Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Soul on ice

Could Dustin Byfuglien save hockey in Atlanta?

While Vancouver Canuck Henrik Sedin was celebrating a Hart Trophy, Byfuglien was quietly enjoying his Stanley Cup summer in Phoenix until he found out he was traded.

The Fugly One was a Chicago Blackhawk until June 23 when he was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers. The 25-year-old from Minneapolis had 11 goals and five assists in the Hawks’ Stanley Cup run. He certainly got some votes for the Conn Smythe Trophy and was unpopular in Vancouver for getting in the way of Roberto Luongo so often.

Atlanta is the eighth-largest media marketplace in the United States and it is rich with sports, where the Atlanta Braves and Atlanta Falcons dominate the pro sports scene and the Georgia Bulldogs are the college mainstay. Basketball’s Atlanta Hawks are a bigger wintertime draw than the Thrashers, who averaged only 13,607 fans last season. That’s the third-worst attendance in the league.

Atlantans never did relate to Russian Ilya Kovalchuk, but they might just come to know and love The Fugly One.

While much was made of the Blackhawks marketing to African-American fans in Chicago, it’s a demographic that the Thrashers need for their survival. More than half of Atlantans are African-American.

Byfuglien, whose father was African-American Ricky Spencer, could end up playing on the same line in Atlanta with Vancouver Giants’ product Evander Kane. Kane was picked fourth overall last year by the Thrashers and is named after Atlanta heavyweight boxing superstar Evander Holyfield.

Atlanta is also the birthplace of Martin Luther King, who led the civil rights movement.

It's a long climb to the hilltop that is the Stanley Cup, but 2010-2011 could be the year Atlanta is spared from becoming the first city to lose two National Hockey League franchises. Thanks to Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien.

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