Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Angela James

The year is 1998. For the first time in Olympic history, women's hockey will be included as a medal sport at the Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan.

It is a great victory for women hockey players around the globe. So many women had pioneered the sport to this moment. Finally women's hockey had arrived at it's grandest stage.

Team Canada had an incredibly difficult decision to make, however. Hockey Canada desperately wanted to win the inaugural gold medal, and that would take the best 20 female players in the country to stave off the upstart Americans. In an unthinkable move Team Canada decided the top 20 did not include the legendary Angela James, the leading name in Canadian women's hockey.

She was so vital to the women's hockey scene that the decision to leave her off the roster of the 1998 Olympic Team was every bit as controversial as the decision to leave Mark Messier off the men's team that same year.

Both were similar cases. Though both were legendary leaders on and off the ice, Hockey Canada deemed that neither were the players that they once were. With many younger players waiting in the wings, Canada opted to pass the torch rather than reward years of service.

James had been a member of Canada's gold medal teams at each of the previous four Women's World Championships. She was Canada's leading scorer with eleven goals at the 1990 Women's World Championship and was an All-Star forward in 1992. She was also a top scorer at the 1994 and 1997 World Championships.

On the national scene her various teams medaled 12 times in total at the national championships. In 8 of those tournaments she was selected as Most Valuable Player.

CBC's Robin Brown once played against James, and spoke of her the way so many speak of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

"She could do it all. She had end-to-end speed, she had finesse as a stick handler and her slap shot was harder and more accurate than any female player I have ever seen. She was a pure goal scorer like Mike Bossy and aggressive like Mark Messier. In her prime, she was referred to as the “Wayne Gretzky of Women’s Hockey.” "

There was no doubt that the name Angela James was synonymous with women's hockey in Canada and around the globe prior to 1998. That's why her exclusion from the Olympics was such a shock.

Though very disappointed about missing Nagano, James took it all in stride. She said women's hockey owed her nothing and that at the age of 33 maybe she was not as good as some of the younger players at the time.

Robin Brown does not take the high road, saying it is "a decision that still defies reason. The game’s greatest player was denied the chance to shine on the world’s largest stage by a coach’s decision that lacked credibility, then or now. It was an injustice."

She may very well be right, and since Canada failed to win gold in those Olympics we will forever second guess the decision.

One thing is for sure: it would have been nice to include women's hockey's greatest pioneer at the Olympics. Through her love of the game she fought so many battles to pioneer women's hockey to the brink of the Olympics. She brought credibility to her sport.

In 2010 the Hockey Hall of Fame finally opened it's doors to women hockey players. They made the right call by making James (and American star Cammi Granato) as the first woman ever inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. She, Granato and Geraldine Heaney had previously been inducted into the IIHF Hockey Hall of Fame.

In retirement James returned to Seneca College where she has become an athletic coordinator. She also has her own hockey school and has coached female teams at various levels.

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