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Tim Sullivan | July 16, 2013

The only one

After being drafted No. 4 overall, Nashville defenseman Seth Jones takes to the ice to potentially become hockey's first African-American superstar

The media horde gained in strength and size by the minute, a collection of anxious reporters armed with iPhones, notebooks, cameras and microphones, all eager to get something, anything, out of an 18-year-old kid wearing a brand new Nashville Predators jersey, a matching yellow cap and an omnipresent smile.

One by one, Seth Jones answered each question — no matter how obvious — with a pride and passion beyond his years. While other NHL first-round draft picks around him fumbled for the right words and spoke in clichés, Jones, selected fourth at this hectic NHL Draft, sat some five feet away from the scrum and worked the crowd like a true pro. Under the bright lights, he never flinched. He rarely does.

And that’s a good thing, too. Because that attention is only going to grow. For while Jones, an African-American, wasn’t the first player chosen on this stormy, sultry June day in Newark, N.J., it’s clear that, given his upbringing, ethnicity, position and marketability — that he will likely be the most important.

While Jones wasn’t the first player chosen, it's clear that he will likely be the most important.

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"I’m not disappointed at all," he said with conviction and commitment. "When it comes down to it, once we all get going, it’s not going to really matter where you’re taken in the draft. I’m happy to be a Predator. It’s been a long road, I’m here now, and I’m ready to get going."

And all the while, a league, a sport, a continent will watch.

For several years, Jones has been something of a hockey prodigy in the United States, and as the fall — and a potential rookie season in Nashville — approaches, he is on the cusp of the sport’s grandest stage. While he’s not yet a household name, he certainly was the star of a seven-round draft that featured many players from foreign countries who likely won’t even make it to the NHL.

But why all the fuss? What makes him stand out? Why is he the one?

For starters, even though the NHL is more diverse now than ever before, Jones is still the only African-American ever selected within the top four picks. And he now shares the honor of highest drafted minority ever with African-Canadian Evander Kane, selected No. 4 in 2009.

Jones also hails from a family well entrenched in professional athletics, but it’s hardly a hockey-playing background. Seth’s father, Ronald Jones, better known around sports circles as "Popeye," orchestrated a workmanlike career as a forward in the NBA for a number of teams from 1993-2004, and was an assistant coach last season with the Brooklyn Nets.

Jones also plays a position — defense — unusual for high first-round draft picks. For several reasons, the need to sell tickets among them, teams at the top of Round One traditionally go after high-flying forwards, avoiding defensemen, who often take longer to develop, and won’t put up the gaudy scoring totals that centers and wings typically do. In fact, only 12 defensemen have ever been taken first overall. None — Gord Kluzak, Roman Hamrlik and Chris Phillips, among them — have stood out.

That explains the Colorado Avalanche passing over Jones with the No. 1 pick, instead selecting Canadian center Nathan MacKinnon. A few minutes later, the Florida Panthers, who chose Finnish center Aleksander Barkov, and Tampa Bay Lightning, who picked Canadian left wing Jonathan Drouin, made the same calculation. Jones, sitting in the front row of the Prudential Center with his mother, Amy, did not panic, but simply waited patiently for his time to come.

Finally, at No. 4, Nashville, a burgeoning franchise built on defense with a more skilled offensive core than the previous three teams, seized the opportunity. The Predators weren’t going to pass on this chance to add a premier player. Jones was their man.

Predators general manager David Poile seemed both delighted and amused at his club's good fortune. "We had him No. 1 all year long," he said. "I’m extremely happy. I can’t speak for the other teams, but this works out great for us. We couldn’t ask for a better situation. I think it’s going to be just a great fit."

But it won’t be without scrutiny, and with what Dad calls a "bull’s-eye on his back."

"There’s pressure on him no question, more than some others probably, and Seth knows that," Popeye said. "But he’s prepared for this, and he will embrace it."

