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Thrashers' black players earned way to Atlanta

by Dan Rosen
Johnny Oduya has had at least two black teammates since 2007, so seeing players around the dressing room that have the same skin color as him is becoming old hat to the Thrashers' defenseman.

"It's starting to get normal," Oduya told "I like that."

He likes it even more right now because in Atlanta he's part of a ground-breaking quartet.

Oduya, Dustin Byfuglien, Evander Kane and Anthony Stewart represent the largest black population on any one team in the NHL today. They started with five, but Nigel Dawes was waived after six games and subsequently re-assigned to the AHL Chicago Wolves.

Atlanta also has Akim Aliu playing in Chicago and this summer drafted Sebastian Owuya, a Swedish defenseman like Oduya, who is playing in the WHL for Medicine Hat. Two more black Thrashers prospects are playing in college, including Jordan Samuels-Thomas at Bowling Green and Yasin Cisse at Boston University.

"It's definitely something I've never been a part of before and it just shows the direction that hockey is going," Kane told "There are a lot of diverse players in the League and there's going to be a lot more, I think."

What's important to note, as Oduya, Kane, Byfuglien and Stewart all believe should be pointed out, is that they all can play and that they're all in the NHL on merit.

Kane was the fourth pick of the 2009 Entry Draft. No black player ever has been selected higher.

"Hopefully someday somebody can beat me," he said.

Byfuglien was on the short list for the Conn Smythe Trophy while helping the Blackhawks win the Stanley Cup this past spring. Oduya was an Olympian for his native Sweden, and was good enough to be a major piece of what Atlanta got in return last season for Ilya Kovalchuk. Stewart has taken a winding road to the NHL, but already has a hat trick and is averaging almost 15 minutes of ice time per game this season.

"We're just part of a team and that's it," Byfuglien told "You can't look at it any differently. You just gotta go out there, know who your teammates are and play hockey still."

But in the Atlanta metropolitan region, which has a black population of more than 50 percent, the players understand their presence on this Thrashers roster could be a big sell.

"It's great for people who may not be traditional hockey fans to have something to identify with," Stewart told "It's not necessarily a big market yet, but it could help the casual fan just to come out and catch a game or two. We're all pretty good players, in my opinion. We all bring something different to the table. Just the casual fan sparking an interest that can lead to a lot more fans coming on a night-to-night basis."

"It would be silly not to try to promote it and market it," Kane said. "The Thrashers are probably going to try to do that and I'm more than willing to be a part of that and be one of the focal points of that campaign."

Atlanta may be heading in that direction, but as GM Rick Dudley adamantly pointed out, it's not on purpose, as some bloggers and journalists have been suggesting.

"If it happens to work in Atlanta because there's a large black population, that's great. But to do it purposely? That would be ludicrous to me," Dudley told

"Dustin Byfuglien was the most sought-after guy in the Chicago purge and we pushed hard to get him," Dudley said. "Johnny Oduya we traded for because he's a darn good defenseman. Evander Kane, we picked him at No. 4 and he was on almost every (draft ranking) list in the top four. Anthony Stewart is a guy that I know better than most people and this year he's proving himself able to play in the National Hockey League.

"I don't ever remember making a deal and saying this guy's white or black or whatever. I just really don't care."

Stewart said it's not a big topic in the locker room, either.

"It's kind of the elephant in the room, but we've all been around long enough to know that there are a lot more players of color and different backgrounds in the game," he said. "It gets mentioned here and there."

Outside of the locker room, though, the news over the Thrashers' roster deserves to be a topic of conversation because somewhere in Atlanta there could be a kid using Oduya, Byfuglien, Kane or Stewart as his inspiration to make it big.

"If you can inspire somebody to push that extra mile and see maybe that it's possible for them to do it, that would be a good thing," Oduya said. "It's good to see that it's something that is not a weird thing anymore."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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