Matthew Harper, a 21-year-old student at Morehouse College, recently attended his first hockey game as part of an assignment for his sports journalism class. He said many of his friends have no clue about the number of blacks playing for the Thrashers.
"This could be a marketing machine," he said. "But I really haven't seen anything out there on blimps or the side of buses. If people knew, they might be like, 'Wow, there are that many brothers on the team? Let me go support the cause.'"
Harper grumbled beforehand about having to attend the Thrashers game, figuring it would be nothing more than something extra to put on his resume. Once he saw the sport in person, however, he was totally won over. He plans to attend more games and hopes to his friends to come along.
He acknowledged there are plenty of barriers keeping African-Americans from displaying much affection for hockey, many of them grounded in race.
"It's an unknown," Harper said. "We don't know the sport, the history of it. Why get immersed in that culture if you don't know anybody who's playing? Excuse me for saying this, but it's a white man's league. Why get involved in that if you can't connect to it?"
But Mark Hayes, a local television anchor whose 15-year-old son is furthering his hockey career at a New Hampshire prep school, said there is clearly more buzz about the team in the African-American community this season.
"I think this is the most African-American folks I've seen since I started going to games nine years ago," said Hayes, who is black. "The word is slowly starting to get out."
The Thrashers insist race will never be a factor when evaluating players, and Dawes is skeptical anyway about just how much it boosts attendance to have more blacks than any other team.
"It might help a little bit, but over time it's not going to be a huge difference, where people are going to come watch your team just because you have more African-Americans on it," he said. "As a GM or coach, I don't think you can target players just because of the market you're in. It's just kind of funny the way it worked out."
Kane is more hopeful about the impact of Team Diversity.
"I don't know if it's coincidence or not, but it's good," he told the Morehouse journalism students. "To play with players who look like me, it shows how far the game has come."
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