10.02.2015
The media horde gained in strength and size by the minute, a collection of anxious reporters armed with iPhones, notebooks, cameras and microphones, all eager to get something, anything, out of an 18-year-old kid wearing a brand new Nashville Predators jersey, a matching yellow cap and an omnipresent smile. One by one, Seth Jones answered each question — no matter how obvious — with a pride and passion beyond his years.
While Jones wasn’t the first player chosen, it's clear that he will likely be the most important. For several years, Jones has been something of a hockey prodigy in the United States, and as the fall — and a potential rookie season in Nashville — approaches, he is on the cusp of the sport’s grandest stage. For starters, even though the NHL is more diverse now than ever before, Jones is still the only African-American ever selected within the top four picks. Jones also hails from a family well entrenched in professional athletics, but it’s hardly a hockey-playing background. Predators general manager David Poile seemed both delighted and amused at his club's good fortune.
Amy Jones’ eyes light up when you mention the old days — an innocent time when her full-of-life son had more things to do than the time to do them. Raising a biracial family in the suburbs, Amy, who is white, and Popeye gave their son the independence to choose his own avenue. So, whether it was his choice of sports, activities, clubs, friends, or anything else, the couple let Seth make his own decisions. Although born in Texas, Seth grew up primarily in Denver, where Popeye was a member of the Nuggets. Popeye grew up in Tennessee long before the Predators arrived, and went to college at Murray State in Kentucky, another state without a NHL presence. Fortunately he shared a workplace with the Avalanche and their roster of stars including forwards Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, goaltender Patrick Roy and defenseman Ray Bourque.
One day in the weight room of Pepsi Center, Popeye ran into Sakic, and told the Avalanche captain about his son, how Seth and his brothers wanted to play hockey, not just watch it. What better way to ring in the new year than watch your 5-year-old learn something new in a winter wonderland?
The Joneses continued to feed that passion, and next enrolled Seth in a summer hockey camp at the University of Denver, run by famed former Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky. Seeing Jones in a rink today, 6’4 and 205 pounds, skating with an easy grace, it’s obvious that he is built to play defense. Still, despite all his skills, making it in the NHL can be a long and agonizing journey, especially for a player like Jones who is used to logging big minutes. The Avalanche, with Sakic, of all people, serving in his first year as Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations, did just that when they drafted MacKinnon. Jones, who hit the ice last week in Nashville at the Predators’ developmental camp sporting No. Phil Housley, the all-time scoring leader among American defensemen with 1,232 points, is also with Nashville as an assistant.
Whether Housley and Jones get the opportunity to be together this season is the next big question.
For the expectations that he will face, he has to be equally strong mentally and emotionally. Jones, who graduated from high school in just three years, is ready to be the one, and both Nashville and the NHL need him to be just that. The Joneses, who divorced two years ago, helped with more than just the logistics of getting to the rink. Jones’ style of leadership stems from his quiet confidence and belief in himself, something he displayed when he had to make the first big decision of his career. Seth visited the University of North Dakota, a national powerhouse that has produced NHL stars Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild and the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews. Two months ago, Jones led the Winterhawks to the WHL championship, defeating the Edmonton Oil Kings in six games.
In Portland’s first game, a May 18 loss to the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Mooseheads, the team that eventually beat Portland in the tournament finale to win the Cup, Jones authored a signature take-charge move, end to end, that showed the full dimension of his talent.
Jones took advantage of the open ice, and barreled toward the attack zone on the right side.
It was the kind of decision that stands out on NHL scouting reels — a defenseman with the hockey sense to think offense in a tight game, knowing he has the skills to reverse course and get back into defensive mode just in case it doesn’t work out. An exhausted and exhilarated Johnny Oduya leaned up against the boards at Boston’s TD Garden, happy to be talking hockey. Perhaps more than anyone else right now, Oduya, a defenseman, knows what Jones is up against as he prepares for life in the NHL. Jay-Z, and his rapidly growing Roc Nation Sports Agency, might want to speak with Jones moving forward. There are also rumors that hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and his rapidly growing Roc Nation Sports Agency, might want to speak with Jones moving forward. A pair of American rookie defensemen learned that firsthand during the playoffs for Boston. The Predators have a talented, seasoned group, and Jones will be groomed slowly, which will help. As the draft wound to its conclusion — and with very few people left in the Prudential Center on June 30, some eight hours after Jones' selection — a few fans and autograph hounds still lurked, waiting for players to appear out of the facility’s cracks and crevices. For now, it is an excusable gaffe, Diaby, after all, is a black defenseman, 18 years old, 6'5, 223 pounds, and sports the same perma-smile that Jones has. Clearly, as NHL fans will soon learn, Seth Jones is not only the one, but, more importantly, there is also only one Seth Jones.


