Why Isn't the 'Wayne Gretzky of Women's Hockey' Better Known?
February 6, 2020 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Angela James was women's hockey's first superstar and remains the only black player to captain Canada at the senior level. So why isn't she a household name?

Born December 22, 1964 and growing up in a townhouse in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood of Toronto, Angela James is a Canadian former ice hockey player who played at the highest levels of senior hockey between 1980 and 2000, winning gold medals in 1992, 1994 and 1997. Controversially, she was left off the team for the first women's Olympic hockey tournament in 1998. She played her final international tournament in 1999.

James first played organized hockey in a Flemingdon Park boys house league at the age of eight, and then only after her mother threatened legal action as officials opposed her inclusion. She dominated the league, but her time in it ended partway through her second year due to jealousy from the parents of the boys in the league. The president's son was on James' team, and was particularly offended that his boy was being overshadowed by a girl. He ordered a change in the league's policy to forbid girls from playing. Quite the coincidence: The decision came after James won the scoring title.

Black History Month: The lasting impact of Angela James (with an interview with current black Team Canada member and 2018 Olympic silver medallist Sarah Nurse)
James grew up in a rough neighbourhood of North Toronto and skated her way through gender and race barriers as a young black woman playing what was long thought of as a white man’s game. She made it all the way to the international stage, and never met a podium she didn’t top — winning four world championship gold medals and registering 22 goals and 34 points in 20 games over those four tournaments. She paved the way for so many young Canadian women to go on to play hockey on the Olympic stage, even though James herself never could.
Catching Up With the World’s First Female Hockey Star
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.
James’ accomplishments both on and off the ice opened doors for women that were previously sealed. In 2008, James was one of the first three women, along with Geraldine Heaney and Cammi Granato, to be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame. In 2010, following an amendment to its by-laws, she joined Granato as the first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The hockey rink in Angela's old neighbourhood, Flemingdon Park, was renamed in her honour in 2009.
posted by urbanlenny (6 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Because... sexism?
posted by blessedlyndie at 9:12 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

Prior to the first women's participation in the Olympics, women's ice hockey was a very marginalized sport. It had almost no media coverage, and attendance at most games was under 200 people. The international teams other than Sweden, Finland, Canada and the USA were vastly underskilled, as reflected in the scores.

Her wikipedia article addresses the decision to leave her off the first Olympic team:

Reflecting the growth of the game, the 1998 Nagano Games featured the first women's Olympic hockey tournament.[56] The announcement of Canada's first Olympic team on December 9, 1997, brought a storm of controversy. Head coach Shannon Miller left James off the roster, telling the press that the 32-year-old James was a "defensive liability" and suggesting she was not a team player.[57] James was devastated at being cut and enraged by Miller's explanations.[58] Stating she had been "treated like a dog" and "set up and cheated" by Miller, she appealed the decision to Hockey Canada. James also argued Miller's criticisms were unjustified and that the coach had previously maintained she was playing well.[59] She was the national team's leading goal scorer in preliminary games that led up to the national team camp.[60]

At the time of the appeal, rumours surfaced that Miller was having an affair with one of her players. While the allegations were unfounded, their timing resulted in James being falsely accused of being their source. Hockey Canada officials determined that the rumours were started by a third party attempting to create controversy. They also rejected James' appeal, ending her Olympic dream.[61] Neither her teammates nor her opponents could understand how she was left off the team.[62] Canada and the United States met in the final, as expected, but it was the Americans who emerged victorious. Having already defeated Canada 7–4 in the preliminary round, the Americans won the gold medal with a 3–1 victory.[63] Former teammates argued that James could have made a difference for Canada had she been included.[60]

So basically, her career was winding down as attention to women's ice hockey was taking off.
posted by blob at 9:33 PM on February 6 [2 favorites]

Yeah I went into the first story thinking the answer was sexism and then I left it thinking the answer was sexism AND racism with maybe a smattering of homophobia (James is also gay). I suspect there was not a small amount of racism involved in both the original (appalling in retrospect, not being aware of her until today!) reasoning to keep her off the team as well as the reaction to her appeal.

She seems like she's pretty rad. Cassie Campbell-Pascall is quoted a few times in the first story and seems to think a lot of her. They weren't quite contemporaries but they would have played on 1998 Team Canada at the Olympics together and it's too bad they didn't. Also, thus set off the ongoing rivalry between Canada and the US in women's Olympic hockey. The situation with the women's teams is still not much changed from before it became an olympic sport except that (Athletes from) Russia is doing better.
posted by urbanlenny at 10:16 PM on February 6 [5 favorites]

As a fairly new women's hockey fan I'm not super up on the history - this looks like it's going to be really interesting to read up on. Thanks for sharing!
posted by Stacey at 7:35 AM on February 7 [1 favorite]

[Comment and a couple replies removed. Jumping into a thread with some variation of "I don't know anything about this and don't really care" is a bad way to go, please do not do that.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 9:02 AM on February 7 [2 favorites]

As a lifetime hockey fan, I saw "female Wayne Gretzky" and automatically thought of Cassie Campbell.

But you know what, maybe Angela James is the female Angela James, and Cassie Campbell is the female Cassie Campbell. And that is damn good enough.
posted by gohabsgo at 11:44 AM on February 7

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