Atlanta has long been known as something of a mecca for African-Americans. For hockey, it has been known as something less than a mecca. Now, there's speculation that the Atlanta Thrashers might be trying to tap into the former to help the latter.
Things got started about a month ago, when the blog Pass it to Bulis pointed out that the Thrashers have acquired about a fifth of the black players in the NHL in a little more than a year. The piece wasn't critical -- in fact, it praised the possibility of that the Thrashers were trying a new strategy to build hockey in Atlanta given the team's less-than-storied history and problems drawing fans.
It is imperative to their success that they engage their community in the same way that Vancouver, Montreal, Indiana, and many other sporting communities do. As we've seen, the way to do this (short of winning, which isn't an option for Atlanta) is to give your team a local connection. A Georgian birth certificate is a rarity in the NHL, but black players are beginning not to be.
When the Thrashers began an advertising campaign featuring black players, the speculation made its way to The New York Times, where Atlanta President Don Waddell dutifully denied any racial element to the team-building strategy.
"It all just kind of happened," he said. "It wasn't like we went out and tried to pick up black players."
It's hard to say too much good about the administration of a team that has yet to win a playoff game (or appear in too many) in 11 years of existence. But the Thrashers are in a city that is unquestionably a Falcons and Braves town, and the Hawks of the NBA outdrew them by nearly 3,000 a game last year despite playing in the same venue. If hockey is going to survive in Atlanta, it's going to need more attendance to do so.
The strategy might be unconventional. But if it works, by bringing in the kind of attendance that would allow Atlanta to perhaps avoid getting rid of top-flight players on a regular basis, it could be a boon to all Thrashers fans -- no matter what their race.
(HT: Puck Daddy)