NHL Needs More Brothers To Move Back to the Mainstream

On Wednesday night, Sports America should have been glued to their TVs to watch the Detroit Red Wings-Chicago Blackhawks Game 7 in Chicago.

It was everything sports fans look for in a big game. It was do or die. The winner advanced to the Western Conference Finals. The loser went home.

The Wings had a 3-1 lead in the series before Chicago won the next two to tie the series.

We were either going to see Detroit upset the best team in the league, or the ’Hawks win the President’s Trophy with the most points in the league. Better yet, we were going to see one of the greatest sports comebacks turned in by Chicago.

This reporter was glued, mostly because I have covered sports in Detroit for more than 20 years, including many hockey games. Plus, as a kid, I loved hockey. Like, really. I used to watch every New York Islanders game on TV and knew every player, even the backup goaltender.

For sure, when it came to black sports fans, I was in the minority then and even more so now. Most brothers in this country didn’t flinch or even notice what took place.

The NHL – once considered one of the top four sports in this country along with MLB, NFL and NBA – is nothing more than a regional sport; a niche sport, if you will.

There are plenty who care about it, but it just doesn’t have the same national appeal as it once had. ESPN even dropped broadcasting the NHL and hardly even talks about it.

The league’s ratings have been getting better. In fact, Saturday’s Wings-Blackhawks game scored a 2.9 on NBC. But most of the time, when it goes up against other sports, it bottoms out.

In 2006, when the NBA on ABC and the NHL on NBC went head-to-head in the playoffs, the NBA scored a 4.3, while the NHL got a 0.9.

It’s not entirely just a black and white thing. There’s also a national-international thing that has hurt the sport. Many of the league’s stars are foreign, and fewer and fewer of the players, overall, are actually from this country.

Right or wrong, that matters to many fans. People like to root for people who look like them or who have some common bond with them – it’s a form of tribalism.

And the fact that hockey has typically been the province of the northeast, Midwest and Canada – cold weather regions – has always hindered its growth among sports fans in the southeast and southwest, despite the NHL’s expansion into those areas.

But help is coming to the NHL; something that could pump in life in the sport and grab the attention of at least one of its untapped demographics. Something that could finally get young black kids interested in playing the sport. Better yet, get them to view it as an option for a professional career.

Seth Jones, the son of former NBAer Popeye Jones, has the chance to be the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NHL draft. Yes, the first player selected. We’re talking history making.

Mike Grier, the first ever US born and exclusively US-trained African American in the NHL, was drafted in the ninth round (219th overall) in 1993. The Detroiter played 14 years in the league, but wasn’t a star.

Jones is a star in the making. Scouts say Jones has the potential to be an elite defenseman. He’s 6´3, 200 pounds and an excellent skater. And Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports is trying to lure the kid , as well.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has to be thrilled. A former NBA player’s son picked his sport over the sport that has given his dad a 12-year career (Popeye is currently an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets). It’s totally head-scratching.

Now, it’s not like there haven’t been black hockey players. There have been many, starting with Willie O’Ree. He broke the NHL color barrier in 1958 when he signed with the Boston Bruins.

Goalie Grant Fuhr, born in Canada, was the first black elected in the Hockey Hall of Fame and the first to win a Stanley Cup.

But again, many of those players were born in Canada where hockey is a way of life, no matter what color you are. Currently, there are 28 players of African descent in the league.

Black America, though, has been waiting for a brother from Detroit, Da Bronx or Oakland to be a star on the ice. Jones is that guy. He started playing in Denver and continued to fully blossom in Texas.

Those who doubt the impact Jones can have should only look back to when Tiger Woods came on the scene in golf.

Golf, for the most part, was considered an elitist sport. Sure, there were some black golfers on the tour, but none that moved the needle.

Woods made golf must-see TV and the interest in the sport, especially in the African American community, soared.

A year or two from now, with Jones on the ice, brothers could be tuned in to the NHL playoffs like never before.

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