A NEW GAME

Amy Jones’ eyes light up when you mention the old days — an innocent time when her full-of-life son had more things to do than the time to do them. Growing up in an NBA household, of course, Seth had opportunities that most youths don’t have. He could play what he wanted, and for the most part, he could play whatever he wanted, as much as he wanted.

Raising a biracial family in the suburbs, Amy, who is white, and Popeye gave their son the independence to choose his own avenue. Like so many other parents, they wanted to provide all their children — Seth, Justin, 22, and Caleb, 16 — opportunities they never had when they grew up. It’s part of the equation for the families of many pro athletes. Seth certainly had more options than there ever were for his father. Popeye was born in 1970 in Dresden, Tenn., a blue-collar, rural community of some 2,900 people in the western end of the state, where life revolves around high school football and hometown pride; a place that is decidedly not a hockey town.

it wasn’t long before their son scrapped his sneakers for skates.

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So, whether it was his choice of sports, activities, clubs, friends, or anything else, the couple let Seth make his own decisions. And it wasn’t long before their son scrapped his sneakers for skates.

Although born in Texas, Seth grew up primarily in Denver, where Popeye was a member of the Nuggets. At age five, he began attending Avalanche games, drawn to the unmistakable sound of skates digging into the ice, sticks slapping a puck, the speed of the game and the nonstop action. He couldn’t get enough of it and Popeye noticed.

Popeye grew up in Tennessee long before the Predators arrived, and went to college at Murray State in Kentucky, another state without a NHL presence. He could dunk, but he could not skate.

Fortunately he shared a workplace with the Avalanche and their roster of stars including forwards Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg, goaltender Patrick Roy and defenseman Ray Bourque.

One day in the weight room of Pepsi Center, Popeye ran into Sakic, and told the Avalanche captain about his son, how Seth and his brothers wanted to play hockey, not just watch it. How should the NBA forward, who was on the road half the year, and had never played a second of hockey in his life, proceed?

"Make sure they know how to skate," Sakic said. "Keep skating. Once you get that, everything will fall in line."

Popeye listened well, and the Joneses still remember the day it all started. On New Year's Eve, Dec. 31, 1999, the family enjoyed a little getaway at Beaver Creek Resort, a skiing community in Colorado. In the courtyard is a majestic, outdoor skating rink. When he first saw it, Seth’s eyes turned huge.

What better way to ring in the new year than watch your 5-year-old learn something new in a winter wonderland? The Joneses obliged, and rented their son a pair of skates. The resort also supplies rookies with walkers, too, if needed, metal stands that glide along the ice with the skater, providing support and balance. Most new skaters, particularly children, find them quite useful.

Not Seth. He didn’t see anyone on the Avalanche using a walker. He simply stepped out on the snow-glazed surface, and went to work. Slipping and stumbling, but not often falling, he skated up and down the ice, turning when needed with a smile stretching from ear to ear.

"It was so much fun," Amy said, "to watch him go, go, go."

A short time later, Amy and Popeye signed Seth up for skating lessons. Not hockey lessons — no sticks, no pads, no pucks in those early days — just basic "Learn to Skate" sessions like those offered at nearly every rink in the country, programs with cute names like "Snowplow Sam" to keep kids interested. It was a basic tutorial, learning how to stop, how to stride, how to turn, how to crossover, how to skate on one foot, or scoot backwards. For the most part, boring stuff.

Seth didn’t care.

"And he started to pick it up well," Amy said with a smile. "Once he really got comfortable skating, once he went through those lessons, really started to develop a feel for it, he wanted to go more regularly. We couldn’t keep him away.

"At that point, you could see, this was it, this is what he wanted to do, and nothing was going to stop him from doing it. And we followed along. And as that started to soak in, sometimes we’d step back, take a look at what he was doing out there, and say ‘Gosh, he’s pretty good at this.’"

By the time he was six, he graduated to real hockey, real equipment and real games. He fit right in. After that, it was hockey all year around for Seth. When he could be at a rink, he was.

"We knew from about seven years old," Amy said, "that he was gifted in the sport, but also had a love for it that most 7-year-olds don’t have."

