ATLANTA (AP) – 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.
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.''
Photo above: Dustin Byfuglien