While other NHL first-round draft picks around him fumbled for the right words and spoke in cliches, Jones, selected fourth at this hectic NHL Draft, sat some five feet away from the scrum and worked the crowd like a true pro. While he’s not yet a household name, he certainly was the star of a seven-round draft that featured many players from foreign countries who likely won’t even make it to the NHL. And he now shares the honor of highest drafted minority ever with African-Canadian Evander Kane, selected No. Seth’s father, Ronald Jones, better known around sports circles as "Popeye," orchestrated a workmanlike career as a forward in the NBA for a number of teams from 1993-2004, and was an assistant coach last season with the Brooklyn Nets.
For several reasons, the need to sell tickets among them, teams at the top of Round One traditionally go after high-flying forwards, avoiding defensemen, who often take longer to develop, and won’t put up the gaudy scoring totals that centers and wings typically do. 4, Nashville, a burgeoning franchise built on defense with a more skilled offensive core than the previous three teams, seized the opportunity. Growing up in an NBA household, of course, Seth had opportunities that most youths don’t have.
Like so many other parents, they wanted to provide all their children — Seth, Justin, 22, and Caleb, 16 — opportunities they never had when they grew up.
At age five, he began attending Avalanche games, drawn to the unmistakable sound of skates digging into the ice, sticks slapping a puck, the speed of the game and the nonstop action. How should the NBA forward, who was on the road half the year, and had never played a second of hockey in his life, proceed? Not hockey lessons — no sticks, no pads, no pucks in those early days — just basic "Learn to Skate" sessions like those offered at nearly every rink in the country, programs with cute names like "Snowplow Sam" to keep kids interested.
When Colorado secured its second Stanley Cup in 2001 with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 7, Seth was in the front row, soaking it in. He looks to be a perfect fit on an NHL blue line, the kind of player the opposition must be aware of at all times. Unlike so many other NHL dreamers, he never had illusions of playing forward, winning faceoffs, posting 50 goals, and leading a team in scoring. He knows that no player has more room and more opportunity to blast pucks at the net — and display a slapshot — than a mobile defenseman. Despite the fact that Colorado allowed 152 goals last season, the second-highest total in the Western Conference, the opportunity for more immediate production caused them to pass over Jones, the hometown kid.
A team that advanced to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs just two years ago, Nashville appears much closer to winning than the Avalanche, Panthers or Lightning. Housley, who coached Jones in international play for Team USA, made a career out of knowing just when to switch to an offensive mindset because he had the skating skill to get back on defense swiftly, something Jones is already noted for. In the NHL, it’s common lingo to refer to your head coach as your parent — in this case, Barry Trotz — and your assistant coach as your friend, the shoulder to lean on for questions, on or off the ice.
The NHL is not like the NBA and the NFL; first-round draft picks don’t automatically make the team.
Like Jones, he was joining a good-but-not-great team in New York, and needed to prove himself early just to avoid the minors. After a standout career at forward at Michigan State, where he scored 106 goals, Carter traveled to Montreal in June of 1992. Perhaps, but he may have just been one of those rare standouts who slipped through the cracks. Look at the Finals this year," he said, referencing Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya and goaltender Ray Emery, who recently signed as a free agent with Philadelphia.
An expansion team in 1998, since then the Predators have made inroads in Tennessee, but there is still work to be done. He has a responsibility to continue that movement forward, and honestly, he wants to," Popeye said. Perhaps it was because he saw his father interviewed countless times, but Seth is already polished in front of a microphone, and should be more than adequate as a spokesman.
After a decorated run playing major bantam hockey and competing at the international level with the United States National Team Development Program, Jones had to choose between college and major junior hockey. The victory qualified Portland to compete for the Memorial Cup, a tournament featuring other junior champions, giving Jones one last showcase for the NHL.
With the Winterhawks trailing 1-0 in the first period, Halifax focused on a Portland breakout on the left side of the neutral zone. As he hit the blue line, the puck was to his left, on the stick of teammate Brendan Leipsic. He knew the Winterhawks were loaded with potential, that there was skill all over the ice, and a quality coaching staff behind the bench. Just a few minutes earlier, Oduya notched an assist on the game-winning goal for the Blackhawks as they defeated the Bruins, 3-2, in Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup. As a minority playing a grueling position that can often go unnoticed, moments like what Oduya just experienced are rare. Jones’ agent, Pat Brisson, is one of the game’s power people, and works in conjunction with the famed Creative Artists Agency.
