It's early in the game, Jan. 28, and a kid two years from drinking age is about to shut up the screaming people of Winnipeg.
Both teams, the Nashville Predators and the homestanding Jets, are scoreless. The puck clacks against the stick of Preds rookie defenseman Seth Jones.
Boos rain from the fiercely partisan Winnipeg crowd. Jets fans are notorious for razzing talented visiting players. If said player is American, the screeching doubles. Deafening fury encircles the 6-foot-4, 19-year-old Jones as he crosses the center ice in long strides.
Most of his teammates have gone off for a line change. Conventional wisdom says Jones will slide the puck deep and go off for a rest himself. Why not? With four Jets between the youngster and the net, no one would blame him.
But Jones sees an opportunity. He stutter-steps, leaving one Jet flat-footed. Jones is now behind the Jets goal. He looks back up the ice. With the line change complete, he has a full complement of teammates now. They're joining the attack like Bülow at Waterloo. Picking up speed, he scopes a Jets defender. Like everyone else in the arena, the Jet anticipates a pass back to the on-rushing Preds.
It doesn't come. Instead, Jones makes another dodge — another subtle shift with the puck that sideswipes conventional wisdom. Winnipeg's goalie is now looking this way and that, of two minds about what Jones will do.
Jones scoots past the post, the puck so snug it might as well have been lashed to his blade. A flick of his wrist, and now the rubber disc is zooming toward the closing gap between the goalie's pad and the ice.
Now the puck is whistling through. Now the puck pockets the net. Now the red light is on, signaling a goal. And now, in hockey-mad Winnipeg, the boos are quiet and the raucous Jets crowd sits dumbfounded. Their silence is broken only by a sharp "Woooooo!"
It may well have come from Jones himself.
What started without incident — or frankly, much interest — 185 feet away ends with a highlight goal: a prodigy taking on an entire team, defenders falling away like dead trees in an ice storm.
"It just kind of happened," Jones would say later. "You don't plan it. No one's coming at you, so you keep going."
Seth Jones uses that phrase a lot — many things just "kind of happen" to the teenager.
He just happened to pick hockey. He just happened to end up in Nashville, where he just happened to spend much of the first half of his rookie year alongside one of the best defensemen in the world. He just happened to develop a mythos as America's next great hockey hope, in part because he tends to score goals against teams that just happen to be Canadian.
It also just happens that Seth Jones, the son of a black father and a white mother, is an African-American hockey player. That's unusual enough that it bears mentioning. When Jones was taken fourth, he became the highest-ever drafted African-American player in the NHL.
Jones grasps his place in history. But he sees himself more as a representative of how the game can grow beyond its traditional boxes — not just of color, but of geography.
"I understand it's a big deal," Jones says, relaxing during a practice at Bridgestone Arena. "There aren't many African-American or black players who play in the league today, but I'm not just about helping the black kids play hockey. I want to grow the game whether it's here in Nashville, or Dallas where I'm from, or anywhere."
Jones isn't wrong that coincidence and good luck often play an important role, in a single game of hockey or an entire career. But good luck follows hard work and ability — not to mention smart choices. So far, Jones, who is well aware how many hopes and how much attention are riding on him — as a player, as a role model, as an ambassador for a sport in need of a game-changing superstar — has opted wisely at each juncture of his young career.
Will luck, drive and sharp decisions make Jones a generational talent, the rare athlete who transcends his sport? Or will he be a fondly remembered footnote? Nobody has a clue how his story will turn out. But we know how it began: in a small West Tennessee town where nobody thought much about hockey ... before now.
Out front of the Weakley County Courthouse, on the charming town square of Dresden, Tenn. (population: 3,005), is a statue of the town's most beloved citizen. To locals, he'll always be known simply as "Ned Ray."
