TORONTO - The mystery still plagues and troubles Angela James, even here on the very best day of her hockey life.
Upstairs in the Great Hall, she is smiling, laughing, staring at the Hockey Hall of Fame ring she says she will never take off again, and yet she is trying to make sense of a part of her life that remains untold: How is it that the Gretzky of women’s hockey was left off Team Canada for the 1998 Winter Olympics?
How it is that this pioneer was denied entrance into the first Olympic Games that welcomed the sport she helped put on the map?
“Had it ever made sense to you?” James was asked of the most hurtful determination of her hockey life.
“Never,” she said.
“Did you ever pick up the phone and ask (the coach) Shannon Miller?”
“Did not do that,” she said. “Probably will never do that ...
“I know what I was capable of. I know they made a wrong decision in my opinion.”
She knows, even at this time with her life and times being celebrated, that there is still deep hurt and resentment inside her for a Canadian hockey decision that has never been properly explained.
On the dais Monday morning, James sat beside Cammi Granato, her American counterpart. Together, they became the first woman to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame, even if a third one, Fran Rider, belonged there as a builder right beside them. Without Rider, there is no James and there likely is no Granato induction, but the real difference between the Canadian and the American wearing the same rings is this: Granato got to the Olympics twice — should have gone three times. James had one chance — Shannon Miller took it from her.
“Am I jealous,” said James, with a slight smile, talking of Granato. “Yeah, why not?
“That was a very hard time for me to deal with back then. Always questions. Why? Why? Why? There’s not much I can could do about it. It was out of my control. That’s what they felt was best. And that’s the way she goes.”
I wanted to ask Shannon Miller what happened prior to the 1998 Olympics that forced the release of James. I called her at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she is coaching the women’s hockey team. I left a message.
She never called back.
Granato, for one, has never understood how or why James was left off the Olympic competition that her American team won.
“We were shocked, absolutely shocked, and couldn’t understand,” Granato said. “She had been their clutch player forever. When you’re going into the biggest tournament of your life, why wouldn’t she be there? It’s an advantage to Team USA right there and it’s unfortunate for her because she had really trailblazed for so long and led her team for so long.
“It’s an injustice she never got to the Olympics. We didn’t know (what happened). It was a mystery. To me, it was like taking a Gretzky or a Crosby off your team. We didn’t understand it. In the year prior (to the Games), she was dominant. Especially in the big game. In the biggest game of your life, when it’s going down to the wire, you’re going to want her on the ice. Knowing her and knowing what it feels like to be cut, it’s unfair. It’s like an injustice. She should have had that experience ... It’s the Olympics. It’s the pinnacle.”
At home, awaiting the birth of her first child, Cassie Campbell wishes she could play 1998 all over again. She, like James, like Granato, can’t make any sense of the decision to leave James off the Olympic team that failed to win gold in Nagano.
“That was just stupid,” said Campbell. “That’s my personal view of it. I wish I had said something at the time, but I was just a young kid, I shut up. I was afraid to say anything. Besides, who would have listened to me?
“I know Angela wouldn’t have been our No. 1 or No. 2 centre at the time. We had Nancy Drolet and Hayley (Wickenheiser) just coming into her own. Still, she warranted making the team. She was a big game player. I think she still led us in goals or points. She had such a big presence. And she was so dominant in big games.
“What happened with the coach? She and the coach had some kind of conflict. I don’t know if it was personal. I don’t know exactly what it was. They were two strong personalities.
“Whatever it was, it was wrong. We needed her. We needed her attitude. We needed her on that team.”