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Angela James: Breaking Records and Barriers One Slapshot at a Time

4 minute read

If you do a quick Google search of Angela James, you will often see her referred to as “the Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Hockey.” I get why this is done, it’s an easy reference to inform the reader that she was a phenomenal hockey player, a generational talent the likes of which a sport may only be graced with once every few decades.

However, I think that comparator confines Angela to her skill as a hockey player, and doesn’t acknowledge the challenges she faced off and on the ice. Wayne Gretzky is undoubtedly a brilliant hockey player, for most (not my dad – big Bobby Orr guy) the best. But Gretzky was able to enter an established league and hit the ice skating.

Angela on the other hand, entered the scene in the 1980s, when women’s hockey was only a fledgling afterthought. It was not until 1998 that women’s hockey was even added to the Olympics. She needed to carve out a name not just for herself, but women’s hockey in general, to gain the recognition she and the sport so rightfully deserved.

Angela was born in the 1960s and raised in relative poverty in a single-parent home in Toronto. At the age of eight, she joined a boy's house league hockey team, something that her mother had to threaten legal action to make happen as the league was hesitant to allow a Black woman to join a (traditionally white) boys league. If you ever listen to Angela speak (I recommend her 2010 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Speech), Angela’s praise of her mother, and the sacrifices she made to allow her to achieve her hockey dreams, are inspiring.

Angela adopted her mom’s take-no-s*** attitude and became the league’s top scorer. So thorough was her dominance, that she was bumped up to a league for boys 3-4 years older than her. In the end, the only way the boys could keep up (specifically the league president, whose son was on Angela’s team and was insecure by being overshadowed by Angela) was by officially enacting a rule that made the league boys only. Cute.

Angela continued to dominate, continuing her career in college where she led Seneca College to several championships in the mid-1980s. Angela was a dominating presence on the ice, a tough, gritty player with wicked hands. Her slapshot is the stuff of legends; powerful but with a precision that shocked players and observers alike.

At a time when women’s hockey was unfairly maligned as ‘soft’, Angela put a quick end to such silly talk, with opponents describing running into her like ‘hitting steel’. In one game during her career where her team was without a goalie, Angela, a career forward, suited up, and because it’s Angela we’re talking about here, went on to pull off a shutout.

The 1990s is where her international career kicked into full gear. In the first Women’s World Championship in 1990, she scored 11 goals in 5 games, leading Team Canada to a gold medal. She would lead the team to gold again in 1992, 1994 and 1997. This absolute dominance led to her being hailed as a key figure in bringing women’s hockey into the mainstream, and she’s been described as the ‘first superstar of modern women’s hockey.’

During this time, Angela also met her partner, Ange, in 1994. The two now have three kids, and Angela has spoken openly and in support of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community engaging with sports as she has done.

While Angela retired in 2000, her contributions to women’s hockey did not stop there. In addition to her outreach described above, she continued to coach women’s hockey, opened the Breakaway Adult Hockey School, and was a director of the Seneca College Women’s Hockey School before becoming the Senior Sports Coordinator there. She remains a prominent advocate of women’s hockey.

Her recognition on the awards front is without question. In 2008, she was one of the first three women inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federal Hall of Fame. In 2009, she joined Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and in 2010 she was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. More recently, in 2022, she was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her contributions to women’s hockey.

In February 2024, over 19,000 people attended a Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) game between Toronto and Montreal – a record, and a testament to the groundwork that Angela laid during her career.

While I could regale you in her achievements, I want to finish this tribute by reflecting on how this started: “The Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey.”

Angela kicked absolute ass, but she did it as a Black and lesbian woman in a male-dominated sport that only recently has gotten the recognition it deserves. She wasn’t just dropped in the deep end and became the best at swimming to the top; she built the pool, carried the water to fill it up, and then started swimming. Once she reached the top, she started working to get as many people into the pool as she could and pushed them to go as high as they could.

Simply put, Angela is the “Angela James of Women’s Hockey.”

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