"I think we're going to try to stick with more Western Canadian kids [...]" -- Canucks GM Mike Gillis
In July of 2009, the Atlanta Thrashers signed prospect Anthony Stewart, formerly of the Florida Panthers. In the 2009 entry draft, they selected center Evander Kane fourth overall. In a trade deadline swap, they acquired Johnny Oduya, among other pieces, from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for Ilya Kovalchuk. This past summer, they picked Sweden's Sebastien Owuya in the sixth round of the 2010 entry draft, acquired Dustin Byfuglien and Akim Aliu in a 9-player trade with Chicago, and signed Nigel Dawes to a two-way deal just prior to the beginning of training camp. Why are these moves significant? All of these players are black.
That's seven black players (six if you discount Owuya, who has not yet signed an NHL deal) that the Thrashers have acquired in just over a year, in a league that only has about 30 active black players. To put it another way: in the last fourteen months, the Atlanta Thrashers have acquired 20% of the black players in the NHL. On purpose. Considering the sensitivity around racial discourse in North America, one might be hard-pressed to find any member of the Thrashers' organization foolish enough to admit that they are intentionally acquiring black players, but this is a conspicuous trend. Considering that active acquisition of visible minorities is an unprecedented organizational mandate in the hockey world (both for political reasons and the availability of such players), a discussion of Atlanta's seemingly race-conscious roster-building is warranted. There are two major questions that need to be answered. First: why are they doing it? Second: is it an acceptable practice? In this article I will explain the uniquely African-American market in Atlanta, and why the Thrashers' strategy is a good one.
Atlanta has such a large black community that it is often called "The Black Mecca." While the total population of Atlanta is just shy of 5 million, Atlanta's black community accounts for over 1.5 million of that total--almost 1/3 of the population. What makes Atlanta different from other heavily-black areas, however, is the near-preponderance of a black middle class. According to the 2008 Atlanta Census Report, almost half (48%) of Atlanta's black community members own their homes and the median black household income is just under $40,000 a year. 25% of blacks are college graduates, which means large numbers of blacks among mid-sized corporations. Much of this is owed to the Atlanta University Center (AUC), which has six historically Black colleges and produces more Black post-graduates than any College system besides Howard University. There are more than 60,000 black-owned companies in Atlanta, including the nation's largest black-owned construction company (H.J. Russel Company). Atlanta is a city bursting at the seams with black entrepreneurs, and Atlanta hockey needs their dollars.
Hockey is an alarmingly white sport. It is also, unfortunately, an elite sport, as the cost of involvement (either as an attendee or a participant of games) tends to rule out lower-class interest. Sports such as basketball and soccer, which require much less money and equipment to play, draw in the lower classes, but it is the upper and middle classes that are usually involved in hockey. This is one reason we see very few blacks in the game. Urban Legends, a recent The Hockey News article on Chris Stewart and Wayne Simmonds's difficult road to the NHL--a must-read if this topic interests you--explained some of the issues facing lower-income families. "The costs to play [hockey] are astronomical," writes Ken Campbell. "It is not uncommon for a family to spend $10,000 a year to have a member participate at the highest level of minor hockey."
The socioeconomic standing of much of the black community, unfortunately, just doesn't allow for hockey's necessary expenditures. In the same article, Stewart admits, "I think every game before I take the faceoff, 'If I can't do this, I'm taking food out of my sisters' mouths." Powerful stuff. Campbell also mentions SKILLZ, a non-profit hockey organization aimed at diversification and serving kids from immigrant families. A list of its graduates is an alarmingly comprehensive list of hockey's black players: Kevin Weekes, Jamal Mayers, Anson Carter, Chris & Anthony Stewart, Trevor Daley, Joel Ward, and P.K. Subban. It is clear from this article and the realities of the situation that, without reaching out to the black community, they will never find their way to hockey.
This cannot happen in Atlanta. Atlanta's black community could not only support a hockey team and produce talented players from within its black middle-class families; it must, in order for the Thrashers to reap a large enough chunk of the market share to survive. The Thrashers have failed, in the past, to connect with this vital demographic in any meaningful way, and much of this has to do with the lack of black representation within their locker room, let alone the game itself.