But if anyone can give former Tennessee Gov. Ned Ray McWherter a run for his money as Dresden's Favorite Son, it's Ronald Jerome Jones. Among the best basketball players Tennessee ever produced, "Popeye" Jones parlayed his stellar high school career into back-to-back OVC Player of the Year awards at Murray State. Then began a decade-long career playing in the NBA — the Mavericks, the Celtics, the Nuggets and more. Ned Ray may have the town square, but it's Popeye's name that graces the "Welcome to Dresden" signs.
During his NBA years, Popeye married. With his wife Amy (the two are now divorced), he had three sons. All were tall and solidly built, like their father; also like him, they were fine athletes. But there was a striking difference. While Dad was playing for the Nuggets in Denver, the trio was drawn to another sport: hockey.
"It just kind of happened that way," Seth remembers. "I lived in Colorado and went to a lot of Avalanche games. And they won the [Stanley] Cup in 2001, and I was at Game 7 against the [New Jersey] Devils. ... We were all pretty interested in the game. We started skating at the same time and decided we wanted to try it out."
One day in the arena, Popeye ran into the Avs' captain, Joe Sakic. He asked what he needed to do if his sons wanted to play hockey. Sakic told Popeye to sign his kids up for skating lessons.
"Not figure skating," Seth says, insistently. "We have to get that one right." (A well-circulated profile, published prior to last summer's draft, wrongly indicated that the boys took figure-skating lessons.) Those early skating lessons paid off. His mobility — remarkable for someone his size — is usually the first thing an observer mentions.
"You don't see a lot of guys that mobile and that can escape like he does," says Preds assistant coach Phil Housley, himself an outstanding former player, who also coached Jones on the U.S. junior national team. Preds head coach Barry Trotz echoes his assessment: "He's 6-4 and he skates like he's 5-9. He has excellent hands and speed for a young man."
All this combined makes Jones a figure to watch, says Craig Custance, senior NHL writer for ESPN the Magazine.
"There's so much to like — his mobility, his stride, his skating, his hockey sense," Custance says. "He has the kind of poise you don't often see in a defenseman his age, which speaks well to his future since he's only going to get better. And you can't teach 6-foot-4. That kind of size and skating can make up for mistakes in a hurry."
Jones recognizes it too. With an awareness not always present in young athletes, he sees the game changing in ways that fit his strengths. Especially his skating ability.
"I'm not saying I'm these guys — but [Ottawa Senator Erik] Karlsson is a great skater," Jones says. "He could be considered a forward at times. [Chicago Blackhawk Duncan] Keith is a great skater, [Montreal Canadien P.K.] Subban is a great skater. All these guys. Josi, Weber. ... That's the way the game is transforming." He needs not point out that Karlsson, Keith and Subban have all won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, and teammate Shea Weber has been a finalist.
With that strong foundation, Jones rose quickly through hockey's developmental ranks — first in Dallas, where he was born and lived with his brothers and mother after his parents' divorce; then to the U.S. developmental program; then to Oregon's Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League, part of the juniors system in Canada and the northern U.S. that's a traditional pipeline for NHL players. The WHL is particularly known for developing defensemen.
Jones climbed to the top of prospect rankings and was selected for the 2013 U.S. team at the World Junior Championships, where he was first coached by Housley. Most prognosticators pegged the U.S. team as being the third or fourth best in that tournament. In an interview ahead of the tournament, though, Jones made waves.
"I think we're the best team," he said. "We have a lot of speed up front, we're great defensively, and we have good goaltending, so I think we have all the pieces to win the gold medal."
The quote raised eyebrows: Housley in retrospect calls it "a bold statement" from "a young man with a lot of confidence." But it was prescient. The U.S. indeed won the tournament, and Jones' position as best prospect in a loaded 2013 NHL draft was cemented. And the legend of Seth Jones: Next Great American Hero was born.
In the kind of story that makes sportswriters salivate, it seemed that Jones would be taken first in July's draft, likely going to Colorado — where he'd learned to love the game, and where the league-worst Avalanche desperately needed a franchise defenseman.
