The Thrashers’ New Recruits

With the most diverse roster in the NHL, the team is expanding its fanbase
Hockey, as we know, is largely a white person’s sport. The modern-style game was birthed in Canada—the Great White North—and the bulk of NHLers hail from there or Eastern Europe. So when the Atlanta Thrashers started rounding up seemingly every available player of color, the chattering class wondered: With attendance at Thrashers games among the lowest in the league, is this a promotional ploy to fill Philips Arena with black fans?

Don Waddell sighs at the notion. “We haven’t tried to take black players just because of their race,” says the team president, who served as general manager from day one through last season. “I could have ten Spanish, ten black, and ten white players on my roster. If we don’t win, nobody comes to the games.”

Kane, Thrasher, February 2011
Evander Kane / photo by Gregory Miller

In less color-blind times, quotas were applied to minorities, but these days, ethnicity is hardly ever a factor in assembling a pro sports squad. “Our scouts see 2,000 games a year,” Waddell says. “They don’t worry about that.”

Still, since the summer of ’09, the Thrashers have traded for, signed, or drafted eight black players. They have dressed four for most games this season, one fewer than Edmonton in 2000–2001, the unofficial NHL record. The result? A more diverse crowd at Thrashers games.

Waddell attributes the marginal bump in African American attendance to the teen prodigy Evander Kane. His acquisition “was appealing to some black folks, who decided to come check out the Thrashers,” Waddell says, adding that Dustin Byfuglien has also been a draw.

And Kane, while cruising the Buckhead malls during the holiday season, was struck by an unusual sight: black folks wearing Thrashers gear. “First time I’d seen that,” said the left wing, a Vancouver native perhaps destined to surpass his namesake—the boxer Holyfield, a fellow Atlantan—as the most famous Evander in sports. (Kane’s father was a fighter, in the ring as well as on the ice; Mom is an ex-volleyball pro.)

The Thrashers’ marketing team is capitalizing on the opportunity. Billboards have sprung up on seven ITP interstate locations, plus Camp Creek Parkway, aimed partly at the eyes of blacks.

Local radio stations that target an “urban” audience—industry speak for “black”—increasingly carry advertisements for games. Some, including the afternoon V103 radio show of hockey convert Ryan Cameron, have invited players into the studio for on-air interviews.

Cameron, who moonlights as public-address announcer for the Hawks, escorts his family to the occasional Sunday afternoon game. “I’m a fan,” he says, “so the black players on the team is just a bonus.” He has urged the Thrashers to spread the word in local black publications.

The club has responded, sending a willing Kane out to smile for the cameras. Essence and Jet magazines are planning articles, according to team publicist Rob Koch. “It would be a shame if you didn’t do things like that,” Kane says. “The majority of [the city of] Atlanta is black. You have to take advantage of that.”

No radio or TV spot is tailored to focus on the players’ colors. The standard ads employ the club’s catchphrase, “a brutally good time.” Apparently, the promise of on-ice mayhem transcends all demographics.

“We are not trying to force anything,” said Tracy White, chief sales officer and senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Atlanta Spirit, the Thrashers’ parent organization. “We do think [the multiracial roster] is a very cool thing.”

On a recent weeknight game, the black fans in section 203 didn’t seem too focused on the players’ heritages. “They have black players? I can’t tell from this far up,” said Sharon Lukiri of Hampton from her perch in the top row. Jamaal Dean of Kennesaw, a Thrashers newbie, was unaware until player mug shots flashed on the overhead screen. “Diversity, it helps,” he said. But for Dean and other fans, what matters most is whether the roster can lead the way to the Stanley Cup.