Seth Jones an NHL icon in waiting

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Nov. 28

The best teenage hockey player in the US is the son of a Brooklyn Nets assistant coach. He skates for the Portland Winterhawks at the Rose Garden, better known as the home of the Trail Blazers, against whom his father played 18 times during an 11-year NBA career.

He is a triumph for his country’s national program and the embattled NHL itself. He learned the game in Denver and Dallas, cities that controversially gained NHL franchises in the 1990s. He wasn’t even out of elementary school when he told his mother that his greatest dream was to play for the US National Team Development Program, based in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was only 15 when he left his family’s Texas home to do it.

And in June, Seth Jones could become the first black player selected No. 1 overall in NHL Draft history. During a lonely, locked-out winter, this 18-year-old defenseman from the junior-level Western Hockey League is the best story in the sport.

Jones is engaged in a 1-on-1 battle with Nathan MacKinnon, a 17-year-old Canadian forward, for the top spot in next June’s draft. Remember Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III? Our friends in Canada — and puck devotees everywhere — are similarly passionate about this debate.

The possibility of a No. 1 pick from the US is newsworthy on its own; Jones would become only the seventh all-time and first since Patrick Kane in 2007. But when considering the rest of the backstory — where he grew up and, yes, who his father is — Jones has the potential to become a transcendent figure within and outside the sport.

“The impact would be so multidimensional that it’s hard to articulate what that would represent,” said Kevin Weekes, the retired NHL goaltender and respected television analyst. “It would be unbelievable for him and his family, not to mention what it would mean for the game, for USA Hockey.

“You think about how long the NHL has been around. You think about the Original Six franchises and all the great players. You think about a global population of 7 billion . . . To be the first one in the world? That puts things in a completely different perspective.”

After I read Weekes’ quotation over the telephone to Amy Jones, there was a second or two of silence on the line as she contemplated her son’s potential place in history. “You gave me chills,” she finally said. Ronald “Popeye” Jones had a similarly emotional reaction when he walked up to the Rose Garden’s will call window before the Winterhawks’ season opener in September, where he would watch his son, quite literally, skate in his sneaker-prints.

“Going in, it kind of struck me: Seth’s not a little boy anymore,” he recalled. “It’s not the NHL, but it’s a step closer. I saw the fans going in, and they were selling jerseys with his name and number on the back of it. As a father, you’re proud. He’s really going in the right direction.” The three-hour time difference between Brooklyn and Portland actually has helped Popeye follow Seth’s season. Popeye can return to his home or hotel after Nets games and log on to the webcast from Moose Jaw, Saskatoon, or another faraway WHL outpost.

Seth Jones cuts an unmistakable presence — standing 6-foot-4, weighing 206 pounds, sweeping over what seems like half the rink with his long, smooth strides. He doesn’t score that many goals. He doesn’t need to. His game is characterized by fundamental brilliance, accurate passes and natural leadership. Comparisons? Danton Cole, who coached him with the USNTDP for the last two seasons, could think of a couple: Magic Johnson on ice (“He dictates the tempo of a game like a point guard”) and a teenage version of Nicklas Lidstrom (“He just makes the right plays”).

Even if he isn’t the No. 1 pick, Jones is likely to surpass Evander Kane (fourth overall, 2009) as the highest-picked black player selected in the NHL Draft. To the extent that any 18-year-old could, Jones has an appreciation for the responsibility — and opportunity — that would come with that status.

“I grew up with a white mom and a black dad, and I’ve never really been into the whole race thing,” Jones said in a recent interview. “But hearing that — that’s awesome. That’s a privilege and an honor. I know African-Americans don’t play hockey too much. Maybe this would get a couple more kids into it here and there.

“I grew up in a family where race didn’t matter, but that would be a great thing. That’d be awesome, for me to be that guy who little kids say, ‘If he can do it, I can do it.’ That’s an honor, to be honest with you.”

According to the NHL, 18 black players — representing 2.7 percent of the league — appeared during the 2011-2012 season. A substantial number of them are stars: Jarome Iginla was arguably the league’s best player for a time during the last decade; Kane, Iginla, Kyle Okposo, Chris Stewart and Anthony Stewart were first-round picks; Wayne Simmonds, 24, and P.K. Subban, 23, are becoming elite talents in the NHL. Many of them (along with Weekes) are alumni of the Skillz Hockey camp designed for minority and underprivileged youths in the Toronto area.

Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, nearly 11 years after Jackie Robinson’s big-league debut. Stereotypes have faded with the success of minorities in hockey over subsequent generations. Nonetheless, for a biracial player from a warm-weather state to be the world’s best player in his age group would send a powerful message about the sport’s evolving inclusiveness.

“If he goes first overall — or even second — there’s going to be a lot of pressure and expectations associated with that,” Cole said. “But he’s a good man at a good time for that (responsibility). He can handle it. That’s how history unfolds: The man and the event come together. If there is a guy who can understand the pressures and handle it well, it’s Seth. And that’s not putting too much on him. He’s comfortable with who he is as a man.”

Jones’ poise and ready-made marketability underscore the sad irony of the self-destructive stalemate between the NHL and its players union: For years, both sides have said there is no limit to the sport’s growth potential, as long as it is made more accessible and enjoyable for young people of different backgrounds. Now that a dynamic talent is ready to prove that theory correct in a very big way, the league is hibernating.

One would expect the NHL to hold a 2013 draft even if the current season is canceled. (It happened that way when Sidney Crosby went No. 1 overall after the ’04-’05 season was lost.) Whenever the league rediscovers labor peace, it shouldn’t be too long before Jones emerges as a new face of hockey — for reasons that go beyond race and his All-Star potential. He’s just as important to the sport because of his answer to a two-part question: Why did you choose hockey, and what made you so great at it?

Jones has been asked a less tactful version — Why don’t you play basketball like your dad? — for years. He doesn’t seem offended by it, probably because the explanation is delightfully mundane: The Colorado Avalanche were near their zenith while Popeye played for the Denver Nuggets during the 1999-2000 season. The family lived in a suburban Denver cul-de-sac, perfect for street hockey. The kids in the neighborhood played. Seth’s older brother, Justin, played. So Seth wanted to play, too.

He had tried the other sports. Baseball. Football. Soccer. Basketball, too. None of them clicked. Hockey was different — the pace it maintains, the focus it demands. Seth became infatuated.

“The intensity of the game — it’s nonstop,” he explained. “You’ve always got to know what’s going on — the situation, the time of the game. From the moment you step onto the ice, there’s no going back. You’ve got to be 100 percent mentally into the games.”

Between Popeye’s career and Amy’s North Texas roots, the Jones family was well-versed in sports culture . . . except when it came to the one their sons wanted to play. (The youngest, Caleb, recently was selected by Portland in the WHL Draft.) The complex structure of youth hockey has been known to inspire livelier politics than the fiscal cliff negotiations, in part because entry-level leagues usually operate separately from schools. Amy remembers other parents approaching her after Justin didn’t attend the Colorado state hockey festival. “I just told them, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’” she said.

She learned. She had to. Seth’s talent was apparent to the parent-coaches of travel hockey. Everyone, it seemed, wanted him to play for their team. Before long, Amy was on a plane with 8-year-old Seth, bound for his first big travel tournament in Whistler, B.C. She’s seen international cities large and small over the decade since, becoming, in Popeye’s words, “the ultimate hockey mom.” Her passport is about to get another stamp: Amy is checking into flights to Ufa, Russia, site of next month’s World Junior Championships, where Seth is expected to be a mainstay on the Team USA blue line.

Jones likely will play against his friend and draft rival MacKinnon when the US and Canada meet Dec. 30, in a game that will be hyped in Canada on a BCS Championship Game level. The WJC is regarded as a jewel event by the hockey cognoscenti, and Jones has proven himself on the international stage with gold medals in the last two Under-18 World Championships — including a command performance against Canada in the 2012 event.

Yet the draft — and Jones’ chance at history — is one storyline that won’t recede completely into the background. Sometimes, it will be subtle. Often, it won’t. Hockey people want to talk about Jones, because he embodies the promise of their sport. By birth, he should have played basketball. By climate, he should have played football or baseball. Instead, he is demonstrating the allure of a sport that isn’t completely understood by many Americans.

When he stands on the draft dais, his smile will convey a particular poignancy to the young people watching: Go to the rink. Put on a pair of skates. Trust me. You’ll like it.

“If Seth is able to go No. 1, or even No. 2, it would be such a huge turning point for so many people,” Weekes said. “Not only black people or visible minorities, but people in general. That’s what North America is all about — having the opportunity. In hockey, it’s about growing the game, taking it to the next level, making sure as many people as possible can enjoy it. That’s where we’re headed. We’re not there yet. But we’re going there.”

Seth Jones, the son of a man who played America’s more popular winter sport, isn’t an unlikely icon for hockey’s new generation. He’s the perfect one.