Seth Jones, son of ex-NBA player Popeye Jones, could be first African-American taken No. 1 in the NHL draft
Whoever could’ve fathomed an African-American kid from Texas being the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft? Whoever heard of the son of an 11-year NBA veteran eschewing backboards for sideboards?
By Wayne Coffey / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
TORONTO - As 1999 turned to 2000 and both the world and the millennium were about to end, a 5-year-old kid from Denver began an unprecedented journey, not that anybody knew it at the time. To celebrate the New Year, the kid’s parents took him and his two brothers to nearby Beaver Creek. The kid decided to try something new.
He put on a pair of rental ice skates, waved off his parents’ attempt to get him to use one of those stabilizing walkers, and off Seth Jones went, ’round and ’round the Beaver Creek rink, drawn to ice like a bee to honey.
“You could see what a blast he was having, right from the start. He was pretty good on skates even then,” his father says.
Eighteen months later, Seth Jones had another little epiphany, pounding on the glass behind the goal of Pepsi Arena, celebrating the Colorado Avalanche and its Game 7, Stanley Cup clinching victory over the Devils, mesmerized by the speed and intensity and the virtuoso skills of the likes of Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg.
Hockey had stolen his heart, no matter what line of work his dad was in.
“It just kind of took off from there,” Seth Jones says.
Where exactly it has taken off to, in the dozen years since that June night in Denver, amounts to perhaps the most remarkable story in the annals of the NHL draft. Whoever could’ve fathomed an African-American kid from Texas being the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft, as projected by NHL Central Scouting? Whoever heard of the son of an 11-year NBA veteran, Nets assistant coach Ronald (Popeye) Jones, eschewing backboards for sideboards?
But here is Seth Jones, a 6-4, 208-pound defenseman, duded up in a gray suit and striped tie on interview day at the NHL Combine, fielding hundreds of questions from 17 NHL teams over two days last week, not one of them about his ability to get to the rim.
“It’s kind of weird that it happened this way,” Seth Jones says.
Nate Mackinnon, a 17-year-old center from Nova Scotia who also could turn out to be the top pick, agrees.
“It’s not the way it usually breaks,” Mackinnon says.
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Popeye Jones, all 6-8 and 265 pounds of him, wowed nobody with mid-air theatrics or dazzling offensive moves in his basketball career, but made himself enough of a low-post presence to play for six NBA teams, averaging 7.0 points and 7.4 boards. His most memorable performance, though, may have come as a Murray State Racer in the Southeast Regional of the NCAA Tournament in 1990, when he put up 37 points and 11 rebounds against Michigan State, which needed overtime to avoid becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
“He never told me anything about it,” Seth says.
Popeye Jones wasn’t going to lord his playing pedigree over his kids, and wasn’t going to dictate to them, either. If Seth and his brothers, Justin, 22, and Caleb, 15, a rising star himself (in September he will move to Ann Arbor, Mich. to be part of the same USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program that Seth went through), wanted to play hockey — and they all did — well, then they should play hockey. A lefthanded jump shooter with striking quickness and agility, Seth played basketball at home and in pickup games, but ice turns out to be much thicker than blood.
“Seth loves playing basketball,” says mother, Amy. “When he gets home from the Combine, I guarantee you he and his brothers will be at the gym playing the next day. But he was adamant about not doing anything organized. It probably killed Popeye, because he saw the talent he had.”
Seth was a hockey kid to the core. Not long after that first foray on the ice at Beaver Creek, Popeye ran into Sakic, then the Avalanche captain, in the weight room of the Pepsi Center. Popeye introduced himself and told Sakic that his three boys loved hockey and wanted to play.
“From the looks of you they are going to be huge,” Sakic told him. “Just make sure they know how to skate.”
The boys started taking lessons from a figure-skating coach in the area. Seth was a quick study, making his way through the youth ranks, standing out at every level, playing for the Midget Dallas Stars after the Joneses moved back to Texas in 2007. Before long Jones was off to Ann Arbor at age 15, playing for USA Hockey’s U-17 and U-18 U.S. national teams, where he was joined by his longtime friend and teammate, Quentin Shore, now a rising sophomore at the University of Denver.
“He’s one of the quickest 6-4 kids I’ve ever met,” Shore says. “You can be forechecking him and he’ll give you a quick shoulder fake and be by you before you finish the check.”
