ANGELA JAMES -WORLD’S FIRST FEMALE HOCKEY STAR
Angela James Concept Sketch by artist James Long.
If you are unaware of Angela James, let me introduce you to the Wayne Gretzky of female hockey!
Angela grew up in the same Toronto neighbourhood as me, and it is no exaggeration to say I was lucky enough to be around the very first days of hockey history being made. The list of her awards, achievements and accolades are too numerous to mention and is continuing to grow.
But if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share some of her major career highlights, set to the backdrop of my personal memories and brief experiences with Angela and hockey all those years ago when we were kids. Maybe you’ll catch a glimpse of those first sparks of fire and talent before it was introduced to the world, and see why I felt compelled to do this tribute piece honouring her contributions to the female hockey world.
Angela with Team Canada in late 1990s.
Angela is a former Canadian hockey player who absolutely dominated the female senior hockey scene for two decades as an eight-time scoring champion and a six-time most valuable player. She is the first black player to captain a Canadian national team, and she is one of the first two women to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. She was the leading star and top goal scorer for 10 Team Canada hockey teams winning four world championship gold medals for Canada. She is the first superstar of women’s hockey and is responsible for bringing recognition and credibility to the game locally, nationally and internationally, making it possible for women’s hockey to be recognized at the Olympic Level.
Angela James at Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, Nov 07, 2010.
My first memory of Angela had nothing to do with hockey though. I was in grade 1 and I shared the same school bus with her and her sister Kym. One fall day the bus dropped a handful of us kids off at the designated stop where we would walk home. About a dozen kids from two local public schools were waiting and hiding behind low grass hills before they jumped us and started beating us up for no other reason than we went to a different school. There were no parents waiting for us and we were on our own. Two older kids had me pinned and were punching me pretty good, breaking my Kooky Kanooky lunchbox and thermos I was protecting my head with. Suddenly one kid was ripped off of me. Angela had him by the bottom of his legs and swung him in a full circle, wrapping him around a thin maple tree and knocking the wind out of him. Her sister Kym grabbed the other kid and flung him off to the side. They both went on breaking up the little skirmishes and chasing kids away before walking me safely home. This is my first memory of Angela, and this was our neighbourhood Flemingdon Park.
Flemingdon is one of Toronto’s toughest neighbourhoods where drugs, alcohol, violence and crime were plentiful. Future prospects, maybe not so much. Bullying was sewn through the fabric of everyday life here, and you were always watching your back. It is easy to see how growing up in this setting helped forge Angela’s ‘do or die trying’ attitude.
Courtyard where Angela grew up and played street hockey.
Street hockey was played year round on tennis courts, basketball courts, parking lots or anywhere there was a stretch of pavement. If it was raining or snowing we played in one of the many underground garages that were under every courtyard of townhouses. Kids of all ages played together and would regularly challenge other courts to serious games. With gear and hockey nets on our shoulders we would visit our opponent’s home garage to play for bragging rights. Cuts, sprains and broken bones were pretty regular and largely shook off. Every single game found two or more kids trading punches over a disagreement with a circle of kids encouraging them on. This is where Angela’s hockey started, and she was playing in these games since the time she was in kindergarten. From sunup to sundown she was out playing with the boys, who usually stuck her in net because she was a girl. It didn’t matter to her as long as she was playing.
One of the many Flemingdon underground garages used for street hockey.
Toronto was blessed with an abundance of outdoor rinks, and we had our very own right next to the Flemingdon arena. We spent countless hours playing shinny in the frigid winter cold until well after dark when they’d turn the lights off to make us go home. The older kids dominated most of the ice. Us younger kids tried to play hockey while dodging their slap shots or retrieving the pucks they’d take from us. This is where Angela got her first taste of ice hockey.
Angela with the Toronto Aeros, late 1990s.
Her first pair of skates were given to her. They didn’t fit well and hurt her feet. She didn’t care. She’d tie them up at home and walk along the city sidewalks and over the frozen hydro fields to the outdoor rink. If this trek made her skate blades blunt, it never dulled her enthusiasm to play from morning until night. We didn’t know it then, but it was on this crisp ice exposed to the weather where she began honing her skills and creativity for the game. It was also on this ice where it became painfully evident to her mom, Donna, that Angela had a serious love of hockey. So at age 8 she was enrolled in an organized league.
Angela with Team Canada in the 1990’s.
I had already been playing hockey for 2 years at Flemingdon Park Arena in 1972 when Angela joined our league as a Novice. This was at a time when body checking was part of the game from day one and taught at all ages, and the toughness on the street was now being played out on the ice in this arena. And not just with the kids. There were games we’d stop playing to stare through layers of cigarette smoke to see parents fighting each other or with coaches in the stands.
Metropolitan Toronto Police cruiser in Flemingdon Park arena parking lot.
Police were no strangers in this arena either. One older kid was pulled off the ice during a game in handcuffs by two officers and dragged to the cruiser with sparks flying off his steel skate blades every step of the way. It was always exciting to be at the rink! But amazingly, in an arena that was already infamous for some crazy stuff, Angela was what people were talking about from the moment she played her first game!
