Paving the way

Watch the NBA? NFL? Or the MLB? What about the NHL? Do you notice any differences between the first two and the last two? Race. The NBA is about 80 to 90 percent black. The NFL is about 60-75 percent black. The MLB is a pretty low at about 9 percent, but it’s not much of a surprise considering the league is dominated by mostly Latinos, Japanese, and white Americans. The National Hockey League is the lowest, at about 1-3 percent, but it’s the most intriguing-by a long shot.

Thrashing through the NHL

The Atlanta Thrashers can boast that if the season ended today, they would be in the playoffs representing the Eastern Conference. 7 other teams can say the same. But the Thrashers can also boast something no other team can: Diversity. The Thrashers are the only team to have 4 players of African-American status. It was fitting when, this past offseason, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stanley Cup champs, traded away fan-favorite Dustin Byfuglien to the most diverse team in the National Hockey League. Byfuglien, along with others, was shipped to the Thrashers on June 24th, 2010, right after “Big Buff” carried the ‘Hawks to their first championship after a major drought. He joined Anthony Stewart, Johnny Oduya, and possibly the future face of the NHL for young African-Americans, 19-year old Evander Kane as the others on Atlanta.

Why there haven’t been too many African-Americans in the NHL

There are a number of reasons. First, when we are kids, almost all of us have favorite players. As natural human beings, we tend to like players that are similar to yourself. Maybe they come from the same country as you, speak the same language as you do, or maybe they are the same race as you. The last one is rare, but with minorites in sports, such as African-Americans in hockey, or Asians in basketball (although Yao Ming has greatly influenced other Asians), sometimes it happens. To add on to that thought, we usually start playing that sport because of that player, and who knows, sometimes, you reach the pros. But it all starts with that one favorite player, that one inspiration to a new sport that just might well be your career.

How they have fared

First and foremost, due in large part to the four players, the Thrashers are currently in the playoffs, which would be only the second time in their history that they have made the postseason, the 2006-2007 season being the first and only. Stewart has 10 goals and 14 assists, good for 24 points on the year. Oduya, a defenseman, has 13 points on the year. Kane, in his second year, is already 2 points away from his rookie season points total, with 24, split evenly between goals and assists. Bygfuglien by far has been the best on the Thrashers thus far. The defenseman, who played forward during the Blackhawks’ playoff run last year, is being asked to play his original position, and hasn’t missed a beat, thriving with the young talented team, scoring 14 goals, 14 assists, and an already career high 39 points, getting more and more consideration, and is now one of the favorites for the NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina.

A new era

With the emergence of the Thrashers, more and more African-American players are likely to appear on center stage in the NHL. Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban is the only African-American on the Canadiens. Wayne Simmonds, a right winger for the Los Angeles Kings, has 15 points on the year. Anthony Stewart’s brother, Chris, is putting up good numbers for the Colorado Avalanche, with 11 goals and 14 points. And of course there is superstar Jarome Iginla, who started off the season poorly, is slowly coming on, now with 34 points for the Calgary Flames. But Kane has the biggest potential in terms of the future of the NHL and African-Americans in the NHL. He is already the highest-drafted African-American in the history of the NHL, with the 4th pick in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. As ESPN The Magazine points out, Kane has more of an impact, with Atlanta being 61 percent black. For Iginla, no such luck. Calgary is only 2 percent black, making an influence in the local community for African-Americans a lot harder.

Next in the NHL

If the Thrashers end up making their second playoff appearance in franchise history, which is likely, the four youngsters have a chance to showcase what might be the new age in hockey: the emergence of African-Americans. And maybe, in Atlanta, a baseball, football, and basketball city, we might just see an emergence in Thrashers fans; A chance to show the entire league just what diversity can do for a team and a city.

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