The Joneses continued to feed that passion, and next enrolled Seth in a summer hockey camp at the University of Denver, run by famed former Pioneers coach George Gwozdecky.

"It started to hit me a little bit there," Popeye said. "A lot of the people who knew the game loved what he could do, at the age he could do it at. And I remember at that first hockey camp, Coach Gwozdecky pulled us to the side and said, ‘Hey, we have to move him up to the next age group, because he’s just going to be bored where he is during the week skating around with kids his age. He’s past that ... already.’

"I think as a family, and as parents, we always just wanted to make sure he was having fun, and he was doing something that he loved. What came of it would be determined later on, but as a boy, we just wanted him to have fun, and enjoy something and love something. Work hard, play hard and enjoy your time out there — those are the things that we really stressed. We never really wanted to let it get away from that and go crazy with it, even though so many people were talking about how great he was. But as he played, you couldn’t help but see his progress and his development within the game."

The Avalanche did their part to help. When Colorado secured its second Stanley Cup in 2001 with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in Game 7, Seth was in the front row, soaking it in.

"Unbelievable," Seth said. "Great memories."

It wasn’t long before he started making memories of his own. Seth joined travel teams, continuing to jump levels and play with older kids. By the time his family moved back to Texas, Seth, now 12, was a budding star. He stood out, not because he was black, but because he was good, a special player, someone whose next Stanley Cup experience seemed likely to take place on the ice instead of watching from stands.

The road less traveled

Seeing Jones in a rink today, 6’4 and 205 pounds, skating with an easy grace, it’s obvious that he is built to play defense. He looks to be a perfect fit on an NHL blue line, the kind of player the opposition must be aware of at all times.

That’s exactly where he’s always wanted to be. Unlike so many other NHL dreamers, he never had illusions of playing forward, winning faceoffs, posting 50 goals, and leading a team in scoring. That just wasn’t him. From the start, he knew his role: Defense.

"That’s it. I just loved it early on. I’ve always played D. I don’t know why. I liked it a little better than forward," Seths said, matter of factly. "I think you can see and read the play a little bit more. It’s not always ‘Go, go, go.’"

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It may not be an accident. His father loved defense as well. A 1992 second-round pick, Popeye averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 defensive rebounds per game, and was often on the floor as a defensive substitution late in games. The son may not have followed his father’s sport, but he certainly adopted an element of his style.

"He definitely knows the value of defense in all sports," Popeye said. "But that didn’t always translate to playing basketball for him. Basketball was fun for him, just something he loved to do, but nothing organized. But we played a lot — it’s a part of our family — and he liked to shoot the basketball. Still does."

Seth loves to shoot the puck, as well. He knows that no player has more room and more opportunity to blast pucks at the net — and display a slapshot — than a mobile defenseman.

Still, despite all his skills, making it in the NHL can be a long and agonizing journey, especially for a player like Jones who is used to logging big minutes. Many teams avoid rookie defensemen altogether and look toward free agency for help. Those that don’t often put their young defensemen through an slow, protective grind — cutting playing time in the third period and leaving them off special teams, strategies that can delay progress.

"The biggest reason teams stray from defenseman, is just how difficult it is to score," said Brian Leetch, perhaps the best American defenseman to play the game. A 1986 first-round selection, Leetch led the New York Rangers to the 1994 Stanley Cup and is now a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "Teams at the top of the draft didn’t make the playoffs, and most likely finished near the bottom in goal scoring, as well. You need someone to score, bottom line. And even though some defensemen are very skilled offensively — and Seth is one of those, obviously — you’ll be lucky to get 20 goals from them. So, it’s tough for teams to pass up that proven goal-scoring forward."

The Avalanche, with Sakic, of all people, serving in his first year as Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations, did just that when they drafted MacKinnon. Despite the fact that Colorado allowed 152 goals last season, the second-highest total in the Western Conference, the opportunity for more immediate production caused them to pass over Jones, the hometown kid.

