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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hockey over hoops

Seth Jones never wanted to follow in the old man's huge footsteps

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By chance, Ronald (Popeye) Jones bumped into Joe Sakic in the weight room of the arena in Denver way back when.

It shouldn't have been a big deal. After all, Jones' Denver Nuggets and Sakic's Colorado Avalanche shared the Pepsi Center.

Jones, a 6-8 power forward, had more than casual conversation in mind for their first meeting almost 13 years ago, though. He told Sakic, a two-time Stanley Cup winner, that he had two young boys who wanted to play hockey and no clue how to help them.

"He looked at me all the way up and into my eyes," Jones said. "He saw how big I was. He said, 'He's going to be huge. Make sure he knows how to skate.' "

So Jones signed up his boys, including youngest, Seth, for skating lessons. Sakic's small piece of advice turned around one boy's direction.

Now, it's Seth's turn to return the favour for an organization.

The 18-year-old Jones has grown into one of the top prospects in hockey and is the consensus No. 1 pick in the NHL draft later this month.

That pick belongs to the Avalanche -- now led by Sakic, the team's former captain who was recently promoted to executive vice-president of hockey operations.

"All the goals he's set as a hockey player," Popeye said, "he's been able to accomplish."

How's that for a proud pop?

Popeye, Seth's mother and other friends and relatives will attend the June 30 draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Popeye worked last season as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets and lives about 20 minutes from the draft site.

Dad was a second-round pick, 41st overall. Seth could be the first black player ever taken No. 1 in the NHL draft.

"I'm trying to embrace it," Seth said. "It's going to be fun in New Jersey, for sure. I can't wait to share those experiences with my family."

It may be a pretty big family reunion in Denver. Jones' older brother, Justin, also played hockey and they all got along with Patrick Roy's family as they grew up. The Roys and Joneses were close and spent time at each other's houses, in fact. And it just so happens that Roy -- a former goaltender who also won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche -- was just hired to coach Colorado after the rebuilding franchise missed the playoffs.

"Jones is a heck of a player," Roy said. "No matter what the decision for our organization -- are we going to keep first overall, are we going to move first overall, whatever we're going to do, we know that the team that picks first, second or third are going to get three outstanding players."

Jones, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin are expected to go 1-2-3 in the draft. The Florida Panthers hold the second draft pick and the Tampa Bay Lightning are No. 3.

Based on talent and need, Jones shouldn't drop past the Avalanche. The 6-4, 206-pound defenceman met with members of the Avalanche scouting team last month before moving on to the NHL draft combine in Toronto.

He would become the first American picked No. 1 since Chicago's Patrick Kane in 2007 and seventh overall. In a sport where the majority percentage of players are white, it's that slice of history he would make as the first black selected No. 1 -- topping Evander Kane, picked fourth in 2009 -- that means so much to both of them.

"I don't think about it too much," Seth said. "Hopefully, I can encourage young African-Americans to play hockey and try it when they're at a young age. It's definitely a white-dominated sport. But there are a lot more that are starting to play."

Kane, Pittsburgh's Jarome Iginla, Philadelphia's Wayne Simmonds and Washington's Joel Ward are among the more prominent black players in the NHL. Ward was the victim of a series of racist tweets during last year's playoffs after scoring the winning goal in Game 7 against Boston. During a pre-season game last year, a fan threw a banana on the ice at Simmonds. Those are gloomy signs that, unlike the other big three sports, tolerance is a still a problem.

"There's never been one racial thing that happened to him," Popeye said. "I think his teammates always accepted him for Seth Jones the hockey player, the great teammate, the great team player. He never put himself above anybody. They've always accepted him for who he was and never looked at race."

They've been awed looking at his career arc, though.

He blossomed when he was still in elementary school and played in peewee tournament in Quebec City at 10 years old. The tournaments, however, were meant for kids 11 and 12. And he has won three gold medals in international play, including this year at the world junior championship. So, he's already seasoned, globally, as a competitor.

Jones played two seasons in Toronto and was stopped in arenas each time he watched Seth play.

"They'd say, 'What are you doing in the hockey rink? What's your kid doing out here playing hockey,' " Popeye said. " 'Why aren't you at the gym playing basketball?' "

Jones, who averaged a modest 7.0 points over an 11-year career, realized early on that getting Seth to follow in his sneakers was a lost cause. Sure, little Seth tagged along with dad to the gym and they'd bond watching the NBA finals together. But those 1-on-1 father-son games in the driveway never caught steam and Seth did not play organized basketball growing up. He simply had no desire, because hockey was his passion.

"That was all the motivation that I had," Seth said.

With Popeye on the road, Seth's mother, Amy, steered her son down the right path from home.

"Mom taught me everything from how to be a young man, to a handshake, eye contact, all sorts of things," Seth said. "She just wanted me to be respectful."

Seth spent more time with his dad when the latter was an assistant coach for a few seasons in Dallas. Seth broadened his worth ethic by watching how tirelessly players like Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Jason Terry prepared for every practice and game all season.

"You can tell anyone how to be a pro," Popeye said. "But until they see it with their own eyes, it's put a whole new light about what it really takes."

Lesson learned. Now it's Seth's turn to take all he's learned and show a team like Colorado he's ready to make an impact next season.

"It's a special category to be put in. Colorado would be special," Seth said, "but at the end of the day, my goal is play in the NHL."

That goal is about to be met.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2013 b8

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