When a lot of hockey people didn’t think Val James had the wherewithal to be a professional player, John Brophy did.Brophy knew James had a hockey hunger because he saw it up close when Brophy was a fiery player for the Long Island Ducks and James was a youngster whose dad worked maintenance for the Long Island Arena, the barn where old Eastern Hockey League team played in the 1970s.
James’ dad had the keys to the arena, so young Val could skate whenever he liked. Brophy would watch James and his friends play in a local league at the arena and give them a little coaching.
“He thought I had the right stuff,” James told me recently. “I was just starting out so I wasn’t that much of a skater, or even a hockey player, for that matter. But he stuck with me and taught me a lot of things that did lead, eventually, to me going out and getting to where I got in hockey.”
John Duncan Brophy, a colorful career minor-league player who went on to become North America’s second winningest professional hockey coach, passed away earlier this week at the age of 83 following a lengthy illness.
Brophy is hockey history. His 1,027 wins is second only to Hockey Hall of Fame Coach Scotty Bowman’s 1,224 victories. He accumulated a record 3,822 penalty minutes in an EHL playing career that spanned from 1955 to 1973.
He’s the only ECHL coach to lead a team, the Hampton Road Admirals, to three championships.
But Brophy is also black hockey history. He helped steer the careers of James, a tough-guy forward who became the National Hockey League’s first U.S.-born black player, and Bill Riley, who was the NHL’s third black player behind Willie O’Ree and Mike Marson.“Broph, he didn’t see color,” James said. “As a matter of fact, he and my dad were friends. To see them talk to each other, you’d swear they were enemies, but they were actually really good friends. Broph was always swearing – he couldn’t talk without swearing. My dad would be swearing back. You’d look at them and you’d say, ‘man, these guys are about to go’ and then they’d be laughing it up.”
Val James and Brophy also struck up a friendship rooted in mutual respect. When he coached in the American Hockey League, Brophy didn’t hesitate in sending out his enforcer to battle James, who was regarded as one of hockey’s most-feared fighters.
He also thought highly enough of James to add him to his St. Catharines Saints AHL squad in 1985-86. James rewarded Brophy’s faith with 3 assists and 162 penalty minutes in 80 games.
When Brophy coached the Toronto Maple Leafs for 2 1/2 seasons, he called James up from the minors for four games in 1986-87 to add toughness to the team. He responded with 14 penalty minutes in those games.
When James was working on his autobiography, “Black Ice: The Val James Story,” he sought out Brophy in 2013 for his recollections.
“He said to me ‘All the years you played with me, for me, against me, I had nothing but the best in mind for you and, you know what, you performed better than I ever expected,'” James told me. “‘I just wanted to let you know that you are one of my boys.’ I was very emotionally overtaken by that. He treated me like a son.”
Many players viewed Brophy as a tyrant – a white-haired, red-face temperamental task-master with a fondness for bag skates and yelling until he was hoarse.
“He made sure I did things right,” James said. “If I didn’t get things right, he’d explain it to me, maybe not the way a regular person would – he’d be screaming a lot – but that’s ‘Broph.'”Riley, who was a forward for the Washington Capitals in the 1970s, skated for Brophy’s Voyageurs toward the end of his playing career in 1983-84. Brophy made Riley team captain and the player responded with 24 goals and 24 assists in 78 AHL games.
“Not only did he give me a contract, he paid me $5,000 more than what I was making in Moncton and he didn’t have to do that,” Riley said at a 2013 event in Amherst, Nova Scotia honoring his hockey accomplishments. “He really, really took care of me.”
Riley went into coaching and found himself going up against Brophy in a crucial minor league contest.
“We needed one point to clinch first place overall, and John didn’t give us anything. He played us hard, right to the wire,” Riley recalled. “I think the game ended up 3-3. When I got the point and the game was over, John looked over at me and saluted me. I considered that one of the greatest honors in hockey.”