"The funny thing about that, is that it switches, too," Leetch said. "Because once your team is able to score some goals, then you need that mobile defenseman who can anchor the blue line and break the puck out, kill penalties and really get into the flow. So, that’s a big decision. That defensive standout guy is usually available — and again, it looks like Seth will be one of those — but a lot of teams are so set on scoring, they get overlooked."

Jones, who hit the ice last week in Nashville at the Predators’ developmental camp sporting No. 3, isn’t worried. Playing for the Avalanche would have been a heartwarming story, and it would have been neat to play in Florida, with the Panthers or Lightning, but none of that matters now. Not only is his father a Tennessee native, but Nashville has a tradition of producing defensemen, and plays a style that allows some freedom to blueliners. Eventually, the rest of the league may see it’s a perfect mix. For now, Jones and the Predators already know it.

"It definitely sounded too good to be true." Jones said, thinking about playing for the Avalanche and wearing the same jersey he wore as a Colorado kid. "But I’m not really disappointed. I mean, I’m not unhappy that they didn’t choose me. It was their decision, and that’s what they thought would be best for their organization. You’ve got to respect that."

The Predators couldn’t be happier. A team that advanced to the second round of the Western Conference playoffs just two years ago, Nashville appears much closer to winning than the Avalanche, Panthers or Lightning. And while they lost standout defenseman Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild via free agency in 2012, the Predators still have veteran Shea Weber, a 6'4, 234-pound anchor, on the backline — someone who can mentor Jones.

"I talked to him on the phone right after I got drafted," Jones said of Weber. "He’s pretty excited that I’m here, and so am I. To learn from a guy like Shea Weber, who has been so great over the years, and has developed into such a good defenseman — to play under a guy like him is going to be awesome."

Phil Housley, the all-time scoring leader among American defensemen with 1,232 points, is also with Nashville as an assistant. Housley, who coached Jones in international play for Team USA, made a career out of knowing just when to switch to an offensive mindset because he had the skating skill to get back on defense swiftly, something Jones is already noted for.

Assistants also tend to take on the psychologist role with younger players. In the NHL, it’s common lingo to refer to your head coach as your parent — in this case, Barry Trotz — and your assistant coach as your friend, the shoulder to lean on for questions, on or off the ice. Housley and Jones already have that rapport.

"Phil was my coach at World Juniors, and I loved the way he coached. He was just great all around," Seth said. "When he needed to be rowdy, he was. When he needed to calm down a little bit, he did that. He was perfect for me."

Whether Housley and Jones get the opportunity to be together this season is the next big question. The NHL is not like the NBA and the NFL; first-round draft picks don’t automatically make the team. Many go back to junior teams or to the American Hockey League to continue development. Few get a chance to stick with the big club, and fewer make it through the whole season.

Even at age 18, Jones wants to be one of those rare few. His audition will truly kick into gear at September’s training camp.

"I'm going to have to perform the best that I can. Hopefully, I'm given the opportunity to do that here in Nashville. But I'm going to have to earn it first. Get to training camp, and earn my spot," he said. "Nothing is given at this level, and if someone is playing better than you at the time, then they are going to get the spot over you, so you always have to be focused, you have to be straight-ahead on what your goals are."

Twenty-five years ago, at age 19, Leetch faced a similar situation. Like Jones, he was joining a good-but-not-great team in New York, and needed to prove himself early just to avoid the minors. And he did, playing in 17 games for the Rangers in 1987-88, then 68 the following season. By 1990, he was an All-Star.

For the expectations that he will face, he has to be equally strong mentally and emotionally.

"That’s all you can ask for as a young defenseman, the opportunity to get in there, produce in training camp, and show them what you can do. Have the opportunity to make the big team in your first year. He’ll have that," Leetch said. "And all these guys coming in now — and Seth is no different — they are so prepared physically for this. With the right training, the right nutrition, the right mindset, it’s really great to see. That’s just what professional athletes do now, and he’s no different. He’s a big kid and could use a little bit more strength and quickness. But it won’t take him long to adjust."

