Blackhawks see increase in minority hockey fans

Dave Maxx normally doesn't watch the Chicago Blackhawks outside the comfort of his home in the South Shore neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

Maxx decided to change that routine and go out to watch the pivotal Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals. He decided on the 50 Yard Line, a bar and restaurant near his home.

Maxx, who is African-American, wasn't sure what to expect when he arrived to the bar. He knew it as a destination to watch other Chicago sports teams and the patrons were usually all African-American. When he stepped into the bar off 75th Street, he was surprised by what he saw.

"They actually had the game on," Maxx, 44, said. "All the TVs [were turned to it], which isn't something that normally would happen at the 50. It's more of a Chicago Bulls, Chicago Bears type place. It's an all-black bar. It's really a dance-focused place, so to be able to go and watch the game there is definitely something new. It's nothing that would have happened five years ago."

As Maxx discovered walking through the doors of his local bar, hockey isn't what it used to be. The game has been welcoming more minority fans, youth participants and professionals than ever before, and the perception of hockey being a "white sport" continues to fade.

The fact the NHL has seen a rise in minority players has helped the increase in viewership among minority fans. From 1957 to 1995, according to the league, a total of 27 black players played in the NHL. In 2013-14 alone, 43 minority players, including 22 black players, earned spots on NHL rosters. The NHL still trails well behind the other major professional sports in this area, but progress is being made.

"The emergence of some African-American players -- P.K. Subban, Evander Kane, Johnny Oduya -- now kids are actually seeing players look like them," said NHL fan development and diversity programming senior vice president Ken Martin. (Note: Subban and Kane are Canadian, and Oduya is Swedish.) "It's been a win- win."

Evan Moore used to feel like a loner as an African-American Blackhawks fan on Chicago's South Side. He rarely saw anyone in his neighborhood, especially African-Americans, wearing Blackhawks apparel.

Moore was drawn to the game by watching the Soviet Union play in the 1988 Winter Olympics as a 10-year-old. But while his interest grew over the years, his neighborhood friends' dislike for hockey continued.

"It was kind of like an ebb and flow because at first people are like, '[You're an] Uncle Tom and why are you liking this white man's game. There's no brothers out there, looked scary, and they got sticks.'" said Moore, who is a freelance journalist.

Moore discovered he wasn't alone as an African-American hockey fan when he wrote an article for ChicagoSide about his personal experience with the game. After the story was published, Moore quickly began hearing from other African-American hockey fans.

"People came out of the woodwork with like emails, Facebook inboxes, Twitter DMs," Moore said. "They were people who were black hockey fans from all over the country and Canada. They were basically saying, 'Thank you for writing this.' They were looking for someone to speak for them."

Three years have passed since Moore wrote that article, and things have changed since then. Moore now doesn't have to travel far outside his door to see people wearing Blackhawks apparel.

"Everywhere where I go, wherever you're at in the city, you see a Blackhawks sweater or a cap or a T-shirt or something," Moore said. "I even saw last year a rapper had a Blackhawks chain. People are excited. First, people looked at it ... it's a white man's sport, things of that nature. Seeing players like Dustin Byfuglien and P.K. Subban, they see someone who looks like them and they kind of get a taste for it that way."

Research supports Moore's observations. The Chicago Tribune (citing statistics from Scarborough, a media research firm) recently reported that 21.9 percent of Chicago African-Americans identified themselves as very or somewhat interested in the Blackhawks in 2014. That figure was just 12.6 percent in 2011.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown didn't need much convincing from his wife, Lexi, to understand the influence he could have on getting Tampa's minority youth involved in hockey.

Lexi explained to J.T., who is African-American, about the Lightning's outreach youth programs, and he was sold. Once he got involved, he knew pretty quickly he'd made the right decision.

"For me, it was a no-brainer," Brown said. "To see those kids from where they started and then even three weeks later to see the progress they made. ... It was just all smiles. They were always smiling even when they were slipping and falling down. You got to see all of the trials and errors out there on the ice."

The Lightning have created two programs to get kids involved in the game. One introduces kids mostly at inner-city schools to the game through street hockey. The other teaches kids to skate and play hockey over a 12-week program. The Blackhawks have similar programs in Chicago.

"The big thing for us is building awareness," Lightning executive director of community hockey development Jay Feaster said. "They don't know about the game. They're not playing at home, they're not necessarily watching on television.

"It's about exposing kids and it doesn't matter race or socioeconomic situation. It's about exposing them to the game and the sport itself. It's been good -- a lot of fun, a lot of work to do still, but we can see we're starting to make inroads."