Roc Nation also has an association with CAA, and has already snapped up high-profile athletes from other sports like Robinson Cano (MLB, New York Yankees), Kevin Durant (NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder), and Geno Smith (NFL, New York Jets). Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug were minor leaguers until a rash of Bruins injuries forced them into the NHL postseason. But the Central Division is loaded with skill, speed and star-laden opponents, the champion Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings among them. In one corner of the arena — the same hallway that the Jones family walked through a few hours before — another new Predator appeared. But in a few more months, even Diaby knows it’s not likely he’ll be mistaken for Jones anymore.


Then he stopped, shook off the radio host just for a second, looked over to the fans, and smiled.
A few minutes later, the Florida Panthers, who chose Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, and Tampa Bay Lightning, who picked Canadian left wing Jonathan Drouin, made the same calculation. He could play what he wanted, and for the most part, he could play whatever he wanted, as much as he wanted.
31, 1999, the family enjoyed a little getaway at Beaver Creek Resort, a skiing community in Colorado.
The resort also supplies rookies with walkers, too, if needed, metal stands that glide along the ice with the skater, providing support and balance.
It was a basic tutorial, learning how to stop, how to stride, how to turn, how to crossover, how to skate on one foot, or scoot backwards. Those that don’t often put their young defensemen through an slow, protective grind — cutting playing time in the third period and leaving them off special teams, strategies that can delay progress. Playing for the Avalanche would have been a heartwarming story, and it would have been neat to play in Florida, with the Panthers or Lightning, but none of that matters now.
And while they lost standout defenseman Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild via free agency in 2012, the Predators still have veteran Shea Weber, a 6'4, 234-pound anchor, on the backline — someone who can mentor Jones.
All that separated him from a great NHL career, he thought, was hearing his name called to the podium. Drafted in the 10th round, the 220th player overall, Carter, still managed to make it, playing for eight NHL teams across a career that spanned 1996-2007, finishing with 202 goals and 421 points. 7, the Edmonton Oilers drafted African-Canadian defenseman Darnell Nurse, a nephew of former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. To be an ambassador on top of that, quite frankly, is something most first rounders don’t have to do. That translated to hockey as he got older — practice, game, whatever, he was prepared to go. In an impressive 21-game postseason, he added five goals and 15 points, a performance that landed him at the top of the pre-draft rankings by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau.
But he just glides out there, in and out or corners, up and down the ice, just very smooth. Jones, sensing the lack of attention, shirked his defensive responsibilities and broke to the net. After wiping away tears on a sweat-soaked Gatorade towel that covered his neck, Oduya, who is black, raised the Cup for the first time. Last week, Jones signed a three-year contract with Nashville that will pay him a base annual salary of $925,000, and he has an endorsement deal with CCM, a hockey equipment company, as well. No matter how much talent is in the WHL, no matter how tough the competition Jones has faced might be, nothing is the NHL. Every night will be a challenge, and Jones has the extra motivation of wanting to show Colorado, Florida and Tampa Bay what they missed.
It was the aforementioned rookie defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, who, like Jones earlier, also sported a yellow jersey, with No.
Jones, sitting in the front row of the Prudential Center with his mother, Amy, did not panic, but simply waited patiently for his time to come. Slipping and stumbling, but not often falling, he skated up and down the ice, turning when needed with a smile stretching from ear to ear. He stood out, not because he was black, but because he was good, a special player, someone whose next Stanley Cup experience seemed likely to take place on the ice instead of watching from stands.
The son may not have followed his father’s sport, but he certainly adopted an element of his style. Not only is his father a Tennessee native, but Nashville has a tradition of producing defensemen, and plays a style that allows some freedom to blueliners. That’s no longer quite the case, and Jones has the potential to be hockey’s first big, African-American superstar. And in Round Three, the Predators selected African-Canadian defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby.
If Jones succeeds, he may prove to be a draw and help expand the fan base, not just in Nashville, but also on the road. He’s been that way, and we just kind of pitched in along the way with the manners, and the good habits, and the basic parenting issues. Leipsic, who surely had seen the move hundreds of times in practice, hit a surging Jones with an angled pass, and Jones calmly and patiently deposited the puck, via wristshot, past Halifax goaltender Zachary Fucale on his glove side.
There are few black faces in NHL arenas, and in order to grow, the league cannot afford to pretend otherwise. It’s been ingrained within him for a long time — the thought that he’s not just another player. He’s a hard guy to hit, he’s a hard guy to get an angle on — and that’s why he’s so successful coming out of his own zone. Before he can be a role model, he will have to prove that he can perform, and he will be tested.



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