There’s plenty of work to do, of course, before his debut. Just ask Mom.

"Oh, he’ll be working in the weight room, obviously, and he needs to do that this summer. He knows that," Amy said. "He needs to get stronger, but the looks of him, right now, can be deceiving. He is extremely strong, next to anybody, particularly in his lower body strength. But he’s headed to the NHL now, we all know that, and the level will pick up. His strength needs to be in tune with that."

But Jones knows that in order to succeed, physical strength will not be enough. For the expectations that he will face, he has to be equally strong mentally and emotionally. He can’t just be another player.

Ready to be a role model

Anson Carter can rattle off his draft-day story without a second of hesitation. After a standout career at forward at Michigan State, where he scored 106 goals, Carter traveled to Montreal in June of 1992. All that separated him from a great NHL career, he thought, was hearing his name called to the podium.

It never happened.

So Carter, who is black, went back to Toronto to ponder his future. The very next day, he received a call from the Quebec Nordiques. Drafted in the 10th round, the 220th player overall, Carter, still managed to make it, playing for eight NHL teams across a career that spanned 1996-2007, finishing with 202 goals and 421 points.

Was Carter’s race an issue in where he was selected? Perhaps, but he may have just been one of those rare standouts who slipped through the cracks. Still, minority players were rare in Carter’s era. That’s no longer quite the case, and Jones has the potential to be hockey’s first big, African-American superstar.

Jones has the potential to be hockey’s first African-American superstar.

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"Seth’s a born-and-bred first-round defenseman, and he’s ready for the big stage," Carter said. "For him, it’s nervousness, sure. But nervous anticipation. Get to your team, get going, and begin the life of an NHL player. It’s a different road for him. He’s ready. He’ll do fine."

Jones wasn’t even the only minority selected in the first round. At No. 7, the Edmonton Oilers drafted African-Canadian defenseman Darnell Nurse, a nephew of former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. And in Round Three, the Predators selected African-Canadian defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby.

"It’s changing, and that’s a great thing for minorities ... and the game," said Carter, an analyst who covered the recent Stanley Cup Finals for NBC Sports. "Before, there was a rush on Europeans, they were all joining and it was new. Now? You see them all the time.

"Same thing is now happening with minority players. Look at the Finals this year," he said, referencing Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya and goaltender Ray Emery, who recently signed as a free agent with Philadelphia. "I mean when I came in the league, there were only a few of us, myself and [former NHL forward] Mike Grier, and we took pride in that, fed off that. But now, you're seeing so many more guys, at so many more positions. Seth is a great step forward for that. An American, who plays defense, a first rounder, the son of a former NBA player? What a story! Not that there's any pressure for you Seth, or anything like that, right?

"You're looking at perhaps one of the most unique, most dynamic stories to ever come into the NHL."

Jones, who graduated from high school in just three years, is ready to be the one, and both Nashville and the NHL need him to be just that. An expansion team in 1998, since then the Predators have made inroads in Tennessee, but there is still work to be done. Nashville averaged 16,974 fans per game last season, 23rd in the 30-team league. If Jones succeeds, he may prove to be a draw and help expand the fan base, not just in Nashville, but also on the road. There are few black faces in NHL arenas, and in order to grow, the league cannot afford to pretend otherwise.

"Seth knows this. He has a responsibility to continue that movement forward, and honestly, he wants to," Popeye said. "Minorities have taken great strides, and now, it’s his turn to push it on, and help grow the game. Hopefully, with the work he puts in, he can get more minorities to play.

"USA Hockey has done a great job of growing the game in non-traditional hockey markets already. Kids from markets that don’t usually produce players, are now producing players, and it’s great. We know that there will always be a burden, the economics of playing travel hockey will always be there. A lot of inner-city kids, their parents can’t afford for them to play. I think the next step for USA Hockey is trying to find economical ways where they can get more minorities involved."