I am a black hockey fan. Black players have been conspicuously absent from the NHL as long as I've been alive. I grew up playing the EA Sports' NHL games. I used to try to create an all-black team (typically called the Blacks, or the All-Blacks, until I discovered New Zealand's Rugby team). This never went anywhere, as Jarome Iginla was always forced to play center and usually had to skate between Donald Brashear and Peter Worrell. And, even when, at the zenith of my desperation, I would add Manny Malhotra to the mix, I never managed to get the 20 players necessary to qualify the team.
I also used to create myself so that, like all hockey video gamers, I could pretend I was awesome at real hockey. For most of my life, creating a semi-realistic self was impossible, as the default player profile in these games was a white guy. Worse, there was no way to change this; it seemed the folks at EA considered whiteness a foregone conclusion. As a young kid, it made me a little sensitive about my skin colour. I got the sense that the NHL wasn't for me, a sentiment that I believe is echoed by far too many blacks. I kept coming back, however, because I loved playing the games, and I eventually discovered that if I wanted to be black and good at hockey in EA's NHL, my one option was to edit the profile of Jarome Iginla. At that time, he was the only coloured skill player in the league.
These days, EA provides a few different options for the skin tone of the player you create, but it took them far too long. They should be ashamed. And still, the possibility of a minority in hockey, even on the video-gaming end, continues to be underconsidered: in last year's NHL 2k10, Wayne Simmonds--who was not yet established enough to receive anything but the default player profile--is white. It's a dumb mistake that should never have been made, and just serves to reinforce the falsity that hockey is a "white sport."
All of this is to say that I have a vested interest in what the Atlanta Thrashers are doing, both because of my own visible minority status and because their practice is in direct contravention to the hockey world's previous nonchalance regarding the involvement of black people in hockey. Here I refer both to the players and the consumers, as both are connected, and a strong presence among one group will lead, invariably, to an increase in participation among the other. More black players means more black consumers will take interest in the team; more black consumers means more black children will be raised around hockey. Atlanta is actively seeking to engage their black audience by increasing the incidence of black players in Thrasher uniforms. Black celebrities too. This is a good idea.
Those that might disagree are going to do so because of the perception of racial bias, or perhaps blatant racism, but that's not what's going on here. Much of racism is about exclusion on account of race (you can't be here or you can't marry her on account of your race), and the Thrashers are not excluding anybody. There's no affirmative action happening here either. Evander Kane was the best available player with the 3rd pick in the 2009 draft, and may very well have been the impetus for this entire shift in organizational philosophy. He fell into their laps, and he is a player you can build a team around. Johnny Oduya and Dustin Byfuglien are talented players as well. This isn't like my attempt to create an all-black team, where I promoted black players to roles they were not suited for. Atlanta is acquiring skilled guys that would fit on any team; their blackness is a bonus. If, on the flipside, they were attempting to purge their dressing room of a specific ethnic group, that would be racial exclusion, and I would have a problem with that.
One might look to the recent troubles of the NBA's Indiana Pacers as an example of racial exclusion, and I should first qualify this by saying that I am, embarrassingly, a huge Indiana Pacers fan. My first real exposure to basketball was Reggie Miller's epic Eight Points in Nine Seconds. I've loved the Pacers ever since. I was a Pacers fan during the now-infamous Brawl at the Palace, when Ron Artest jumped into the crowd and a fight erupted between players and fans. That incident began an era of foolish and unprofessional conduct for the Pacers, resulting in a local backlash against the team's thuggish core that forced Pacers' management to make roster changes.
Unlike Atlanta, which is nearly one-third black, Indiana's population is 88% white. While basketball is an important part of their state identity, they pride themselves on a particularly "white" playing style, characterized by fundamentals, sportsmanship, humility, and teamwork. (Think of the guy at the street court who can do all sorts of fancy AND1 Mixtape moves but can't perform a bounce pass or a left-handed layup.) Consider that Indiana's greatest basketball export is NBA legend Larry Bird, who could do everything well while still being a humble, down-home kind of guy. In this context, it should go without saying that the Brawl at the Palace and the ensuing incidents were antithetical to Indiana basketball. From a Peter May article at Yahoo! Sports:
Indiana added to its woes in the ensuing months and years with a number of embarrassing off-the-court incidents involving its players (strip clubs and guns are never a good mix). The fans turned away in droves; in 2006-07 the Pacers were 28th in attendance and, the following season, fell to rock bottom, No. 30.
