Atlanta Thrashers president Don Waddell skates gingerly around the lexicon, searching for the appropriate term to describe five players on a team that opened its season with a 4--2 win last Friday over Washington. "African-Americans, I guess," Waddell says. "That's the expression we're all comfortable with." The phrase is as politically correct as it is inexact. Defenseman Johnny Oduya is a Swede. Three others are Canadians. Dustin Byfuglien is from the U.S.
Obviously, in the NHL of 2010, not only the puck is black. While the Thrashers play in a city in which African-Americans account for 55.8% of the population, these five minority players on the 23-man roster—the most ever on one team, according to the league's diversity program—are hardly marketing gimmicks. Dynamic sophomore left wing Evander Kane is the cornerstone. The steady Oduya was the key piece in the trade package for Ilya Kovalchuk last February. Byfuglien became available when the Blackhawks were stuck in a salary-cap vise last summer. Anthony Stewart, a right wing who played for Atlanta's AHL affiliate last season, was familiar to new G.M. Rick Dudley, who had drafted him 25th overall for Florida in 2003. And free-agent signee left wing Nigel Dawes from Calgary was an ideal fit for budget-conscious Atlanta.
The Thrashers have approached community leaders for guidance on how to promote their minority players with sensitivity. Meanwhile, the franchise has shifted some media buys to nontraditional outlets, including "urban" radio stations. The black community seems to have noticed, according to Waddell: Approximately 10% of fans at Thrashers preseason practices were African-American. "I said when I got here 10 years ago, it would take five to seven years to grow grass roots," Waddell says. "We still have a long way to go, but this can help."