Catching Up With the World’s First Female Hockey Star
After that remarkable 1984-85 season, she was dubbed “the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey,” a nick name that stuck with her for the rest of her career.
But James was more than just a hockey star.
She was the first black player to captain a Canadian national team, and one of the first three women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
James dominated at every level of competition, beginning in her childhood when she played street hockey with the boys in her north Toronto neighbourhood of Flemingdon Park.
“I played ball hockey with the neighbourhood kids from morning until night,” James said. But at first, I was always the goalie because I was a girl.”
James’ accomplishments both on and off the ice opened doors for women that were previously sealed.
At the first-ever sanctioned International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) women’s world championships in 1990, James wowed the hockey world, scoring 11 goals in just five games to help Canada win gold.
“We just wanted to play hockey. Even if we had to wear a chicken on our heads, we were going to do it so we could play,” she said.
James won three more world championship gold medals in her career, but none had more significance than the first.
It was the first time a female hockey player had ever earned the attention of a national audience.
Vicky Sunohara was one of the youngest players on that 1990 team. She remembers watching in awe of James, who played the game with an intensity that was never before seen in women’s hockey.
“She was just so tough. Every time she was on the ice, she made something happen,” Sunohara said.
It has now been 18 years since James retired from competitive hockey.
But as she sits in her office at Seneca College’s King Campus – where she now works as a recreation coordinator – she reflects on the hard times, when she was just a young girl trying to play a boy’s game.
James’ mother, Donna, raised six children on her own in what was then a low-income, violence-ridden neighbourhood. After realizing Angela’s otherworldly skill, Donna enrolled her in a boy’s hockey league at the age of eight.
“From that point on, she had to fight for me to play because I was a female,” James said.
James was eventually kicked out of that boy’s league when league executives one day decided that they no longer wanted her to play.
Parents at the time didn’t appreciate it if “a girl was stronger than some of their sons,” she said.
James also faced discrimination and prejudice in school. She often got into fights while walking in the street, and struggled with her academics. She almost dropped out of high school at one point.
Hockey was always her escape, though.
She eventually got accepted to Seneca College in Toronto, where she won Athlete of the Year in both 1984 and ‘85 for her performance in softball and ice hockey.
In 1980, James joined the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL), an early women’s league, where she played until her retirement in 2000.
James was a 16-year-old playing with 20-somethings when she first joined the COWHL. She went on to win the league scoring title for seven straight seasons from 1987-1994.
James played a physical style of hockey that is non-existent in a women’s game that no-longer includes body-checking.
She could score, play defense and absolutely obliterate opponents with her toughness.
Even though James is arguably one of the best female hockey players in history, she is still lesser known than players like Cassie Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser.
And that’s because she never had the chance to represent Canada at the winter Olympics.
James was cut from the Canadian Olympic women’s team in Negano in 1998 because of a rumoured dispute with her coach Shannon Miller.
The 1998 Olympics were the first to include women’s hockey. At 34, it would also be James’ last shot at playing at the highest level of international hockey.
“It was absolutely devastating and undeserved. It still hurts today, but life moves on and I’m in a great place right now,” she said.
Even though James never played at the Olympic level, her contributions to the sport were not forgotten.
When the Hockey Hall of Fame inducted James in 2010, she became one of the first-ever women to have a plaque on the same wall as Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr.
James said her induction was “a real life-changer.”
“The great thing about that is they packaged your whole life together, and that’s something I have forever to show my kids, and my family and friends, she said.”
Several other organizations also called James asking her if they could give her an award. One company asked her if she was Puerto Rican, to which she responded, “I can speak Spanish if you want me to.”
James was not only a great hockey player, she was “so funny,” Sunohara said.
“Tough player on the ice, but just a fun person off the ice,” she added.
James said women’s sports have come a long way since her early days playing hockey – when girls rarely even had their own change rooms.
But she thinks a future where co-ed professional leagues exist is still far away.
“It’s a business. You can’t even get co-ed curling going, let alone co-ed hockey. So as far as co-ed professional leagues… I don’t think it will ever happen,” she said.
Although a clear financial and coverage-based divide still exists between male and female sports, James is making a difference at Seneca by encouraging girls that it is okay to sweat.
Her goal is to increase girls’ participation in sports at the post-secondary level. According to James, there are still far more males playing sports than females.
James also said girls should get involved in sport for more than just its physical benefits.
“You don’t always have to be exceptional to play a sport. If you want to meet friends and condition yourself to be in shape…it is something you will value for the rest of your life,” she said.
According to James, getting involved can include anything from pick-up volleyball or basketball to working out in an exercise room.
“Just start somewhere,” she said.
Like James started, on the streets of Flemingdon Park in 1972.
James serves many roles: she is an athlete, a mentor and a proud mother to her two children – but she is also living proof that people can overcome unfortunate circumstances and still achieve great success.
James was a revolutionary; the female Wayne Gretzky and the best thing that ever happened to women’s hockey.
Without James, women might still be playing hockey in local arenas instead of Olympic stadiums.
She brought national attention to the women’s game when no-one cared about female sports, and she continues to inspire young players across the country.
But according to James, she was just doing what she loved: playing hockey.
“That’s all I ever knew how to do,” she said.
And we thank you for doing it, Angela.