- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
- 0 Shares
Angela James was the first real superstar in women's hockey.
The 45-year-old Toronto native was often referred to as the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey in her heyday.
"People always make comparisons with Angela to Wayne Gretzky," former Canadian women's hockey star Cassie Campbell-Pascall told ESPN.com. "I've always said she's the Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier of women's hockey.
"She did it all. She was the most dominant player -- by far -- in her day."
James, today the senior sports coordinator at Seneca College in Toronto, laughed when told of Campbell-Pascall's Gretzky/Messier/Howe comparison.
"When I first started I probably could be compared more to Gretzky," said James, without a trace of arrogance, but rather matter-of-factly. "But as I continued in my career it was Mark Messier with the edge. I got through puberty and got revenge a little bit [she laughed]. Then you grow old and you're Gordie Howe."
Her induction Monday night is a touching honor for her. As one of women's hockey's true pioneers, her legacy won't be forgotten.
"First of all, when I grew up playing hockey, I never would have even thought we'd be playing national championships, never mind international tournaments," James said. "So for this milestone to take place, it was never on my list of things I thought could happen.
"It's a great day for the game; it's a great day for women's hockey."
Starting in the late 1970s, James was a goal-scoring machine in Canadian women's hockey circles, but it wasn't until the inaugural women's world championship in 1990 in Ottawa that both James and her sport garnered national attention in Canada.
"That was the first time that I think the women's program was really introduced to media coverage," James said. "That was pretty overwhelming. That was the turning point in terms of the women's game going from amateur to professional."
Mind you, those pink jerseys Team Canada wore in that 1990 world championship may not have been the greatest idea ever.
"I cringe more at the white pants than I do the pink shirts," laughed James, the proud mother of three children.
She would end up leading Canada to four world titles but missed out on the ultimate opportunity when the Canadian team stunningly left her off the 1998 Olympic squad -- the first Games for women's hockey. Just like fellow Hall of Fame inductee Cammi Granato and her 2006 omission from the U.S. team, James' exclusion was jaw-dropping news.
"I remember we were in awe that she wasn't there," Granato told ESPN.com. "She was the most clutch player in the game. She was the player that every time we played she was so intimidating and she scored all the big goals. We didn't understand what was going on."
Sure, she was perhaps beyond her peak as a player, but she remained a very good player at the age of 33.
"She was the leading goal scorer [in pre-Olympic tuneups] up until cut time," Campbell-Pascall said. "She wasn't necessarily the first- or second-line center anymore, but she easily could have played the wing. In my opinion there's no question she should have been on the team. Looking back now it's easy to say, especially when you lose [Team USA won gold].
"But just her leadership and the fact she still could play. She wasn't the Angela James of her prime, but she could still play. She would have made a difference against the U.S. She was a big-game player. It's a shame that's how it played out."
The scar hasn't fully healed to this day.
"Probably never enough time," James said. "It's a big sink in your stomach. I always say 'Well, at least I got to play in the world championships,' and try to look at all the positive things I got out of the game rather than concentrate on [Nagano]. But really, the bottom line is that I knew I should have been there. To me that's all that really matters. Life goes on."
And Monday night is a good day for hockey.
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
As one of the true pioneers in women's hockey, Angela James' legacy will not be forgotten as she is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.