But then something "kind of happened." The Avs shook up their front office. As general manager, they brought in Joe Sakic — the one who encouraged Popeye to teach his sons to skate. To the astonishment of many, however, Sakic announced the Avs would pass on Jones. Instead, they took center Nathan MacKinnon on first pick.
The move threw the expected No. 1 into uncertainty. Come draft day, anything was possible. Jones recalls he "had a decent feeling" he'd be taken by a team — the understatement of the century — but no idea where.
"It was three minutes between picks this year instead of 10," Jones remembers. "If it was 10, I don't know what I would have done, to be honest. It felt like it was 10 minutes. You are a little disappointed while it's happening, but ... you grow up watching the draft, and when your name is called, it seems to all go away."
In Jones' case, he slid down to No. 4, where the Nashville Predators were waiting — and where Preds general manager David Poile wasted no time making his pick.
Jones, Poile says, was No. 1 on Nashville's draft board all along, though they never expected to get him with the fourth pick. The Predators have never been able to find a gifted goal-scoring forward — in part due to the team's relative success, which has kept it from ever having a high-enough draft pick to take such a player. After the woeful, lockout-shortened 2013 season, it seemed the Preds would finally be in a position to do so.
But the Preds couldn't pass on defenseman Jones. "What's not to like?" Poile says. An unusually ebullient Trotz declared — on draft day, mind you — the rookie would be on the first pair with Weber when the season started.
If fans were initially irked the Preds didn't get their needed scorer, they quickly joined in the enthusiasm. The summer's rookie camp — usually a sparsely attended affair populated by the press and hockey-starved die-hards — drew hundreds of fans to watch the player wearing No. 3. That Jones was assigned a low number by the team was a signal: He was expected to make the big club — even as a 19-year-old, even for a team that insists the road to Nashville must pass through the minor-league team in Milwaukee, even for a team that spent the summer aggressively signing experienced 30-something veteran free agents.
"We said we'd have to be open-minded about it," Poile says. "That's what we said to Seth and to his parents and his agent — we want to put everybody in a position to succeed."
When Jones arrived at camp, Poile says he knew he had a different kind of teenager.
"It was nothing to do with hockey," he explains. "It was his maturity and his ability to handle the media. At 18 and 19, [players] are usually immature and not very worldly."
Trotz says that maturity, and that ability to deal with all the non-hockey parts of being a hockey player, is perhaps something Jones fils learned from Jones père.
"He feels comfortable in that realm. He speaks with a calmness and a thought-out process," the coach says. "Instead of having to do media training, he's seen it. He's worldly and he's got a good grip of that. ... That's a credit to his mom and dad."
No amount of worldliness, though, could have prepared Jones for a huge change just two games into his NHL career.
In a game against Colorado — already hyped as Jones' first crack at the team that passed him over — his teammate Roman Josi went down with a concussion. Just as Barry Trotz had enthusiastically suggested on draft day, Jones was suddenly playing alongside Shea Weber on the team's first pair, thrust into crucial minutes with hardly any pro experience under his belt.
Some men would shrink from such a daunting task. Jones blossomed.
"I certainly didn't expect that," Jones recalls. "It probably wouldn't have played out like that if Josi didn't get hurt, but that's the sport. Obviously it was exciting when you get to play with someone like Shea. I played with him 20 games and I was doing very good. You saw adrenaline through those games. You're 19, playing 25 or 30 minutes a night. It's definitely a rush every game."
Not only was Jones playing on the first pair, but he was playing on the left — an unnatural side of the ice for the right-handed shooter.
"It's definitely different. You get jammed in certain areas you didn't want to get into," Jones says. With characteristic understatement, Trotz calls it "a real tough situation."