The misconduct of the Indiana roster disconnected the Pacers from a fanbase that expected humility, honour and teamwork from its basketball players. The team has been on the brink of bankruptcy ever since. Unfortunately, the common skin colour of the offenders made race a major issue, and over the next few years, the Pacers suspiciously acquired quiet, unassuming white players: Peja Stojakovic, Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, Tyler Hansbrough, etc. Pacers' people have denied they were performing any sort of racial roster cleanse. Maybe they weren't, but like the Atlanta Thrashers, the acquisition of so many minority players (in this case, a white minority) will raise eyebrows.
Is the whitening of the Pacers--if indeed it was intentional--worse than what Atlanta is doing? Yes, because they were specifically purging their roster of black players. The difference between the two cases is the difference between exclusion and inclusion. That said, a community needs to feel a connection to its team in order to spend money on it, and the Indiana community will never connect to thuggery. You can see why Pacers' management might lean towards safe, white players. It's not fair, but blame the thuggish black players who propagate negative black stereotypes at the same time you blame the white fans for buying into them. And the fans should be ashamed. Let's continue.
If you think your team is above acquiring players for reasons of ethnicity--you'd be wrong. Consider the celebrity of Don Cherry, who makes a living valuing Canadianness over skill. Just last year he took Paul Kukla to task for his claim, based on Corsi stats, that Ryan Johnson was the worst player in the NHL (and, to Cherry's disgust 5:28 into the clip, Marian Hossa the best). While Cherry never came out and said it, Johnson's fearlessness reflected Cherry's ideals regarding Canadian hockey, and it therefore warranted a defense. Cherry's been accused of racism before and walked away unscathed because the players he discriminates against aren't visible minorities (so it's not racism--it's ethnocentrism). That said, he's never going to be fully held accountable for this, because his biases are shared by the majority of Canadian hockey fans.
Hockey is so enmeshed in the Canadian national identity that Canadians will always feel uneasy when our players are the minority on our hockey teams. For us, Canadianness is an attribute of the game of hockey, and we don't want foreigners representing it because, as foreigners, they simply can't. A recent survey by the Association for Canadian Studies showed that 53 per cent of respondents believe Canadian-based NHL teams should have a minimum percentage of Canadian players. The reality is that, just like the Atlanta fanbase, Canadian hockey fans have a unique identity and a strong sense of themselves. As stakeholders, we expect that to be reflected in the makeup of our teams. If you find yourself disagreeing with this assessment, let's look at two examples: The Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks.
Quebecers are particularly sensitive to Canadian representation on their hockey team. In the above survey, an alarming 72% of French-Canadians supported a mandated quota of Canadian players. (As a sidenote, I personally feel this overwhelming public opinion played a huge role in Montreal's stubborn determination to keep Carey Price over Jaro Halak). But there's more: Quebecers expect French-Canadian representation. Every year, there seems to be a rumour that Vincent LeCavalier or some such other star Francophone is headed to Montreal, as the city has been clamoring for a French-Canadian figurehead for years.
The province of Quebec is insistent that their team's players be representative of their identity. In fact, when I began writing this article, I had not yet heard the ludicrous comments made last week by Parti Quebecois language critic Pierre Curzi, who claimed, according to Daniel Halton's report, the lack of Francophone players on the Canadiens was part of a federalist plot to rob Quebecers of a cherished symbol of their identity. It was unsubtle nationalism, so boorish that Ted Bird at CTV Montreal claimed Curzi could take subtlety lessons from Don Cherry. Curzi came under fire almost immediately for his comments, but he's just spouting an extreme version of the same sticking point Quebecers have adhered to since the club's inception. From Canadiens blog Habs Eyes on the Prize:
One year after the birth of the Montreal Canadiens, known then as Le Club Athletic Canadiens, it was decided that this would become the franchise that would cater to the desires of the french speaking clientele. Slowly but surely it filled it's roster with french names [...]