Still, that’s a lot to take on for an 18-year-old. Making an NHL team and adapting to that life, is hard enough. To be an ambassador on top of that, quite frankly, is something most first rounders don’t have to do. But Jones’ eagerness to tackle that role is not only obvious, but a given. It’s been ingrained within him for a long time — the thought that he’s not just another player.

"My parents, I give a lot of credit to them," he said. "My mom did a lot. My dad was on the road when I was younger, playing basketball, and she took me to all the early-morning practices, dropped me off at school," Jones said. "I mean, there was me and my two other brothers were also starting to play, so she had a lot on her plate, and I'm glad that she did that for us, and also my dad."

The Joneses, who divorced two years ago, helped with more than just the logistics of getting to the rink. Perhaps it was because he saw his father interviewed countless times, but Seth is already polished in front of a microphone, and should be more than adequate as a spokesman.

"Since about age three, [he] has been kind of a little man," Amy said. "From kindergarten on, he’s always in control of what he wanted to do and what he had to do. That translated to hockey as he got older — practice, game, whatever, he was prepared to go. He’s been that way, and we just kind of pitched in along the way with the manners, and the good habits, and the basic parenting issues. But he’s really always been mature for his age, more in tune with everything.

"This has been something he’s looked toward for a long time. And now, it’s here."

A quiet yet confident champion

Jones’ style of leadership stems from his quiet confidence and belief in himself, something he displayed when he had to make the first big decision of his career. After a decorated run playing major bantam hockey and competing at the international level with the United States National Team Development Program, Jones had to choose between college and major junior hockey.

Once again, the Joneses had enough faith in their son to leave the decision to him.

"Yep, that’s just what we do," Popeye said with a laugh. "Amy and I, we have always weighed the pros and cons with him, and have always helped him where he wanted. But it was up to him. You want him to make that decision."

Seth visited the University of North Dakota, a national powerhouse that has produced NHL stars Zach Parise of the Minnesota Wild and the Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews. But it wasn’t for him. He chose to play in the Western Hockey League, making his sport the priority.

"That was something we supported and he just took off from there," Popeye said. "We always looked at it this way, leave it up to him, guide him along the way, and then support his decision. Because no matter which way he would have went, if you pushed him toward a direction that he didn’t want to be, then it’s not going to turn out well."

Jones, selected by the Portland (Ore.) Winterhawks, orchestrated a season to remember. He led the team to a 57-12-1 record, scoring 14 goals and 56 points. In an impressive 21-game postseason, he added five goals and 15 points, a performance that landed him at the top of the pre-draft rankings by the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau. In 82 games, Jones, the WHL Rookie of the Year, had a plus-61 rating.

"In training camp, the first thing that stood out about him, is how smooth he is out there for a guy his size," Portland coach Mike Johnston said. "Often times you see players at that age, at that size, that just don’t move that well. But he just glides out there, in and out or corners, up and down the ice, just very smooth. As a defenseman, he has the ability to be very deceptive carrying the puck. He’s a hard guy to hit, he’s a hard guy to get an angle on — and that’s why he’s so successful coming out of his own zone.

"I just noticed right away, that when players came in to forecheck on him, it was just so hard to get a hit on him, and it was even harder for them to get the puck from him. He can fake one way, then accelerate on a turn the other way, and then he’s gone ... with the puck!"

Two months ago, Jones led the Winterhawks to the WHL championship, defeating the Edmonton Oil Kings in six games. The victory qualified Portland to compete for the Memorial Cup, a tournament featuring other junior champions, giving Jones one last showcase for the NHL.

He delivered.

In Portland’s first game, a May 18 loss to the Halifax (Nova Scotia) Mooseheads, the team that eventually beat Portland in the tournament finale to win the Cup, Jones authored a signature take-charge move, end to end, that showed the full dimension of his talent. With the Winterhawks trailing 1-0 in the first period, Halifax focused on a Portland breakout on the left side of the neutral zone.

Big mistake.

