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David Shoalts

All she wanted to do was play Add to ...

Angela James is not a pioneer in the way the word is usually applied to women breaking down barriers.

She is no firebrand, storming the barricades placed in front of her in the 1970s by male hockey authorities who were not keen on a female trying to play what they considered their game. But she was just as determined as any of the feminists in those days, which is why James, 46, will join Cammi Granato on Monday night as the first women inducted into The Hockey Hall of Fame.

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"When they said I couldn't play in their league, I said, 'Fine, I'll play somewhere else,' " James said. "I never thought of it in those terms [fighting for a rightful place] I just wanted to play hockey."

James, who grew up in the housing projects of Toronto's Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, hit her first obstacle in the early 1970s, when she was eight. She was admitted to the Flemingdon Park boys house league but turned out to be one of the best players. This did not sit well with the league's administrators and they gave her the boot, telling her, James says, it was "because I was a girl."

Unlike a few of her contemporaries, though, who staged well-publicized campaigns to play in boys leagues, James turned her sights a few kilometres north. She joined a church-operated girls league at Victoria Village Arena, and never seriously played with boys again. Well, if you don't count the once-a-week shinny sessions she still enjoys with a group of middle-aged men at a north Toronto arena.

James says she never spent much time thinking about playing in the NHL. She knew the deal, she says, and besides, all she really wanted to do was play the game.

"I never thought I wanted to play in the NHL," she said. "I grew up in the projects where any opportunity to play an organized sport was great in itself. I just played for the moment. That's pretty much it."

There was a little more to it, actually. James became the first superstar in women's hockey, a pure goal-scorer who liked to play a physical game, just like her favourite male player, Mark Messier.

James was good enough at 14 to play in the Ontario Women's Hockey Association, the forerunner to today's Canadian Women's Hockey League. James was also an eight-time most valuable player in the women's national championship and a star on the women's team at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto. In the women's world championship, James had 34 points in 20 games for Canada in 1990, 1992, 1994 and 1997. All four of those tournaments produced gold medals for Canada, and in the first one, in 1990, James had 11 goals in five games.

However, there were a few bitter moments, the worst coming in 1998 when James was not selected for the Canadian team that played in the first hockey tournament for women at the Olympics. The controversy was given added fuel when the Canadians lost the gold-medal game to the United States. While she did return briefly to the national team in 1999, James retired without ever playing in the Olympics.

No one ever offered a definitive reason for James's exclusion. Speculation at the time ranged from her age (34) to a fractious relationship with then head coach Shannon Miller. James admits it was the biggest disappointment of her career, but says she does not think it was the result of any problem with Miller.

"You kind of acknowledge the great times you had wearing the red and white and try not to harp on it," she said. "I think [the coaches]made a decision to go in a certain direction and they had to live with it."

There were better times ahead. She is now a sports co-ordinator for Seneca College, operates a hockey school, and is the head coach of the CWHL team in Brampton, Ont. James is also the mother of three children and helps coach her son Christian's team.

Today, there is an Angela James Arena in her old neighbourhood and, of course, there was that call in June from the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"That was pretty special," she said. "It was a pretty emotional time."

 

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