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Associated Press
Jan 24, 2007, 4:09 PM EST


DALLAS (AP) -NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, opening a luncheon this week on diversity in hockey, proudly made note of 39 cities offering inner-city programs with the help of the league.

Ironically, Bettman trumpeted the programs in a city without one.

"It takes somewhat of a risk for us to be able to do a presentation (here)," said Ken Martin Jr., director of the NHL's diversity program. "But we're very proud of our game and where the game is going."

The lack of a diversity program in Dallas, one of the fastest-growing markets in the league and site of Wednesday night's All-Star game, underscores the creeping pace of the NHL in diversifying rosters.

Bettman said this week that he's not satisfied with the number of minorities in the NHL - currently 31, or about 5 percent of all players. Among them is San Jose forward Jonathan Cheechoo, the league's top goal scorer last season and voted in by fans to start for the Western Conference in the All-Star game.

Minority gains in the league have been slow. Bettman said there's no specific minority percentage the league is trying to reach, and that for now the NHL simply is trying to make its expensive sport more accessible.

"It's at best a start," Bettman said. "But when you look at the history, it is a step forward."

Cheechoo, a Cree Indian from Canada, joined Stars defenseman Trevor Daley at the luncheon Tuesday. Also there was Willie O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier in 1958 with Boston and is now the league's unofficial ambassador on the topic of diversity.

If Daley and Cheechoo are the present face of minorities in the NHL, O'Ree is the past who's also trying to shape the future: The 71-year-old heads the youth development arm of NHL Diversity, the league's 12-year-old effort aimed at increasing its minority ranks. The program has exposed more than 40,000 kids to the sport, according to the league.

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