Jones took advantage of the open ice, and barreled toward the attack zone on the right side. As he hit the blue line, the puck was to his left, on the stick of teammate Brendan Leipsic. Jones, sensing the lack of attention, shirked his defensive responsibilities and broke to the net. Leipsic, who surely had seen the move hundreds of times in practice, hit a surging Jones with an angled pass, and Jones calmly and patiently deposited the puck, via wristshot, past Halifax goaltender Zachary Fucale on his glove side.

It was the kind of decision that stands out on NHL scouting reels — a defenseman with the hockey sense to think offense in a tight game, knowing he has the skills to reverse course and get back into defensive mode just in case it doesn’t work out. That’s the skill that sets Jones apart, just as it did Housley.

"When it all comes together for a team, with a leader like Seth, it’s great to see that culmination," said Travis Green, a Portland assistant. "It revolved around him."

As Portland made its run, though, Jones wasn’t outspoken. He knew the Winterhawks were loaded with potential, that there was skill all over the ice, and a quality coaching staff behind the bench. He was smart enough to pick his spots and not speak out of turn. He wasn’t about to "big time" anyone.

"I think that sums it up, yeah," Seth said with a chuckle. "I think I'm vocal when I need to be, but I think you can lead by example most of the time, not just the way you play hockey, but your demeanor and your character."

Green, who played in the NHL for 15 seasons, concurs.

"He’s just not a rah-rah guy. He tends to focus on what needs to be done."

"When he speaks, people are going to listen," he said. "It’s not nonstop chatter out of him. That’s never going to happen. He’ll lead by being driven by his passion to win. He won't be afraid to speak up. But he'll also dig deep and try to figure it out on his own, as well."

"He has a great presence. His teammates feel that and are influenced by that. When he does speak, it’s natural, and it’s important, and he usually gets his point across," Johnston said. "He’s just not a rah-rah guy. He tends to focus on what needs to be done, what’s happening out there in all sides of the game. Headed into games, nothing fazes him. You’ll see."

That’s because he’s the one.

The next level

An exhausted and exhilarated Johnny Oduya leaned up against the boards at Boston’s TD Garden, happy to be talking hockey. Just a few minutes earlier, Oduya notched an assist on the game-winning goal for the Blackhawks as they defeated the Bruins, 3-2, in Game 6 to win the Stanley Cup. After wiping away tears on a sweat-soaked Gatorade towel that covered his neck, Oduya, who is black, raised the Cup for the first time. After nine long years in the NHL, he couldn’t believe his good fortune.

Perhaps more than anyone else right now, Oduya, a defenseman, knows what Jones is up against as he prepares for life in the NHL. As a minority playing a grueling position that can often go unnoticed, moments like what Oduya just experienced are rare.

"It can be a long ride," he said, thinking of his own journey. "You have to stick with it. In this league, you learn a lot as you go. I know I did, I know he will, and when you fit in, and you get the right people around you, the right mix, there’s no telling what you can do."

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"The right mix" is clearly an important aspect to a teenager who will likely travel through two countries and play games against the world’s best competition three times a week. There will be people tugging him one way one day, the other way the next. Media will watch his every move. Bloggers will dissect every performance. There will be fans who want to see him at every stop. There will be players who might want a piece of him, too. Before he can be a role model, he will have to prove that he can perform, and he will be tested.

"I’m a little nervous for that, sure. It’s a fast game, it’s a rough game, and that’s a young age," Popeye said. "I want to make sure he doesn’t get hurt, and we know — with all the media attention — the veterans are going to want to know what all the talk is about, and that’s natural. What’s all the rage? So, I worry about that, as a father, and as a former professional athlete, I know that will be in play, that he will have to prove himself.

"But again, it’s up to him now, not unlike when he was a boy. He has set his goal to make the NHL as a rookie."

He’s already surrounded with experts that will help. Jones’ agent, Pat Brisson, is one of the game’s power people, and works in conjunction with the famed Creative Artists Agency. Last week, Jones signed a three-year contract with Nashville that will pay him a base annual salary of $925,000, and he has an endorsement deal with CCM, a hockey equipment company, as well.

Jay-Z, and his rapidly growing Roc Nation Sports Agency, might want to speak with Jones moving forward.

