputation as a low-income neighbourhood with crime problems pervades even today, and the community still doesn’t have a local grocery store or bank.
“I would probably be in jail right now without hockey,” says James, for whom academics was never encouraged as a priority. “I’m not sure what my life would be like without sport. I’m sure I wouldn’t have played hockey without the municipal rink.”
By age 15, James was playing in the top senior women’s leagues under the umbrella of the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League where, despite her youth, she quickly became a force, leading her team to numerous league and provincial championships, and earning the title of leading scorer in eight seasons and most valuable player in six.
“No player wanted to go into the corners with her, because they knew they weren’t coming out with the puck,” laughs Maria Quinto, James’ general manager and long-time friend.
Early in James’ career, the national women’s team program didn’t exist, nor was there a world championship or plum scholarships to play US college hockey. Grassroots girls’ development and female championship showcases weren’t priorities for federal sporting bodies like the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA). Although women played hockey all over the world, the mere idea of an Olympic showcase was pie in the sky. Even in Canada, where hockey was supposedly “our” sport, elite women players had to fight for respect and the right to play.
Wherever she played, James turned heads and challenged perceptions. “James was fearless, and she engendered fear in other people,” says writer and producer Elizabeth Etue, describing James’ physical prowess and self-assuredness both on and off the ice.
At 160 pounds, she was a powerful skater, physically strong, with an incredibly focused drive. “She played with the best women players, and even though these players were older, she could control a game with this incredible power, energy and tenacity. And she had a hard slapshot,” recounts Etue.
In 1990, James was selected for the first ever Team Canada, which was to play at the inaugural women’s championship in Ottawa. The team was outfitted in hot pink and white jerseys instead of the traditional red, as a way to “sell” the “novelty factor” of the female game. This marketing ploy stole the focus from the talent on display, and was roundly criticized by both critics and players.
“I remember her performance in the 1994 World Championships in particular,” adds Etue of the scoring ace. “I was watching James take the puck up the ice and she just got around everyone. She was like a freight train going up the ice, and in some ways, it was an old style of playing because she was so used to not having a support group—she was always the best on her team.”
James led the national team to the gold medal in 1994 or with 11 goals in five games. She would win gold medals in three other world championships.
Women’s ice hockey was finally added to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, but James was cut from the team. It proved to be a major controversy. After all, from 1987 on, James had been Canada’s most consistent scoring threat no matter where she played. James appealed the decision to not include her on that team, but during the appeal process, both Hockey Canada and the media latched on to salacious rumours about a lesbian relationship between the captain and coach. “Homophobia ruined my appeal because something got all blown up and the direction went there, instead of towards my appeal," says James. "They were all freaking out. You know, every female sport goes through it.”
At the heart of the matter was how Hockey Canada viewed the women’s game on the global scene, where business stakes were high. Before the Olympic exposure, hockey’s power brokers had only ever cared about boys and men in the game, but in 1998 the national team program became serious business, with corporate sponsorships and a leadership role (and reputation) to safeguard in international circles.
With more eyes on the women’s game, the team’s coaching staff started to develop the program more than ever before, introducing new systems and set plays and seeking out complete, team-oriented players among a growing legion of top-level athletes. James was an independent spirit, and a veteran, who had rarely had to tow any line.
At the Olympics tryout camp, James also suffered from what doctors later diagnosed as a thyroid problem, at the time manifesting itself as fatigue and low energy, though, in hard-nosed fashion true to character, she’s never mentioned those health challenges to the press, preferring to focus on the positive. “I had a great era of wearing the Team Canada jersey and playing the game I loved,” she says. “I concentrate on what good I got out of hockey and do the same with my kids now. I say ‘You’ve told me all the reasons why you can’t do something, now tell me why you can.’ I have to practice what I preach!”
After James was cut, Quinto welcomed her back to the Toronto Aeros in the senior women’s league, where she continued to set scoring records. “In that era, players expected nothing and gave everything, they paid to play at the elite level,” says Quinto. “I remember one game I went into the dressing room and noticed Angela’s hockey garter-belt was so old it was in tatters. I told her we would supply her with one. You know what she replied? ‘No thanks, I want to keep this one so I remember where I came from.’”
James' return to the Canadian Women’s Hockey League to coach Brampton this season is a boon for elite women’s hockey in Canada. It also means she’s now coaching current Olympians who, as kids, looked up to her as an idol.
Her team’s roster is also stacked with some of the finest players in today’s international game, including Team Canada legends Jayna Hefford, Lori Dupuis, Gillian Apps and US Olympian Molly Engstrom.
“James is the face of women’s hockey. She brings a new level of professionalism to our league,” insists Quinto. “She’s also a different person now as a coach. She’s direct, laid-back and open to new ideas. As a player she was very focused, and could even have blinders on. Now she’s more mature and diplomatic.”
“I gained leadership skills through sport, which helped with my work,” says James, who has spent much of the past decade as the Director of Athletics for Seneca College and has served as a referee, coach and advocate for youth hockey.
James has returned to Flemingdon Park to help out with a free hockey program sponsored by the local police department. The program introduces the neighbourhood's kids—today, largely Muslim immigrants—to the sport. She’s also outspoken about the increasing cost of ice rentals, and the expensive—often exclusive—nature of the game. She strongly believes that to grow, Canadian hockey needs to get back to the basics: participation, fun and skill development.
Like most former hockey players, James isn’t an activist or political, and hates to talk about herself. She’s unlikely to become the poster girl for gay rights, or a spokesperson for any particular cause, though she does have something to say about homosexuality in hockey.
“I am who I am. I’m proud of my partner and family and the more people that can say that, the better. If people have an issue with this, then too bad. Today, male coaches and [general managers] have gay sons and daughters and when they are very open and supportive, it helps. [But] it doesn’t matter if I’m gay, straight, black, yellow, pink, polka-dot or blue, I’m still the same person every day. I respect people for who they are.”
Ever the sharp shooter and straight talker, James found success in hockey by expressing her own special swagger. She’s earned the respect of teammates, family, friends and fans because of it. “James is both energetic and as informal as her nickname, ‘AJ,’ but there's a relentless drive in there,” says Etue, explaining James’ notorious appeal. “She’s a force, with energy for all sorts of people.”
More than one hundred years after women first took to the ice, Angela James’ entry into Canada’s Hockey Hall of Fame stands as more than simple ceremony. It’s a public validation that everyone should have a fair shot at making it in the game.
Meg Hewings is an editor at Montreal's alternative weekly Hour, a blogger/videographer and hockey organizer who does outreach for the Montreal Stars in the Canadian Women's Hockey League, founded The Lovely Hockey League and plays for the Ninja Tune Wicked Deadly Karate Chop in the Good Times Hockey League of the Arts.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.