But Jones’ most notable quality, according to Shore, is an almost preternatural poise. It is something that those closest to Jones have long marveled at.
“He seems like he has it altogether even when things are going wrong,” says Shore, the younger brother of Florida Panthers’ center Drew Shore.
Adds Amy Jones, “From age 3 on, he was already a little man.”
Phil Housley, newly hired assistant coach of the Nashville Predators, was a prototypical rushing defenseman in his stellar blue-line career. He had Jones on the U.S. junior team that won the world championship last winter, Jones leading all defensemen with six assists. Housley came away hugely impressed by his skating, shot, hockey instincts and ability to lead a rush, but he, too, was mostly taken by Jones’ emotional steadiness.
“There’s no panic level in his game,” Housley says. “When he has the puck he’s poised and calm, and that has a great affect on his team.”
After graduating from high school in three years, Jones was close to accepting a scholarship from the University of North Dakota before opting to spend a year in the Western Hockey League, where he was rookie of the year for the league-champion Portland Winterhawks this spring, piling up 14 goals and 46 assists in 61 games, going +46 for the season.
In 21 playoff games, Jones had five goals and 10 assists, and was +15.
“Great players handle pressure situations really well, and that’s what makes Seth so special. He played his best hockey at the most important times.” says Mike Johnston, the Winterhawks’ coach and general manager.
In his final game with the team last Sunday, Jones made a rush up ice and scored on a wrist shot over the goaltender’s glove hand, but the Winterhawks fell to the Halifax Mooseheads, 6-4, in the Memorial Cup — the championship of Canadian junior hockey. Mackinnon had a hat trick and two assists for the Mooseheads, and linemate Jonathan Drouin had five assists, in a showcase of arguably the three top players in this year’s draft. Some observers believe Mackinnon now may go first overall, but as the three held a joint press conference last week, outfitted from hats to sneakers in gear from their new sponsor, CCM/Reebok, Jones insisted he wasn’t fretting about it, even though that top choice is owned by the Colorado Avalanche.
“It would be special to be the No. 1 pick (and) it would be pretty cool to be back where it all started, but there are lots of great players who were taken No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and a lot lower than that,” Jones says. “You don’t have to be taken No. 1 overall to have a great NHL career.”
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Popeye and Amy Jones divorced two years ago, but as an inter-racial couple, were committed to not having their boys view the world through the prism of race. “It’s never been an issue, and I think the reason that it has never been an issue is the way Amy and I raised our kids,” Popeye Jones says. “We’d tell them, ‘You are white and black, you are both, and you are special, because not everybody has a chance to be both.’
“Our kids never saw color.”
Hockey, of course, is not exactly the rainbow coalition of sports. With Grant Fuhr owning five Stanley Cup titles and a plaque in the Hall of Fame, and Jarome Iginla piling up 530 goals and spending the better part of 15 years as one of the league’s most popular players, the NHL is not as homogenous as it once was, but there are still not many more players of color in the league than there are on one NBA bench. No one is saying that the racial spew that spilled all over social media by some Neanderthal Bruins fans after Joel Ward, a black Washington Capital, ended the Bruins’ season in 2012 playoffs, is the norm, but still … could that ever happen in, say, basketball?
“I’ve never had an issue in the sport,” Seth Jones says. “Some NHL players have an issue, but I haven’t. Hopefully, me playing the sport will encourage other African-American kids to play hockey. It would be pretty cool to be a role model for little kids.”
Seth Jones’ father isn’t in a position to pass along pointers to his sons, never having been known for his slap shot. What Popeye — and Amy — Jones have stressed is that nothing is given, and there isn’t a single talent that measures up to a strong work ethic.
Or as Amy Jones says, “Whether you are a plumber or whatever you do, you always want to make sure you do the best job you can, because somebody else is always going to be ready to take your job.”
As he prepared to run and lift and provide NHL evaluators with some metrics to pore over, Seth Jones, the most improbable hockey story of them all, the man-child who may become his sport’s first African-American superstar, considered his parents’ wisdom, and tried hard to hold on to his famous calm. The world didn’t end the day he fell in love with skating. The NHL draft is June 30 at the Prudential Center in Newark. Seth Jones smiles.
“It seems like it’s taking forever to get here,” he says.