Residents in Chicago's 27th Ward, home of the United Center, recently received a newsletter that included information about Hockey on Your Block, a free hockey program targeting at-risk youth.

Hockey on Your Block executive director Ray Lilja wasn't exactly sure what sort of response he would get. He expected some families to call, but what he got overwhelmed him. More than 100 kids, almost all of them African-American, were interested in giving hockey a try.

"Once we put it out through Alderman [Walter] Burnett's newsletter and the 27th Ward, our phones were ringing off the hook," Lilja said. "We signed up over 100 local kids. They are just having a ball. These new kids, really, it's the first time on skates. But you know they're just thrilled to death to feel like they're becoming a hockey player."

There is no doubt in Lilja's mind the Blackhawks' recent success has played a role in more minority youth trying hockey in Chicago. USA Hockey, the country's governing body for amateur ice hockey, doesn't keep track of how many minority players have registered, but it keeps tabs on overall numbers. The number of registered players in Illinois barely increased from the 2000-01 registration period (20,881) to 2008-09 (21,954), but participation took off after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010. In the 2013-14 season, 29,977 Illinois players registered, trailing only Minnesota, Michigan, New York and Massachusetts in participation.

"I think that we probably still would have signed up quite a few kids, but having the Blackhawks doing exceptionally well this year, it drove the numbers higher quicker," Lilja said. "Without the Blackhawks' success this year, we might have had to go out and recruit a little harder from the neighborhood. Now, it's a no-brainer. The kids are all over it."

Lilja and his volunteers have found it doesn't take long for the kids to embrace the sport, regardless of their race.

"I think it's just the pure excitement of the game," Lilja said. "If you look at some of the other sports that folks are into from ethnic groups, they're kind of slow-moving, if you ask me, like baseball. Football, you have a play and it lasts for no more than four or five seconds, and there's a long period of waiting. I just think it's the pure excitement of hockey, fast-moving, high intensity, lots of skill and plus the fact there are a lot of ethnic groups all the way up to the NHL that participate. I think that's got a lot to do with it."

Chicago isn't alone in growing youth hockey in minority communities. It's expanding all over.

The NHL's Hockey for Everyone initiative has 39 program centers throughout North America and has had 60,000 participants over the past 10 years. Programs like Ice Hockey in Harlem and Philadelphia's Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation have introduced hockey to thousands of kids.

"It's an opportunity for us to expose the game to kids who normally wouldn't have the chance to play the game," the NHL's Martin said.

"One of the fallacies [out there] -- it's not that African-Americans don't like hockey, it's the accessibility. Now, with what the league is doing along with the clubs, they're providing access to communities to be involved."

The Hockey for Everyone program isn't just about hockey. It also focuses on core values -- perseverance, leadership, teamwork -- and education. Participants must maintain a B average in school to remain in the program.

"One thing that has been great is we have 97 percent grade-to-grade matriculation rate in high school," Martin said. "We have shown that using hockey tied into education, it's a great program for us."

Eric Collins, 30, would have loved to have had such a program available when he was growing up in Chicago. Collins, who is African-American, became a hockey fan later in life. He and his friends just didn't have access to the sport growing up.

"Being able to play it, that's the main reason" a lot of African-Americans aren't interested in hockey, Collins said. "We don't have rinks in the hoods. Now if you go outside to the suburbs, the north suburbs or southwest suburbs, there are rinks everywhere, but we don't have rinks in the hood. We weren't exposed to it."

Former player and current NHL Network analyst Jamal Mayers, who is black, has seen growth among minority fans, but he believes there are still many hurdles to be cleared for even more fans and participants to get involved.

"I would say I see more African-American fans wearing Hawks jerseys at the games, around town, wearing the hats than ever before," Mayers said. "Let's face it -- it's an expensive sport. That's the major hurdle why it's so difficult to play the game.

"There are three issues in my mind. As a kid, you want to emulate people you see. And so, there's very few examples for kids to see that it's possible, where there's so many examples in basketball. Then you step into the next issue, which is economics and ice time and getting opportunity to play, that's another issue. The final one for me is there's five skill sets to learn how to play hockey. You got to be able to skate. You got to be able to be physical. You got to be able to stick handle. You got to be able to shoot. To do all those things simultaneously is not easy. You have a lot of attrition."

Moore recently witnessed hockey making some progress in his own family.

"My dad called me the other day. 'Hey, there's a brother on the Tampa Bay Lightning,'" Moore said. "He got excited about [hockey] about that. Even my dad, he doesn't go really to the games, but he saw the playoffs last year. [He asked], 'Can you take me to a game?' I was like, 'Maybe we can do it.'"

--additional reporting by Katie Strang