Atlanta Thrashers Relocation: Why the NHL Diversity Task Force Failed

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Atlanta Thrashers Relocation: Why the NHL Diversity Task Force Failed
Claus Andersen/Getty Images

The NHL Diversity initiative did not succeed in accomplishing its objectives in the one metropolitan area that should have been a no-brainer: Atlanta, Georgia.

The NHL Diversity Task Force, led by Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, was formed in 1993 based on sound business objectives.

The more fans that watch and appreciate hockey, the better the fortunes of the NHL.

Simple enough, right?

The NHL’s investment in diversity is for good financial reasons, not necessarily based on social conscience or racial outreach.  

If the NHL is going to grow its fanbase, it will be necessary to add African-American and Hispanic fans. This makes sense because that is the formula for success utilized by MLB, the NFL and, of course, the NBA.

With player contracts escalating with each new collective bargaining agreement and overall hockey franchise expenses skyrocketing, a NHL team will find it difficult to stay solvent long with half full arenas, so naturally the more fans, the better the chances of any team succeeding.

When finances become a problem, it is increasingly difficult to provide a good on-ice product. The Atlanta Spirit Group experienced that very problem, losing key players like Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley, as well as resorting to reducing payroll.

Byfuglien was never utilized effectively in Atlanta to attract addtional demographics

It sounds simple enough, but as is often the case in the real world, things can be drastically different.

In Atlanta they were different.

There have been a number of issues discussed as the reasons for the Thrashers' demise in Atlanta, and a poorly executed plan to deal with marketing to Atlanta’s diverse potential fanbase is only one of them.

It is an enormous one though.  

Atlanta’s population is dramatically poles apart from almost any other NHL home city. The eighth-largest city in America has a population with 54 percent African Americans and 5.3 percent Hispanics, which represents roughly 60 percent of the total population based on 2010 Census data.

That's in contrast to the other 29 cities that house NHL franchises, with the exception of Washington, DC.

In fairness, the Thrashers made attempts to attract minorities by both drafting and trading for players like Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien, Anthony Stewart and Johnny Oduya.

The team also owned the rights to former Calgary player Nigel Dawes and former Chicago prospect Akim Aliu.

Darnell Nurse was a top draft choice in the Ontario hockey league this year

The part they never figured out was how to market the African descent players without risking alienating existing fans in pursuit of new ones.

Despite all the progress in the South since the Civil War, there are still some attitudes that are slow to change.

Few remember that in 1978, one state less than 100 miles away from Atlanta drafted a young scoring star out of Kingston, Ontario from the Canadian juniors named Tony McKegney.

When the Birmingham Bulls owners found out McKegney was black, the team retreated from his legally executed contract in fear that fans in Alabama would not support the team with a black player on it. Fans threatened to boycott the team for having added a black player to its roster.

McKegney went on to score over 300 goals in the NHL, including a high of 40 in his career.

This was in 1978, not 1958, and Birmingham had at the time 75 percent minority residents living in the city.

In 2011 there are still those that are not entirely comfortable with a crowd of African Americans in Philips Arena watching hockey games, and the Thrashers were aware of it.

The question they never answered was, “How do you market to one group and not alienate the other?”

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The Thrashers needed a combined effort to save the team

The 56th NHL All-Star Game was played in Atlanta in the 2007-08 season, and Willie O’Ree and the Diversity program were showcased at the event.

The Thrashers periodically sent players like Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien out into the community to participate in outreach at urban community centers. Unfortunately, one-time visits and photo opportunities at sites like the YMCA were not enough to draw children who have little knowledge of the game.

In Wayne Gretzky's eponymous autobiography, he recalled how he learned to love the game playing "foot hockey" with future teammate and Hall of Famer Paul Coffey.

Foot hockey would logically provide the most comfortable first step for children who have never experienced the game and would create an easier transition.

Uriah Jones, an African-American hockey instructor in Atlanta interviewed for this article, said it was "great to see...some of these kids who have never picked up a hockey stick or ever watched a game showing natural talent and instincts in the foot hockey games we set up.”

With no follow-up there was no way for children and therefore parents to embrace the sport, which is the vital seed for growing the sport in non-traditional markets.

During the Thrashers' tenure in Atlanta it often seemed as though one hand in the Thrashers organization had no clue what the other was doing, and the outcome was an ineffectual marketing plan, leading to upheaval to Winnipeg.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
Evander Kane and Johnny Oduya ended up as teammates on the Thrashers

The NHL, like most of the nation, is changing, and ice hockey is no exception. Recently the Toronto Sun published a story about the top draft choices in the Ontario Hockey League. The article notes that four of the 12 first picks were players of color. 

Jordan Subban (brother of P.K with Montreal), Darnell Nurse (nephew of Donovan McNabb), Nicholas Baptiste and Stephen Harper were all selected early in the OHL draft, which is the premier Canadian hockey farm for the NHL.

P.K. Subban and Jarome Iginla are among the most popular players in all of hockey, and Chris Stewart is one of the game’s emerging power forwards, so that's more players of color.

Surprisingly, Nashville Predators forward Joel Ward outscored Daniel and Henrik Sedin in the Stanley Cup playoffs this year.

Never have so many players of African descent been drafted in the same year as top picks, and it looks like the NHL and the Diversity team may have their work cut out for them.

It just will not be in Atlanta.

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