In the 93-year history of the National Hockey League, no team has looked like this year’s Atlanta Thrashers.
The team’s opening-night roster included Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Anthony Stewart, Johnny Oduya and Nigel Dawes -- five of the 19 black players in the league -- to help the Thrashers set a record for minority participation. They are also helping them win games.
“This is the first time I’ve ever had this many guys who look like me in the locker room,” Kane, a 19-year-old Vancouver native, said in an interview at the team’s practice arena. “It’s definitely a nice feeling.”
While Thrashers President Don Waddell said the team’s racial makeup wasn’t intentional, the attendance-challenged NHL team plans to use it to reach potential new fans in a city with a 61 percent black population, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.
“There are lots of good black players in the NHL, we just happen to have five of them here,” Waddell, 52, said during an interview last week in his Duluth, Georgia, office. “We’re not going to be shy about that and will try to use that to help grow the sport in this marketplace.”
Attendance at Thrashers’ games has declined the past three seasons to an average of 13,607 in 2009-2010 -- third-lowest in the 30-team league -- from a high of 17,205 in the team’s inaugural season in 1999-2000. A franchise-low 8,820 attended the team’s Oct. 20 loss to Buffalo.
“For us to be successful here, it’s not happening right now,” said Waddell, who was promoted to team president this summer after 10 years as general manager. “We don’t have enough fans to make this thing viable long term for an ownership group. We have to try to find other means to bring in other revenue.”
Even before this year’s roster was set, Waddell said the team’s marketing department had planned to expand its advertising into downtown Atlanta this season. In previous years, marketing was mainly focused on 25-to-45-year-old white males in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, he said.
With Kane and his teammates, the new focus now makes even better business sense.
“You have another whole set of sponsorship opportunities,” Waddell said. “There’s still a segment of this population that we have never reached out to.”
When the team’s local advertising campaign begins in earnest next month, commercials will air on radio stations that have a hip-hop format. The team’s outdoor billboard campaign, which had primarily been focused in northern suburbs, will have an increased presence in downtown Atlanta this season. The club plans to advertise in more predominantly black publications and cross-promote the team with the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, with whom the Thrashers share Philips Arena. Atlanta Spirit LLC bought both clubs in 2004 for $250 million from Time Warner Inc.
Kane, who became the highest-drafted black player in NHL history when Atlanta took him fourth overall in 2009, has been a regular at Hawks’ games since arriving in the city. He’s currently featured in most of the team’s advertising alongside 20-year-old defenseman Zach Bogosian.
While Atlanta is promoting its diversity, Waddell is cautious with his words and insists the team makes personnel decisions based on skill, not race.
“Some people think we’re trying to use race for our own benefit,” he said. “That’s not the case. We’re not trying to exploit these players. It’s not like we’re saying ‘let’s just promote our black players.’ We’re still trying to promote our best young players.”
Statistics back up his words. Through the team’s first eight games, Byfuglien, Stewart, Kane and Oduya rank among Atlanta’s top eight scorers. Heading into last night’s game against the New York Rangers, Kane leads the team with five goals, Stewart is second with four and Byfuglien’s six points (2 goals, 4 assists) are second among defensemen.
In an Oct. 15 shootout win over the Anaheim Ducks, Stewart, whose father is from Jamaica and mother is from Montreal, scored three of the team’s four goals. Dawes, who also has a Jamaican father and Canadian mother, scored the game-winning goal in the overtime shootout. Dawes, 25, has since been assigned to Atlanta’s minor-league affiliate in Chicago.
For the NHL, Atlanta’s diversity is the result of years of grass-roots work throughout hockey to increase interest in the game.
“We’ve all worked hard to get kids access to play hockey across the globe,” said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s vice president of marketing, in a telephone interview. “You’re starting to see, and we’re going to be reaping, some of the rewards of that.”
With four of the five players being biracial, Stewart, 25, likes to correct the official total.
“Technically, it’s 2 1/2,” he said.
The joke draws laughter from Kane.
“He loves that line,” said Kane, who was named after former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
However, like Waddell, Kane says the team’s makeup isn’t a joking matter and insists the only way the club will draw more fans and increase revenue is by winning. The Thrashers have made the playoffs once in their 10 seasons. They are fourth in the Southeast Division as of games played Oct. 26, four points behind the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning.
“The fact that we coincidentally have a bunch of black guys on the team is nice, but at the same time I don’t necessarily think it’s the end-all be-all of bringing fans to the games. We have to win,” he said, “but it definitely helps.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at email@example.com