Despite Montreal management claiming otherwise, nationality will always factor into their roster-building strategy. At the end of the same report, Daniel Halton tells us that 1/3 of the players trying to make this year's Montreal team are Quebecers. That is the highest percentage you'll find anywhere in the NHL. Halton: "Management insists their skills on the ice--not the language they speak--will determine who makes the cut." This may true, but that doesn't mean they aren't on the lookout for NHL-quality Francophones, especially after last year's playoff run, which piqued fan interest and nationalistic scrutiny at the same time. Suggestions that there's an "Anti-Francophone Virus" in Montreal grew suddenly louder after the Canadiens were, ironically, eliminated by a Philadelphia Flyers team led by Francophones like Simon Gagne, Claude Giroux, and Danny Briere. Montreal noticed that; they weren't happy.
One could argue that Quebecois nationalism in hockey is out of control, but you have to realize that the hand of the Canadiens is forced: in order to garner continued support for their hockey club, they must pander to a desire for Canadian--and especially Francophone--representation. Just like Atlanta, Montreal is a community with a specific ethnic priority. That community needs to feel a connection to the team in order to stand--or, in this case, remain standing--behind it.
For British Columbians scoffing at how ridiculous this sounds, be aware that your team is no better. If Montreal's nationalistic explanation for their loss to Philadelphia seems shortsighted, consider the similar line of reasoning in Vancouver following two consecutive postseason eliminations by the Chicago Blackhawks, a team full of BCers. Consider the furor over Markus Naslund's captaincy and the Euro-captain debate in general, or the annual cries by some that the team has too many Swedes. Consider general manager Mike Gillis's response to a fan inquiring about the pursuit of Russian players at July's Summer Summit: "I think we're going to stick with more Western Canadian kids," Gillis said, to a hearty applause. It was little more than clever pandering in an effort to dodge a silly question. But, it worked because BC fans fear foreign takeover like all other Canadian fanbases, and expect BC-born players on the roster.
It's been said that there are two Canadas: English and French. This division is palpable, but there are actually three Canadas: Quebec, naturally, and the East and West Coasts. Much of the pressure to give Henrik Sedin the Hart trophy came from West-Coasters sore over constantly being overlooked by what they feel is a hockey media with an East Coast bias. West-Coasters have a tendency to feel underrepresented in Canadian media (right or wrong), often jealously calling Toronto "The Center of the Universe." This tension bleeds into our hockey teams. Just like Quebecers expect for French-Canadians to represent their unique micro-community within the macrocosm of Canada, we demand a Western-Canadian presence.
It's why all Canuck fans know that Dan Hamhuis is from Smithers and Willie Mitchell is from Port McNeill. It's why it matters that Brendan Morrison is from Pitt Meadows, and don't underestimate Morrison's role as the BC-born pivot for the West Coast Express during their heyday. He allowed Canuck fans to take complete ownership of that line. It's even why it seems to take heavy community involvement (Trevor Linden's charity work or the Sedins' massive donation to the BC Children's Hospital) from our star players before we accept them completely. To hail from any birthplace but in Western Canada is to be a foreigner, and we need to be able to claim them as our own to get behind them fully.
The ultimate no-brainer was Indo-Canadian forward Manny Malhotra, who fit the Canucks' need for a third-line center, but also has notable BC connections and shares his heritage with a large portion of the Canuck fanbase (drive down South Fraser Way in Abbotsford after a playoff win to see this firsthand). The Vancouver Canucks have the largest Indo-Canadian fan following among Canadian teams, and just happen to have the only two Indo-Canadian players in the NHL in their organization, with Malhotra and Surrey native Prab Rai. Yes, Malhotra's skillset was likely the major factor behind his donning the orca, but don't kid yourself: it wasn't the only one. It never is.
Back to the Atlanta Thrashers. All of this is to say that, from a business perspective, I support their strategy of acquiring black players. 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. In Atlanta, this needs to be apparent in order for hockey to gain any momentum there.
That said, while I don't blame ownership for pandering to a fanbase's unease with otherness and foreignness (they have to do what will sell tickets), I do blame these fanbases in Canada, where hockey is already established. Our teams are forced to consider and carefully manage the foreign element when building their rosters because of our mean-spirited nationalism and ethnocentrism, and that is unacceptable.