In a world where the game was often closed to girls, where many of her friends in North York’s Flemingdon Park were bound for lives of substance abuse and poverty, where racial discrimination weighed against her, James grabbed a stick, took to the asphalt and started on her road to hockey history.
“She’s someone who came from nothing to really work her way into an elite category of athlete in Canada,” says Corey Long, co-author with Tom Bartsiokas of Angela James: The First Superstar of Women’s Hockey. “It’s the story of inspiration, it’s the story of someone who really didn’t let people tell her who or what to be.”
What James could have been, however, was very different from the legendary Canadian sports pioneer she became, says Long, a writer and editor at Seneca College, where James is now senior sports coordinator.
“She was at a sort of crossroads,” Long says of James’ youth. “There were a lot of friends who got into trouble with drugs. Like, serious trouble with drugs. And she wasn’t in that crowd because of hockey.”
James herself says hockey gave her life purpose.
Spanning 20 years at the highest levels of women’s hockey, James’ career was rich in groundbreaking greatness.
It saw her lead this country to its first four women’s world championships in the 1990s. She was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2008 and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. The following year — along with American Cammi Granato — James became one of the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But for a young black girl growing up in that public housing neighbourhood in the 1970s and early ’80s, hockey seemed a most unlikely pursuit.
“I think (being too good) had a little bit to do with it, absolutely,” James says.
James played several seasons of girls’ house league. But by her early teens, the fledgling Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League was up and running. And it gladly welcomed James into its fold when she was 14.
“She quickly became the face of the league and from there it was the national stage for her,” Bartsiokas says.
It was a black face, however. And her colour has caused James some difficulty both on and off the ice.
“She was one of the few faces of colour in Flemingdon Park, at that time a predominantly white neighbourhood,” Long says. “So with an absentee black father, being raised by a white mother, her race was always a question for her peers.”
“During international and national tournaments, when she was on the road travelling, staying in hotels, her race was still an issue,” he says. “People would exclude her from social events because she was black.”
“She had to figure out that side of her personality and to become comfortable in her own skin,” he says. “There were many difficult decisions having to be made in an environment that wasn’t exactly as open and accepting as we have today.”
Even her playing style, described as being “like a man’s,” had prejudicial overtones to it, Long says.
However her style of play was described, it was developed largely in the absence of a father to guide her, Bartsiokas says.
But James’ mother Donna Barrato and her four siblings took up the roles many fathers have traditionally played in their children’s hockey lives.
“The family obviously did not come from money, but she didn’t do it alone,” Bartsiokas says. “Her family all pitched in to help, especially her mother . . . who did everything in her power to make sure her daughter got onto teams, got to showcase her talent.”
Busing her daughter to games, working two jobs to support the family, James’ mother was a driving force behind her daughter’s career.
But self-motivation and a passion for a game she was never paid to play were the true keys to James’ success, Long says.
“Angela basically had an undying passion for the sport. It would be hours and hours of shooting a ball-hockey ball against a wall,” he says.
James was most obsessive in her study of the game, with a key part of her schooling coming on Saturday nights in front of the TV.
“Yeah, there wasn’t a dad sitting on the bench, shouting our instructions,” Bartsiokas says. “But she played 24/7 and when she wasn’t playing, she was watching the game. Saturday nights at the Angela James house was sitting around the television watching Hockey Night in Canada. They spent their lives living and breathing hockey.”