There are also rumors that hip-hop icon Jay-Z, and his rapidly growing Roc Nation Sports Agency, might want to speak with Jones moving forward. Roc Nation also has an association with CAA, and has already snapped up high-profile athletes from other sports like Robinson Cano (MLB, New York Yankees), Kevin Durant (NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder), and Geno Smith (NFL, New York Jets). Jay-Z does not have a hockey client ... yet.

But that seems way off the Joneses’ radar for now.

"Go out there and do the best you can," Oduya advises. "When you get into this league, and he'll see this, you know that someone wants you out there on the ice, at that time, on that shift. That's an incredible feeling. It pushes you. At that point, you don't worry about the outside stuff, what people may think of you, what kind of pressure is on you, what kind of mental stress is out there, who you are, whatever. You can block that out on the ice. You try to be positive. But it's a learning process. Won't be easy. Won't be quick."

The game itself, though, will be quick. Very quick. No matter how much talent is in the WHL, no matter how tough the competition Jones has faced might be, nothing is the NHL.

A pair of American rookie defensemen learned that firsthand during the playoffs for Boston. Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug were minor leaguers until a rash of Bruins injuries forced them into the NHL postseason. Both are better off for the experience, and both had advice for Jones.

"The speed will always be there," Bartkowski said. "It’s something you just cannot prepare for. It’s important for him to seriously take it shift by shift, as cliché as that sounds."

"Something is going to go wrong, and you’re going to have to bounce back," Krug said. "Rely on your teammates, guys who have been through it all before. He’ll get that."

The Predators have a talented, seasoned group, and Jones will be groomed slowly, which will help. But the Central Division is loaded with skill, speed and star-laden opponents, the champion Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings among them. Every night will be a challenge, and Jones has the extra motivation of wanting to show Colorado, Florida and Tampa Bay what they missed.

"People say it takes time for defensemen to grow in the league. Hopefully I can prove that theory wrong."

"I think I can be a solid defenseman, produce a little bit offensively, as well," Jones said. "I know people say it takes time for defensemen to really grow in the league, a couple years at least. So, hopefully I can prove that theory wrong."

And all the while, a league, a sport, a continent will watch.

"To me, he’s a foundation player for the organization for the next decade," Predators head coach Barry Trotz said. "Hopefully longer."

As the draft wound to its conclusion — and with very few people left in the Prudential Center on June 30, some eight hours after Jones' selection — a few fans and autograph hounds still lurked, waiting for players to appear out of the facility’s cracks and crevices. In one corner of the arena — the same hallway that the Jones family walked through a few hours before — another new Predator appeared. It was the aforementioned rookie defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, who, like Jones earlier, also sported a yellow jersey, with No. 13 on it, signifying the year of the draft.

Diaby was headed to a radio interview when three young fans noticed him. He stopped as they started screaming. "Seth!" "Mr. Jones!" "Can you sign this for me?" "Pretty please?"

For now, it is an excusable gaffe, Diaby, after all, is a black defenseman, 18 years old, 6'5, 223 pounds, and sports the same perma-smile that Jones has. But in a few more months, even Diaby knows it’s not likely he’ll be mistaken for Jones anymore.

Diaby played along at first. Then he stopped, shook off the radio host just for a second, looked over to the fans, and smiled.

"Wrong guy," he said with a laugh. "I’m not Seth Jones."

Clearly, as NHL fans will soon learn, Seth Jones is not only the one, but, more importantly, there is also only one Seth Jones.

And the game may never be the same.

Producer/Design: Chris Mottram | Editor: Glenn Stout | Copy Editor: Kevin Fixler | Photos: Getty Images

About the Author

Sullivan_msg

Tim Sullivan is the author of "Battle on the Hudson: The Devils, the Rangers, and the NHL's Greatest Series Ever," and "Imus, Mike and the Mad Dog, & Doris from Rego Park: The Groundbreaking History of WFAN." Follow him on Twitter at @WFANbook.

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