Thrashers hoping black fans notice diverse roster

By Paul Newberry

Associated Press

Published: Monday, Jan. 31 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

ATLANTA — Dustin Byfuglien looks around the Atlanta Thrashers locker room and sees something unusual.

A bunch of guys who look like him.

"The way we look at it, we're not any different than any other team. It's just the color of our skin that makes us different," Atlanta's all-star defenseman said. "But we do joke around with it a little bit."

It's no laughing matter to the attendance-challenged Thrashers, who are trying to seize on the possible benefits of being just the second team in NHL history to have five black players on the roster in a city with a huge, affluent African-American population.

The team has beefed up its advertising on urban radio stations and black-oriented publications, focusing heavily on the team's most prominent players of color, Byfuglien and 19-year-old star-in-the-making Evander Kane (a Canadian who was named after one of Atlanta's most favorite sons, former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield).

"Given that we're in a nontraditional hockey market, we've always made a concerted effort not to pigeonhole ourselves with just die-hard hockey fans because, frankly, there's not that many in this marketplace," said Tracy White, the team's senior vice president of sales and marketing.

"I don't have any hard figures to tell you, yeah, we've seen more African-Americans coming to games. But I can tell you anecdotally, yeah, we've seen more African-Americans coming to games. You can just eyeball it and see."

In addition to Byfuglien and Kane, the Thrashers have suited up three other players of black descent this season: Defenseman Johnny Oduya and wingers Anthony Stewart and Nigel Dawes, giving the Thrashers a staggering 20 percent of all black players in the NHL and equaling the 2000-01 Edmonton Oilers, who had Anson Carter, Mike Grier, Georges Laraque, Sean Brown and Joaquin Gage on their roster.

These are not just bit players, either.

Byfuglien is Atlanta's leading scorer (16 goals, 41 points) and just played in his first All-Star Game. Stewart (12 goals, 28 points) and Kane (13 goals, 27 points) are solid contributors on offense, even though Kane has been plagued by injuries in recent weeks. Oduya is a stalwart of the defense, playing all 52 games. Only Dawes has failed to crack the regular lineup, spending most of the season in the minors.

"These guys are among our best hockey players," coach Craig Ramsay said. "That is what's really exciting. Throughout the United States, this could be a great influence on the game. People could get a look and say, 'Hey, I like that guy. I want to watch him. I can do that, too.'"

There's certainly a large but largely untapped audience in Atlanta.

In the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., blacks comprise more than 31 percent of the population over the sprawling metropolitan area, more than any other city in the top 30, according to the 2000 Census. While poverty is still a major issue, especially in the inner city, the more accurate view of the black community these days can be found in thriving suburban communities, populated with large homes, well-paying jobs and plenty of disposable income.

The Thrashers would love for African-Americans to start spending some of that money on hockey tickets. Despite going into the All-Star break with the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the team ranks 28th out of 30 teams in average attendance at just over 13,000 per game.

There have been persistent reports that Atlanta is on the verge of losing its NHL franchise to a Canadian city, and the owners recently conceded in a lawsuit that they've been trying to sell the team since 2005.

Given its financial woes, some wonder if the team is doing enough to take advantage of its diverse roster in the African-American community.

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