African-American fans have the highest growth rate among NHL fans

Wearing a Blackhawks sweater, some playoff scruff and a grin, Ken Brown strolled down an avenue of popular bars in Old Town during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, hopping to the next pub between periods before watching the Hawks dramatically finish off the Lightning.

Brown acknowledged he is a rarity, yet part of a quickly growing demographic among Hawks followers.

“I have two other black friends into hockey and the rest are like, ‘Hockey? What?'” said Brown, 40, an African-American who is a die-hard Hawks fan. “There are not that many into the sport. But there’s been more recognition since the Blackhawks have been winning and with a couple (African-American) guys on our team.”

Hockey long has been considered a white man’s sport because of the limited access to ice rinks in cities, the cost of play, the lack of black professional players and — perhaps the most daunting roadblock of all — stereotypes.

Deese said the sport has grown from an afterthought among his friends to a main discussion point. But he works at a predominantly black elementary school on the West Side not far from the United Center and Johnny’s IceHouse West, where the Hawks practice, and said most of the students at his school never mention the team.

“It will take a lot,” he said of convincing them to become Hawks fans. “Winning won’t solve everything.”

Yet, a segment of black Hawks fans have grown to adopt them as their top Chicago team.

Afua Owusu, 31, and about five of her friends meet at the United Center or a sports bar to watch Hawks games. They call their outings “Black Girls Love Hockey Night.”

“When my girlfriends and I go, we stand out,” she said. “People are looking for our white boyfriends. But we’re never (approached) in a negative way.

“People are hugging you that you don’t even know. You find yourself becoming friends with the people around you.”

Even when — or if — the Hawks’ success dries up, many black fans say they’ll remain loyal followers of the team. It no longer seems like a sport separated by racial lines to some.

“I’ll always be a Blackhawks fan,” Brown said before heading off to watch the rest of the Hawks’ victory.

sryan@tribpub.com

Twitter @sryantribune

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