She was the only girl playing in the Flemingdon hockey league, and I had to play against her. After a few games undefeated, it quickly became evident that Angela was the reason her team kept winning. So the league’s solution was to have Angela play half a game with her team and the other half on the opposing team. These switchovers were the only time I got to play on the same team as her.
Angela James receiving one of many awards as a youth in the late 1970s.
Her mom worked in the arena concession stand where we’d get our pop at the end of every game. People were starting to grumble that Angela was too good for our division and shouldn’t be allowed to play. Her mom now found herself defending Angela as a girl and fighting to keep her in the league. The league quickly moved Angela up to Atom with the 9 and 10 year olds. But she was embarrassing them with her hockey skills as well.
My dad, who coached many of the teams in Flemingdon for years, would have me stay after my games to watch Angela play. It was pretty rough hockey and Angela was giving as good as she was getting. I remember hearing the parents talking about this tough girl outplaying their older sons. They didn’t want her in this division either, so the league decided to move her up again. This time to Pee Wee with the 12 year olds.
Angela’s number 8 was retired after her time with the Seneca Scouts (1982-85).
Angela not only held her own in this division but was stronger than these boys almost 4 years older than her. She was the leading scorer in the league and made the All-Star team to play in Montreal. This upset the league president whose son was on her team and was being overshadowed by a girl. He made a lot of noise in the head office and was instrumental in a policy change that banned girls from playing. Angela James was now no longer allowed to play hockey in the Flemingdon ‘Boys’ League.
Despite that monumental injustice, Angela found another hockey organization in the Toronto area, and her and her mom would go back and forth on the bus to these games through cold slush and snow to play in every one of them.
The next time I saw Angela on the ice I was playing Pee Wee in the NYHL (North York Hockey League) for Grandravine. A lot of players were pulled from Flemingdon for this league, and a game was set up to play an older all girls team that included Angela and Karen McFadden (another Flemo girl). We had our hands full trying to keep Angela off the scoreboard. We didn’t. We won 4-3 and Angela got 2 goals and an assist on McFadden’s goal. This is still one of my favourite hockey memories!
Reverse side of one of Angela’s Classic hockey cards.
I didn’t get to see anymore of Angela’s games after that because she was playing in other parts of the city. My dad was disappointed because he enjoyed watching her play, but he would keep me up to date with news he heard about her throughout our travels in the Toronto hockey circles.
Incredibly, at age 13 Angela skipped Bantam and went on to play Senior against girls 16 years and older! In 1980 when she was 16 she was playing against 20+ year olds in the COWHL (Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League), and won seven straight league scoring titles before retiring from this league in 2000.
Angela with Team Canada, 1990.
The next time I saw Angela on ice was on TV playing for Team Canada in 1990. In the first official Women’s World Championship sanctioned by the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation), Angela scored the first goal in the tournament’s history and went on to beat the United States 5-2.
She was absolutely exciting to watch. Her playing style was very fast, physical and gritty and she had a super quick and accurate shot that was even more dangerous because of her strong skating. Opponents commented that hitting her was like ‘hitting steel’. She was being described as a pure goal scorer like Mike Bossy with the aggressiveness of Mark Messier. And that is accurate!
Angela as captain of Team Canada.
If you’re reading this and wondering how you’ve never heard of this extremely talented woman, I would hazard a guess it’s because she never got to represent Canada at the Olympics, another great injustice Angela had to endure.
With a decision that neither teammates nor opponents could understand, Team Canada’s head coach had Angela cut from the team roster, even though she was the leading scorer for that national team in preliminaries. Despite heavy controversy and appeals, Angela could not participate in the first women’s Olympic tournament in Nagano 1998. At age 34 it was her last chance to play at that level. Canada was defeated by the United States, and the Canadian as well as American players all agreed Angela would’ve changed the outcome of that game. She did however win a gold medal years later in the Salt Lake City Olympics as assistant coach for Team Canada in 2002.
Angela has never left the game of hockey. She continued being a part of it as a referee and a coach, now runs her own hockey school and is currently the Senior Sport-Coordinator at Seneca College, Toronto. She did all this while raising three kids, Christian, Michael and Toni, with her wife Ange.
In a fitting twist of fate, Flemingdon Park Arena, which saw her banned as a child from playing there, was renamed the Angela James Arena in 2009. The hockey gods it seems have made amends.
Angela James Arena, Flemingdon Park, Toronto.
Angela’s story doesn’t end there for me though. I have two girls, ages 8 and 10, who I am lucky enough to coach in hockey. I tell them what I know about Angela’s life and use her difficulties and triumphs as a constant source of inspiration on the value of fighting through adversity, staying true to yourself, and never giving up. All skills they can use on the ice and throughout all aspects of their lives.
Angela is without question the best female player to lace up skates. She is also the biggest ambassador for women’s hockey, and more importantly for women in general. She is a hockey hero that girls can look up to forever.
Thanks Angela, and congratulations on a life well lived!
*Angela’s story is much more interesting and amazing than is recounted here. If you’d like to learn more about this history making woman I highly encourage you to read her book:
Or read more here:
**Special thanks to Jackie Lynn and Bobby Bright for their contributions. Thanks guys, you were a great help