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.
Historically, hockey has been a non-diverse sport, said William Douglas, who operates the blog Color of Hockey, which highlights minority hockey players. He played on youth hockey teams in the 1970s in Philadelphia, where he was subject to racial taunts.
“There’s a perception in the African-American community that we shouldn’t like hockey or sports like NASCAR,” Douglas said. “There aren’t that many rinks in urban areas and the cost of equipment is outrageous.
“Not seeing players of color on the ice on a regular basis or not knowing there are players of color that reinforces the stereotype. Then it became a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.”
But statistics and black hockey fans in Chicago say that’s changing.
African-American fans have the highest growth rate among NHL fans at 1.4 times the overall rate, according to Scarborough, a national media research company.
In Chicago, the number of African-Americans who identify themselves as very or somewhat interested in the Hawks increased from 12.6 percent in 2011 to 21.9 percent in 2014.
The number of black fans who watched a Hawks game on TV or listened on the radio grew from 28.1 percent in 2011 to 37.9 percent last year.
They made up 9.7 percent of Hawks fans in 2014, up from 7.1 percent in 2011, which is the only increase among racial groups charted by Scarborough.
The numbers are far less than the 49.9 percent of African-Americans who identify as NBA fans or even the 40.9 percent of white fans who identify as hockey fans, but it doesn’t diminish the significance of the growth.
“It’s to the point where on my Facebook feed during the game there were (black friends) I didn’t even know watched hockey talking about the Blackhawks,” said Tommy Barbee, 30, a black Hawks fan who lives in the South Loop. “A lot of my black friends will talk about basketball and football.
“This is the first time I’ve really seen them get into (hockey).”
Of course, it’s hard to walk down a street in almost any Chicago neighborhood these days without spotting at least one Hawks sweater.
Among black sports fans in Chicago, the Scarborough numbers reveal their interest level in every other Chicago team has dipped over the last four years.
The total base growth in the Chicago area among those who identify as NHL fans grew from 28.4 percent in 2011 to 36.4 percent in 2014.
The team’s home-game exposure on television, which infamously was not available before Chairman Rocky Wirtz assumed control of the family-owned team, has helped. And three Stanley Cup Final appearances in six years doesn’t hurt.
“Everyone loves a winner,” said Aven Deese, an African-American Hawks fan.
The increasing rates show a potential for the Hawks to continue to make gains. The team works in cross promotions with the White Sox and Bulls, who have a higher percentage of black fans.
“The Blackhawks organization is continuously working on finding different ways to create a deep and personal connection with as many people as possible across the Chicagoland area and the state of Illinois,” Hawks President John McDonough said through a team spokesman. “Our approach is broad and all-inclusive. We try to grow our brand across all ages and demographics.”
Programs such as Hockey on Your Block, which is run through the Hawks, USA Hockey and the NHL, reach out to inner-city youth to expose minority children to hockey. The NHL’s Hockey is For Everyone campaign is a similar youth-development program.
An ice rink is scheduled to be completed this summer as part of the Morgan Park Sports Complex as well.
“Now is the time to strike,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., an avid Hawks fan who promotes hockey outreach programs in Chicago. “It’s good for the game.
“More importantly, it’s really good for fairness.”
According to the Scarborough data from 2014, African-American fans made up 11.9 percent of fans at Hawks games, a slight increase from 2011.
At Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday night, a 2-1 Hawks victory against the Lightning, 22,354 fans streamed into the United Center. The overwhelming majority were white.
Mike Jennings, 36, of South Holland, said he couldn’t help but notice the fan demographic as he sipped on a beer before heading to his seat.
“When I come in here and I look around, I’m not looking for it, but you don’t notice many (other black fans),” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a religious Blackhawks fan. I live in Chicago so I support the Blackhawks more than any other NHL team.”
Other black fans at the United Center were more avid.
Like most Hawks fans, Sean Howard said he was drawn to the “national anthem, the excitement after a goal and the (great) atmosphere.”
But he also noticed the sport’s changing demographic.
“I think the outreach was poor,” said Howard, 47, of Blue Island. “Now you see Blackhawks stuff seeping into the South (Side). The league has been diversified, so that helps as well.”
Deese remembers growing up in Beverly as the only black person on his baseball teams and facing stereotypes.
While his interest in the Hawks has peaked over the years, he wonders if he will allow his 5-year-old son to play hockey someday.
“I don’t want him to be the conversation piece on a team, but on the other hand, I don’t want to avoid exposing him to a sport he may like,” Deese said.
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.