Story and photos by Mark Newman
A rolling stone gathers no moss. Or so the saying goes. Which means that James Black felt like fungus when he was sidelined for the better part of a year by a broken leg, an injury he sustained in February 2000 when a blocked shot attempt went awry. I knew something was wrong right away, recalls Black, who was playing for the Washington Capitals at the time. I peeled myself off the ice and tried to put some weight on it, but I could feel something grinding.
Black was playing his second season in the nations capital, having enjoyed his best year the previous season with 16 goals in 75 games. He was on pace to equal or better those totals when his luck changed. It was just one of those freak accidents, Black continues. A guy took a shot from the point and I went down to block it. Unfortunately, he took so long with his windup that I veered off and exposed the outside of my fibula. With his team ahead 3-2 and only seconds remaining in the game, Black did his best to get off the ice as quickly as he could, even though the pain was excruciating. X-rays confirmed his worst fears. It was a non-weight bearing bone, so they told me I might be out about a month, Black remembers. It ended up being a lot longer. Washington, only one year removed from reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, was in position to win its division.
Hopes were high that the Capitals would make another run at the Cup. I was excited because we had a great team and things were going really well, Black says. It was just the breaks, I guess. I tried to push myself to get back in time for the playoffs. His leg, however, did not cooperate. There was no way, he says. I could skate straight, but I couldnt turn. It was disappointing because I was enjoying one of my better years. Black, a veteran of 12 pro seasons, has seen action with six NHL teams. He broke into the league with the Hartford Whalers, who selected him with their fourth pick in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft.
Over the years, Black has also played in Minnesota, Dallas, Buffalo and Chicago. Following the injury, Black continued getting X-rays taken every couple of weeks, with no improvement. I must have seen a dozen different doctors in the U.S. and Canada, he says. They even tried acupuncture. Watching his teammates from the press box was not Blacks idea of fun. But you dont want to play and be a handicap to the team, so youve got to bite the bullet and be a cheerleader. Black finally had surgery on May 12. They scraped my knee and placed some into the bone in my leg, then they put in 10 pins and a plate, he says. I was off my feet for a long time. Unable to work out like he normally would during the summer, Black felt like he was out-of-shape going into the Capitals training camp before the beginning of last season. I got off on the wrong foot and it seemed like that just carried over into the whole year. I always felt one step behind. I was more frustrated than anything, says Black, who finished the season with only one goal in 42 games.
This past summer was totally different. Black was working out in Edmonton when he got a call from the Griffins. He is no stranger to the organization, having skated alongside head coach Bruce Cassidy and center Kip Miller with the Indianapolis Ice in 1995-96. This is a great opportunity for me to show something, Black says. At 32, Im not that old and I still feel I have a few years left. I was working my butt off because I knew it was do or die. There arent that many jobs out there. Now that he has a job, Black wants to make the most of the opportunity. I definitely want to get back into the NHL, but I want to help this team too, he says. Id like to help the Griffins win a championship, and maybe teach the younger guys a little of what Ive learned over the years. Even if it means blocking shots? Youve got to be willing to sacrifice your body if you want to win, he says.
Its that same determination that drove Cassidy as a player, Black contends -- not to mention all three Miller brothers. Besides Kip, Black played with Kevin in Chicago and Kelly in Washington. Theyre all whiners -- so is Butch, Black laughs. Its because were all competitors. I learned over the years that you have to work hard to be successful. There are nights where youre tired, of course, but youve got to keep on pushing yourself. Black isnt surprised at the success that Cassidy has achieved as a coach. I know what kind of guy he is and I know he wants to win, Black says. I want to do the same thing.
This is Blacks first year back in the American Hockey League, where he started his professional career with Binghamton during the 1989-90 season. There undoubtedly will be some adjustment. Guys are running around a little more at this level, Black says. Youve got young players looking to hit guys, hoping to make an impression. In other words, better keep your head up. Playing in Grand Rapids, that wont be difficult, Black says. This is a great city to play in, he insists. (Griffins general manager) Bob McNamara gave me the opportunity and I dont want to let him down. I finally feel like my game is coming around. Im looking forward to a great year.