Jones now highest-drafted African-American ever in NHL

Seth Jones, son of ex-NBA player Popeye Jones, made history by becoming the Preds' pick at No. 4.

NEWARK, N.J. — By now the story has been told many times, but it’s worth retelling once more. 

When Seth Jones was growing up in Denver, with his father Ronald “Popeye” Jones playing for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche won the Stanley Cup in 2001. Seth Jones, then 5 years old, says that moment helped his love of hockey — and the Avalanche — grow. 

The Avalanche held the No. 1 pick on Sunday in the 2013 NHL draft and while Jones was considered by many the preeminent player in the draft, Colorado instead opted for forward Nathan MacKinnon. Spurned, Jones fell to the Nashville at No. 4, where the Predators were ecstatic to take him. Jones was hoping to become the first African-American taken first overall in the draft but he still made history, becoming the highest African-American ever taken in the draft. 

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking about going to those teams but at the same time I’m excited to be a Predator,” Jones said, “and, obviously, (Predators captain) Shea Weber is there. He’s a great player and they have a lot of other great players. I’m happy to be a part of the organization.” 

Popeye Jones hoped the high-profile selection of his son could create impetus for more minorities to play hockey. 

“It really hasn’t soaked in yet that we’re African-American and it’s hockey, but it will,” Popeye Jones said, speaking at the Prudential Center. “USA Hockey, the NHL, I think, hopefully, we can see this continue. I’ve always said, what if you see a guy like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or Allen Iverson or some of these guys on skates when they’re 5 or 6 years old — some of these great athletes — what kind of hockey player would you get? 

“USA Hockey will continue to grow the game and hopefully Seth will help some little minority kids, African-American kids who are watching the draft today and they say, ‘Hey, I want to play hockey.’” 

Popeye Jones remembered that Michael Jordan used to punish the two teams that passed over him and thought it could motivate his son to work harder. Seth agreed with that sentiment. 

“Yeah, well, I’m competitive,” Seth Jones said. “I have a competitive nature and I get that from my parents. Yeah, you definitely want to prove them wrong and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you. That's not my only goal next year, but it's definitely on my list.” 

Nonetheless, in Nashville, Jones will have numerous ties. For starters, his father was born and raised in Tennessee before playing basketball at Murray State, just over the border in Kentucky. Popeye agreed with the notion that the pick represented his family coming full circle. 

“I do,” he said. “I still have a home there. I still have tons of family there. My mother’s still there. I know how much the people in Nashville, how much they support the Predators, how much they love their organization there and I’m pretty excited.” 

Seth Jones even said he likes country music, a sentiment that seemed genuine. 

Third, from a hockey perspective, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jones will be reunited with Predators newly hired assistant coach Phil Housley, one of the league’s all-time leaders in points by a defenseman — the difficult decision to part with long-time assistant Peter Horachek and hire Housley now seems prescient on Nashville general manager David Poile’s part. Housley coached the United States to a gold medal at this past year’s International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championships with Jones as his star player. 

Jones lit up at the mention of Housley. 

“I loved the way he coached,” he said. “He was just great all around. When he needed to be rowdy, he was. When he needed to calm down a little bit, he did that. He was perfect for us, or for me.” 

Housley beamed when talking about Jones. 

“I was pretty pumped we were able to get Seth,” Housley said. “Defensemen are at a premium and to have a guy like that back there solidifies our defensive corps. Just my experience with him at the World Junior, you didn’t have to say a lot to him. He approached the game and prepared for the game like a pro. Takes very good care of himself. He’s a very good character kid, good team player. 

“He understands where his role fit in. He was a very good leader for that group. He didn’t say a lot of things but he leads by his example and the way he plays the game -- to say he’s built for the NHL, he’s mobile, he can skate it out of trouble, he’s got a great stick, he can make the first good pass and he can lead the rush so he’s going to create offense from back there through broken plays and transition because he has excellent vision. So he was in all situations there so I didn’t have any problem. We relied on him a lot, he played a lot of minutes and I don’t see why he couldn’t do that with Nashville.” 

Poile had said earlier in the week that if Jones were available at No. 4, the Predators would take him – which seemed improbable at the time. He considered Jones the best player in the draft and a franchise-type player. Jones is much in the mold of Weber, the two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman and Nashville is very much known for developing defensemen, which comforted Popeye. 

Poile is the only general manager in Predators history and Nashville has drafted as high as second overall (they took David Legwand in their first draft in 1998) but Poile said Sunday was the first time the Predators had picked the player they had rated first on the draft board. 

In some ways, the pick felt like karmic compensation for the loss of All-Star defenseman Ryan Suter, another American-born defenseman, via free agency last summer to Minnesota. 

“It just feels real good,” Poile said. “We’re looking for size, we’re looking for talent. We got Shea Weber, we got (young defenseman Roman) Josi. We lost Suter a year ago. Replaced him with Seth Jones. I think that’s real good.” 

Poile will double this year as general manager of the U.S. Olympic team for the 2014 Games in Russia. Asked about Jones’ chances of making the Olympics, he quipped, “They’re improving.”