Originally created 02/21/99

NHL team takes street hockey into inner city



ATLANTA -- It seemed a strange place to conduct a hockey lesson: an inner-city neighborhood where black children want to be like Mike, but don't comprehend the first thing about Gretzky or Hasek.

"I know about one team: the Mighty Ducks," said 11-year-old Taylor Pippins, playing hockey for the first time. "I have their video game."

Recently, Taylor and dozens of other youngsters -- all but one of whom was black -- grabbed some sticks and began whacking away at a little orange ball at the Warren Boys & Girls Club near downtown Atlanta.

The Thrashers, an NHL expansion team that begins play next season, hope their street hockey program will lure fans to Philips Arena who otherwise wouldn't have been chilled by the ice age.

"It's pretty cool," Taylor said. "I like the sticks. I like the clothes. I just like playing."

The idea is nothing new. Launched in 1993, the Nike-NHL Street program operates in 25 of the 27 NHL cities and several minor-league markets.

But "Thrashers Street Dashers" takes on added importance in a city like Atlanta, which has a large, affluent black population. While the new team may draw the bulk of its fans from the mostly white suburbs, it can't afford to overlook those who live just a few blocks away from the arena.

"We want to be a team built on inclusion, not exclusion," said Harvey Schiller, the Thrashers president. "The young people will be able to participate and feel like this is their team, too."

Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, came to Atlanta to help launch the Street Dashers program. There was a smile on his face and a glee in his voice as he discussed the rudimentary points of hockey with the youngsters.

"They may be 20 percent of the population, but they're 100 percent of the future," said Mr. O'Ree, director of youth development for the NHL Diversity Task Force. "You can't stop progress. These boys and girls are the future."

Though many of the children didn't even know how to hold a stick, Mr. O'Ree is optimistic they will fall in love with the sport.

"Once we get them interested and get them here, I'm sure we can keep them here," he said.

Eric Osborne, program director at Warren, can attest to that. He launched a street-hockey program six years ago with help from the minor-league Atlanta Knights, kept it going with little support when the Knights moved to another city, and now looks forward to renewed interest with the Street Dashers.

More than 150 children between the ages of 6 and 16 play intramural hockey at Warren, making it the second-most popular sport behind basketball.

"It's pretty non-traditional, but the kids love it," Mr. Osborne said. "Even the hard-core teen-agers play it. I think we take for granted sometimes what kids won't play."

The youngsters are drawn to the speed of the game and the constant action. Unlike basketball, it's hard for one player to dominate, so less-talented athletes can take a meaningful role, and everyone learns the value of teamwork.

"Even the kids who have very little athletic experience can have some success," said David Cole, manager of fan development for the Thrashers. "Virtually anybody can make contact with the ball. Now, to develop all of the others skills that makes you an outstanding player takes time, but every kid can have a little success."