“She dominated. There was no one who could take over the game physically like Ang. She was, I think, the first superstar of women’s hockey.”
Strong words from Cassie Campbell-Pascall (to Sportsnet), women’s hockey royalty in her own right, who grew up watching James before she eventually became her teammate. Considered the “Wayne Gretzky” of women’s hockey, Angela James played a significant role in gaining respect for women’s hockey and growing the game both in Canada and internationally.
James was known, and feared, for her physical style of play. She grew up playing against women in their twenties while she was in high school, and reminisced about beginning to use hitting to her advantage.
“I remember getting the snot literally knocked out of me,” James told Sportsnet. “Then, finally, I grew. It was like, ‘OK, revenge for all these years that you guys beat up on me.’ From that point it was my style. I didn’t know any other way to play. Hitting was part of the game and I loved it.”
Campbell-Pascall believed the better male comparison was to Gordie Howe.
“She hit people to another country, you know what I mean? She had that viciousness, yet she was so sweet and nice off the ice, similar to Gordie.”
Proving that women’s hockey could be gritty was not the only barrier James broke down in her career. In 2010 she was one of the first two women, the first openly gay player, and only the second black athlete to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Hockey was my savior. It helped me go in the right direction. […] You had to watch your back a little bit. There were a lot of people in unforgettable circumstances.” -Angela James, Sportsnet
Born Dec. 22nd, 1964, Angela James grew up in North Toronto where her love of the game began. Learning to skate in the former Flemingdon Park Arena – renamed Angela James Arena in 2009 – she used hockey as an escape from the realities of growing up in a rougher, and predominately white, neighbourhood.
James quickly grew in skill, though there was nowhere for her to play hockey as a girl so she joined the local boys league. She was able to play peewee at the age of eight, where she faced off against kids three to four years older than her. James’ time playing with the boys was short-lived though, as the board told her mother the following year that they no longer believed girls should be able to play. Interestingly, they came to that conclusion after Angela had won the scoring title.
James had struggled throughout school, and hadn’t given much thought about post-secondary education until a friend recommended she attend Seneca College. It was there that Angela James’ athletic career took off.
While pursuing a diploma in Recreation Facilities Management, James was a multi-sport athlete, excelling in both hockey and softball. During her softball career James led the Scouts to two provincial championships (including the school’s first), as well as a silver, and was a three-time OCAA All-Star.
As impressive as her softball career was, James’ performance in hockey was even more incredible. Despite switching from forward to defence, she easily led the league in scoring for each of her three years. During her first year (1982-83), Angela recorded 15 goals and 10 assists in a short eight-game season, leading Seneca to a silver medal, and was named OCAA MVP. James followed up her incredible introduction to college hockey with continued excellence in her second season, scoring 30 points in 10 games, a second consecutive league MVP title, and most importantly, the school’s first championship.
James only continued to improve throughout her final season with Seneca, leading the team to another championship, where she was once again awarded the MVP title. It was this year where she was dubbed the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey,” as she set a school and association record with an incredible 50 goals and 73 points in only 14 games. That’s an average of just over five points a game. Overall, James set a total OCAA career record with 80 goals and 128 points.
For her dominance in both softball and hockey, the OCAA named James their ‘Athlete of the Year’ in both 1984 and 1985. Her #8 jersey was retired by Seneca in 2001, and in 1985 James was inducted into the Seneca Varsity Hall of Fame. Her success was not limited to college hockey, and in 2004 James was recognized by Seneca as a ‘Distinguished Alumni’ for her continued contributions to the sport of women’s hockey.
James played in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL) since its inception in 1990 at the age of 16, and through the league’s amalgamation with the National Women’s Hockey League (Not the same as the current NWHL) in the 1998-99 season. During her time in the COWHL James was an eight-time leading goal scorer, and a six-time MVP. She dominated everywhere she played.
“Every time she played here in Quebec it was like this tornado was showing up,” Danièle Sauvageau, coach of the Quebec team, told Sportsnet. “She was physical, and she had the best shot in women’s hockey at the time. Scoring-wise she was a threat every time she stepped on the ice, and she was intense. An amazing skater as well.”
James was a member of the Toronto Aeros in the COWHL, which rebranded to the Beatrice Aeros upon their merger with the NWHL. The following season she was named league MVP after scoring an impressive 35 goals and 55 points. James led the Aeros to their first NWHL title in 1999-2000, which was a fitting way to end her final season playing professionally: on top.
While James’ entire career was nothing short of stellar, it was her performance on the Canadian national team that brought her into the spotlight. Her performance in the inaugural Women’s World Championship in 1987 gained her a spot on the 1990 team, which competed in the World Championship sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). Taking place in Canada’s capital, this tournament featured not only the infamous pink jerseys, but a gold medal for the Canadians. James led the team in scoring with 11 goals in a mere five games. She would then go on to lead Canada to three more golds in 1992, 1994 and 1997.
When discussing the career of Angela James, it is hard not to mention the controversial decision of her exclusion from the first-ever Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team in 1998. This rejection hit Angela hard, and many disagreed with the coaching staff’s choice.
In a CBC Insider interview with James’ mother about 12 years later she shared, “It was the ultimate goal for her. She had gone and done everything else and she just looked so forward to the Olympics. It’s still hard for me to talk about it.”
Teammate Cassie Campbell-Pascall added in a Sportsnet interview, “I believe to this day she should have made that team. She was always a difference maker… I played defence, but I think she should have made the team over me. I thought that was a really big mistake.”
James’ incredible talent led her to be inducted into multiple Halls of Fame. Starting with the OCAA, and Black Hockey and Sports Hall of Fames in 2006, she would go on to join many other prestigious groups. She was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame (HOF) in 2008, alongside Cammi Granato and Geraldine Heaney as the first women to be included. In 2009 she was inducted into both Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and the Hockey HOF (HHOF). Being inducted into the HHOF was a dream James never thought would be realized, as the Hall did not previously accept any women.
“I’m really honoured to represent the female hockey players from all over the world,” said James to Sportsnet.
Scott Russell, CBC Sports Commentator, had this to say on James’ induction into the HHOF:
“Angela James was a pioneer for hockey in this country. She paved the way for Cassie Campbell, for Cammi Granato of the United States, and so many others who followed in her footsteps, like Hayley Wickenheiser. Angela James was the person who put women’s hockey on the map in this country and internationally. She was the best player. A dominant player. You could not stop her. If she decided to score, she was gonna score. And she would cease control of the game, and change the outcome of any game, in which she decided. She was a rough player, she was a determined player. She was the best player of her generation. And it just so happens, that Angela James’ generation was the pioneering generation for women’s hockey in this country. It’s where women’s hockey got to center stage. And for that she deserves an incredible amount of credit. And so I applaud her induction into the Hall of Fame, as should all Canadians.”
Angela’s talent was recognized outside the halls as well. In 1992 she was recognized by the City of Toronto as one of its Women in Sport Enhancements. For her contributions to the promotion and development of hockey for Canadian women and girls James was honoured with Hockey Canada’s Female Breakthrough Award in 2005. As well, in 2008 the now-defunct CWHL introduced the Angela James Bowl, which was annually awarded to the league’s top scorer – in the last few years it was a staple in the house of Marie-Philip Poulin.
True to her roots, James continues to work at Seneca College as their sport coordinator, and is a member of the NHL’s advisory committee to diversify the sport of hockey. She lives in Toronto with her partner Ange.
Featured photo courtesy of theunmatched.com