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.
In addition to Byfuglien, the team includes 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.
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.”’
Kane is hopeful about the impact the team’s diversity can have.
“I don’t know if it’s coincidence or not, but it’s good,” he told Morehouse College journalism students recently. “To play with players who look like me, it shows how far the game has come.”