It would be so easy for Val James to shoot a puck at 80 miles an hour over the glass and smack into the empty head of one of the simpletons who screams "nigger," or "spearchucker," or "coon" whenever he skates onto the ice.
But having been slurred with every derogatory name imaginable during three seasons as the only black player in the Eastern Hockey League, Val James says he has grown used to the abuse he has taken for playing a predominantly white sport.
James is a regular defenseman and winger for the Erie (Pa.) Blades, one of five EHL franchises (Baltimore, Richmond, Salem, Va., and Hampton, Va., are the others). He says he gets the most abuse in Salem, but scores of Baltimore Clipper fans demonstrated Wednesday night they are in the same bigotry league.
Scattered jeers of "Buckwheat" and "Nigger, go home" could be heard around the Baltimore Civic Center when James, who scored a goal and assisted on another, took his first turn on the ice in the Blades' 7-4 victory.
"I've come to expect it," James said, sippng coffee in a Baltimore hotel the afternoon before the game. "Salem is the worst city for me, but here it can get pretty bad, too. Some nights I can take it better than others. But then, other nights, I just feel like going up in the stands, grabbing somebody and beating the hell out of them. But that wouldn't solve anything.
"People who do that must have had problems early in life. How can people be so cruel? It's so ignorant to go into a public place and incorporate into 8- or 9-year-old minds concepts like nigger and buckwheat and monkey, as being symbolic for a whole race of people.
"Sometimes it's unbearable. I've thought about letting a slap shot go into the crowd. Those heads are sticking up just over the glass behind the goalkeeper, and in this small league in tiny arenas, the people are sitting close enough for me to look into their mouths and count their fillings. It wouldn't take much to rifle the puck in their, straight at somebody's head. I can shoot pretty accurately. But would it be worth it to intentionally injure somebody?"
James is 6 feet 2 and 200 pounds, intimidating enough to discourage even the boldest bigot from calling him anything but James to his face, "because I'd dust him off right then and there," he said.
He was born in Ocala, Fla., 24 years ago but was reared on Long Island, where he learned to skate after his father became the manager of a local rink. "I was 13 years old then, and I could get all the ice time I wanted," James said.
He played junior hockey in Quebec City, and didn't understand the slurs uttered in French, James was cut by the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings before this season began, but insists he will try again next year to stick with a big league club.
Even in NHL arenas he probably will hear the indignities. But James makes clear that he will never opt to battle the bigotry with patient silence, like Jackie Robinson, whose life he has studied extensively. James doesn't believe in turning the other cheek, which is not surprising for a hockey player.
James is an articulate man with hard features and a captivating personality.
He probably is the most popular player among his teammates.
"I can honestly say they've been great," James Said. "Sometimes I've had to restrain them from going after people in the stands. If any of them are prejudiced, I've never seen it."
Surprisingly, James said, he has had just one racial run-in with an opposing player, who "called me one of the typical names with all the adjectives. But then he stepped off the ice.
"I was so angry that I went right after him on his own bench. Several of my teammates (including roommate Nelson Burton, a former Washington Capital) had to pull me off the guy. His own teammates told me to ignore him because he was just a classless ass."
James, along with the other Blade defensemen, has a reputation for aggression around the league. "I've had my share of fights," he said, "but none of them were racially motivated."
His only bad experience in Erie could have turned out disastrously.
"A guy came up to me in a bar on an offday and said, 'Hey nigger, what does it feel like to play hockey?' I started to dust him off but my teammates grabbed me. I found out later that he was an undercover cop. I could be in jail somewhere right now.
"The amazing thing is that he was only about 5-7. It's the little guys who think they have to prove themselves. And even the big ones have to have several friends."
James said the insults are getting worse, not better.
"It's part of the nation's conservative swing," he reasoned. "Like the child killings in Atlanta. The public address guy had to announce before the game in Salem last week that anybody using abusive language to offend anyone would be ejected from the arena.
"It could loosen up," James continued, "but it's going to take a lot of work on everybody's part. Sure, I've thought about quitting, but hockey is in my blood. I want to be able to say 10 years from now that at least I did my best. I might not make it. But at least I will have tried."