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Celebrating Black History Month: Val James

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Highlighting Black players throughout Buffalo Sabres history

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NHL Black History Month Truck Tour Photo by Cole Burston/NHLI via Getty Images

As the month of February celebrates Black History Month, we’ll be looking back at some Black hockey players who have suited up for the Buffalo Sabres over the course of the franchise’s history. Among them are greats like Valmore James, Mike Grier, Grant Fuhr and Rumun Ndur.

Valmore James - more commonly known as Val James - became the first Black American to play in the NHL when he suited up for the Buffalo Sabres in the 1981-82 season. (Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier for Black players in 1958, but he is Canadian.) As a fun fact, he was also the first NHL player who was born in Florida.

James was originally drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1977 and spent his immediate post-draft years playing with the Erie Blades and Rochester Americans.

James signed with the Sabres in 1981 and appeared in seven games with the NHL club in the following season. His time with the Sabres organization on the ice is perhaps best remembered for when he scored the Calder Cup-winning goal for the Amerks in 1983. After recording just seven points in 68 regular-season games, he certainly scored when it counted.

After three seasons with the Amerks, James went on to play for a few other clubs in the AHL, including the St. Catharines Saints, Newmarket Saints and Baltimore Skipjacks. He returned to the NHL for four games in the 1986-87 season, suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Overall, he appeared in 11 NHL games but never got the chance to score a goal.

He certainly knew how to play a physical game, though. James’ stat line is highlighted by his penalty minutes, including a whopping 204 with the Amerks in the 1981-82 season, just one year after accruing 179 PIMs with the Erie Blades of the EHL.

Further Reading & Actions

Learn more about James and his legacy by reading his autobiography, Black Ice: The Val James Story. James’ story is also featured in the 2016 documentary Soul On Ice: Past, Present & Future.

Don’t forget to also read the Q&A we did with James and several other Black players who spent time with the Buffalo Sabres organization. Part one focused on diversity and race in hockey, while part two reflected back on their time with the Sabres/Amerks.

Check out the Black Girl Hockey Club, a non-profit organization that focuses on making hockey more inclusive for Black women, their family, friends and allies.

The Buffalo Sabres unveiled a partnership with local artist Edreys Wajed in honor of Black History Month. A t-shirt with this logo is available for purchase here, with a portion of proceeds going to Breaking Barriers.

Stay tuned to Die By the Blade over the course of the month as we continue to highlight Black players in Buffalo Sabres history.