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Diversity grows at Thrashers' camp

DULUTH - Political correctness can make the asking of certain questions difficult and cumbersome.

Evander Kane, picked fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in June's NHL draft, cut right to the chase.

The poised and skilled 17-year-old was asked about the diversity at the Thrashers' prospect development camp.

"You can come out and say it - lot of black guys here," Kane said looking around the team's dressing room at the IceForum in Duluth this week.

Long the almost exclusive domain of middle-sized Caucasian - OK, white - guys, the face of hockey is changing.

There were five black players at the Thrashers' development camp this week - Kane, Jordan Samuels-Thomas, Kyle Reed, Drew Paris and Mike Looby.

"To be honest, I was quite surprised," the candid Kane said. "I didn't know any of them, but coming here, I definitely see they've got some real good speed and skill. I've gotten to know them and they're all great guys. I've been impressed with Kyle Reed. He's got a great shot and he's one of the fastest guys out there.

"Yeah, definitely. I mean, I've been playing hockey for a long time and this is the most black guys I've seen or been a part of at a camp or a team. So it's nice to see and it's encouraging."

Willie O'Ree was the first black player in the NHL in 1958 and has served as the league's Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL diversity for more than a decade.

The league has made a concerted effort in recent years to promote its "Hockey is for Everyone" program, which provides support to nonprofit youth organizations across North America that are committed to offering children of all backgrounds opportunities to play the game.

"It's great to see," Kane said. "I think that's what hockey's about."

Similar sentiments were echoed by other players. But so was the disclaimer that all five players were here because of their skills and not their ethnicity.

"It's good to see multi-culturalism in hockey," said Paris, a 21-year-old invitee from Quebec who will be entering his rookie pro season in the fall. "The fact that there are four other black players here is just by chance. We're just players like everyone else, we just happen to fall in the same training camp.

"It just depends on the people, where you're from, the culture."

Of the five black players at Atlanta's camp, four are from Canada, where hockey is second to none in the sporting hierarchy.

"I think it goes back to how kids are brought up and what games you get introduced to as a kid," said Looby, a 24-year-old pro defenseman who began skating at the age of 2 in his native Toronto.

The lone American in this group, Samuels-Thomas grew up in Hartford, Conn., and watched the Whalers on TV. But even in an area of the U.S. with a solid hockey culture, he didn't start playing until he was 7.

"'The Mighty Ducks,' I watched that a lot when I was younger," Samuels-Thomas said with a chuckle. "That really is what triggered me to the game.

"Right after I saw that, my mother bought me a hockey stick."

From there he joined a local roller hockey program and then made the jump to ice. Samuels-Thomas had a natural talent for the game and almost immediately was asked to move above his own age group.

He played during intermissions at the Whalers' games until the team departed for Carolina in 1997 and left a young Samuels-Thomas a little heartbroken.

"Yeah, actually my dad was getting season tickets for that year and they left," he said. "So that was kind of hard."

But Samuels-Thomas, whose long dreadlocks poke out from under his helmet, was already hooked.

"I've never really been into any other sports," the big 19-year-old said. "I dabbled in football in high school."

Samuels-Thomas stuck with hockey, playing the last two years in the amateur United States Hockey League, and was drafted by Atlanta just two weeks ago.

It's possible any of these five players might end up being a role model - as Kane says Jarome Iginla was to him - for the next generation of hockey players.

"There's definitely room for growth and if they see someone, they say, 'I can do it too,'" Samuels-Thomas said. "But I think, at every level, teams just want to find the best player, race aside. I think there just happens to be a solid amount here this week."