Whether fueled by adrenalin or expectation, Jones excelled. His performance got his name bandied about for the U.S. Olympic team. He'd been invited by Poile, who also served as the U.S. team's GM, to the national team's introduction camp — where he roomed with former Predator Ryan Suter.
But Poile says other promising young players were asked to come to the camp in Virginia, more as a way to build a culture of American hockey than as any indication those youngsters would make the team. Though it briefly appeared in October and November that Jones had a chance to wear the red-white-and-blue in Sochi, he came back down to earth. He had some typical rookie struggles, and he eventually saw his minutes reduced and his partners changed. He's rebounded since, but that post-adrenaline swoon may have cost him a national team spot.
Then again, stranger factors may have been at play. In two much-publicized tell-alls about national team selection published by ESPN and USA Today, the director of player personnel for U.S. men's Olympic hockey, Brian Burke, discussed a dream he had in which a Jones miscue cost Team USA a victory. Did Burke's night terrors sandbag Jones' Olympic chances?
"That's a little weird, I think," Jones says.
Regardless, both Jones and Poile hope the young Predator will be a big part of Team USA's future. There's an open question of whether NHL players will continue to play in the Olympics in 2018 and beyond. Jones wants to play for his country, steadfastly.
That fervor has fed one of the more interesting aspects of his story: the meme of Seth Jones, Great American.
On social media, any Jones accomplishment results in patriotic Photoshops of the teenage Pred flanked by fierce bald eagles, lauded with tongue-in-cheek comparisons to conquering generals and periwigged Founding Fathers. He's asked to sign posters of him decked out as Captain America. What's more, members of the game-operations staff at Bridgestone Arena often greet him with "Real American," the Rick Derringer classic that once heralded Hulk Hogan's entrances.
It's not just Nashville fans who do this. For good or ill, Nashville is largely seen as a team heavily laden with Americans. Well-regarded blogs cheekily refer to the Predators as "America's Favorite Hockey Team," in part because David Poile seems committed to stocking his roster with American players. Hence images around the league of Jones draped in the flag. He acknowledges it's kind of silly. Kind of.
"But it's sort of serious at the same time," Jones says. "I think it's pretty fun when you see the Captain America posters and those types of things. I take it all in and enjoy it. It's obviously a huge honor to be considered like that."
Consciously or not, Jones seems to step up against Canadian teams. There was a thrilling score against Montreal earlier this year. Plus the dazzling goal in Winnipeg that silenced the booing, which Jones says he didn't even notice.
"What is it? They pick one random guy and they just happened to pick the U.S. guy," he says, laughing it off, the air-quotes unspoken around "random" and "just happened."
"Trust me. If I could score like I did against Winnipeg every game, I would. It just kind of happens to be those games."
But can Seth Jones the man meet the high standards set by Seth Jones the legend? The talent — which even at 19 has Housley comparing him to future Hall of Famer Chris Pronger — is there.
Craig Custance, though, has his doubts that Jones will develop into the Next Biggest Thing.
"I'm skeptical about this for a couple reasons," Custance explains. "One, I think the transcendental American hockey star is going to have to be a franchise centerman in the Jonathan Toews/Sidney Crosby mold. How often is a defenseman a huge, breakout star?
"Second, he doesn't play in a market conducive to creating a star player. It took Ryan Suter leaving Nashville for hockey fans to get a real appreciation of how good a player he truly is. For Jones to make that breakthrough it would have to come on a bigger stage — like in Sochi, which obviously didn't happen.
"And I don't think NHL players will be in the 2018 Olympics, nor do I expect a Stanley Cup run in the next couple years from Nashville, all other possible avenues for a Jones breakout. ... The high end for Jones is a legitimate No. 1 franchise defenseman, the kind of player every team is desperate to find.
"I like the Pronger comparison, although I'm not sure he has that same snarl. But even if he's Pronger Lite, that's a great player."
