African Canadian community to recognize Toronto's Angela James as hockey trailblazer

A Toronto woman considered the first superstar of Canadian women's ice hockey will be honoured on Saturday for her trailblazing sports career.

James, the first superstar of women's hockey, faced obstacles early on

Angela James spoke to CBC News at an arena named after her in the Toronto neighbourhood of Flemingdon Park. (CBC)

A Toronto woman considered the first superstar of Canadian women's hockey will be honoured on Saturday for her trailblazing sports career.

Angela James, born in Toronto to a white mother and black father, will receive an African Canadian Achievement Award for Excellence in Sports. 

James said the award recognizes her roots.

"It's a little different," she said. "You know, growing up a person of colour was always shunned upon. Now to be recognized, on a positive side, for such an award is unique in itself."

The award will be presented at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts.

James, once dubbed the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey, was one of first two women inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in 2010. She was a member of Canada's women's gold medal world championship team in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1997.

James was one of the first three women to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hockey Hall of Fame in 2008 and inducted into Canada's Sports Hall of Fame in 2009. She didn't played for Canada in the first women's Olympic hockey tournament in Nagano in 1998, but is considered a pioneer in modern women's hockey in Canada.

As a child, growing up in Flemingdon Park in North York, James played hockey with boys from her neighbourhood. She faced obstacles early on as she pursued her passion for the sport.

In her first year in the Flemingdon boys hockey league, she was the league's top scorer. But in her second year, the league changed its policy and banned girls from playing, forcing James to play in one of the the few girls' leagues that existed at the time.

"I didn't really get it, you know. I was just a young girl and I used to play with all of my friends anyway, which were boys at the time."

In 2009, the city of Toronto renamed the Flemingdon Arena, calling it the Angela James Arena to honour her.

"We loved our community back then and I still touch base with some of the people I grew up with through Facebook and reunions every now and then. There's so many people that have accomplished so much in our community, I would love to share this arena with them," she said to CBC reporter Marivel Taruc during an interview in the arena itself, which has her jersey on display.

James said she remembers racist comments directed at her growing up. "People from the outside world would make a comment while I was playing hockey and say, 'Oh, that person and she's black. How can that be you know, playing hockey?' But I never really looked at myself as any different," she said.

Later, James attended Seneca College in Toronto, playing hockey for the Seneca Scouts and leading the team to many championships. Now, she is the senior sports co-ordinator at Seneca and is responsible for the administration of the college's sports and recreation leagues.

While at Seneca, she was one of the top Ontario College Athletics Association players. She was twice named Seneca Female Athlete of the Year.

When she graduated, Seneca retired her sweater and James was inducted into the Seneca Varsity Hall of Fame. In 2004, the college presented her with the Seneca College Distinguished Alumni Award.

Asked about opportunities for female athletes in the sports world now, James said it is still challenging.

"I look at the NBA. There's female officials and I hope one day that there'll be female officials in ice hockey. And I believe there are some in football now," she said.

"You look at the leaders of our country and our CEOs and you know what? They can be women, but don't kid yourself, women of all races, they're still hustling back home to put dinner on the table and that doesn't change. It just means women are working twice and three times as hard to do those kinds of trailblazing."

Michael Van Cooten, founder and CEO of the African Canadian Achievement Awards, said from Ajax, Ont. that James, a parent of three, is an exceptional person. He said she has accomplished a lot in a short space of time. 

"To excel as she has, at such an international level, it's phenomenal. In a sport where there are so few black people, she has excelled. The amount that she has accomplished is impressive," he said. "She has made use of her God-given talents."