Jones is committed to making sure hockey grows as an American sport. He also understands what role he, as one of the few African-American players to stand out, could do for broadening the sport's audience and talent base. Even his tangential connection to Dresden means there are gold T-shirts on backs in Weakley County, and Preds games on overhead TVs at local sports bars.
"I've been doing a lot of skates with kids — whatever I can do to help the game grow," Jones says. "Our job isn't just to play hockey. At the end of the day, it's to grow the game for the kids and keep growing the game from generation to generation — whether that's your kids playing the game or helping other kids who want to start playing the game."
Jones may be the best example yet of the benefit of grow-the-game programs — such as the one spearheaded by Jeff Cogen in Dallas, where Jones spent formative years skating on its rinks. As it turns out, a series of odd coincidences stands a good chance to make such a program take hold in Nashville.
First, Cogen, as luck would have it, is now the CEO of the Predators. Second, he made a strong pitch last year to the Metro Sports Authority to convert the problematic former site of Antioch's Hickory Hollow Mall into a Predators practice rink. He argued in part that it would permit a program similar to the one in Dallas. The final vote for approval came the Monday after Jones was drafted by Nashville — yet another wet kiss from fortune. Cogen couldn't have written a better narrative himself.
Predictably, Jones says it "just kind of worked out that way." But the teenage Predator will almost certainly be the big draw at the new facility. Young and affable, he's exactly the sort of big-brother hero type parents would love to have influence their kids. Better still, he's brimming with enthusiasm for that role.
"A lot of guys around the league give free gear to kids who can't afford it," Jones says. "It'd be kind of cool to get involved like that, and I'm definitely thinking of some ideas to grow the game more." He points to hockey schools for low-income kids in other cities as a framework for what he'd like to do here.
For all his understanding of legacy-building, though, it's easy to forget Jones is little more than a kid himself. Noting how weird it is to see kids wearing his jersey, he points out that if he weren't in the NHL, he might still wear a jersey to the game. He still lives with his mom, who moved from Texas to Brentwood and will share a house with her middle son for a few years.
"I had three years I didn't live with her [when playing in Portland] — I'm not saying it was a bad thing, she says it's a bad thing," Jones says. "I think it's the right thing to do. It keeps you out of trouble, and I have no problem doing my own laundry and cooking for myself, but it's definitely a help.
"I'm underage and whatever, but it's a big scene around here, especially down by the rink [on Lower Broadway]. You want to stay out of trouble being 19 — especially with Mom around — so I think I made the right decision getting a little bit ways away."
More often than not, Jones is making the right decisions on the ice too — although while talking to a Scene reporter, he couldn't help lamenting an ill-advised pass he made in a game at Calgary. "Stuff like that happens," he says. "It shouldn't have, but it's a learning process."
Because of that, he's by and large earned the trust of his coach — who has no regrets about accelerating Jones to the big leagues.
"Shea Weber and Ryan Suter wouldn't have played against first-line guys as much [as Jones has]," Trotz says — a bold comparison to two of the best defensemen in the world. "They had a slower process and were able to take a deliberate path to the National Hockey League. If you can be patient, it almost always works out. But sometimes you can fast-forward and get a good result."
Jones, gifted as he is, knows he has things to learn.
"One of the things I had to learn, especially when I wasn't playing well ... the less the puck is on the stick, the better you're going to play," he says. "I have a hard time wrapping my mind around that concept."
Sometimes, though, as on that special night in Winnipeg, he's the guy you want carrying the play. Who knows? Maybe he'll be the guy to carry the puck for USA Hockey — literally and metaphorically — for the next decade or two. Maybe he'll be the one who lights the fuse, who shatters the provincial walls of hockey and takes the game to neighborhoods where it's never made headway. Maybe he'll be the reason we stop talking about black hockey players like they're some astral phenomenon, retire the phrase "the Tiger Woods of [blank]" forever, and welcome a new age of talent.
But of course, there's no way to plan for any of that.
Sometimes it just kind of happens.
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