Popeye Jones didn’t truly begin worrying about the pressure being heaped onto his middle son until Sports Illustrated came calling when he was 14 years old.
Over the course of his 11-year journeyman NBA career, which included a stint with the Washington Wizards, Jones knew how unbridled expectations and celebrity could affect young players, how such a combination of privilege and scrutiny is more than many can handle.
So when Seth Jones attracted the magazine’s attention as a towering presence in Dallas youth hockey leagues, Popeye took comfort in his son’s personality, which he said seemed sophisticated beyond his years.
“Seth’s always been a very mature kid. Even at a young age he’s always been a sponge and wanted to please you, to do the right thing,” Popeye Jones, now an assistant coach with the NBA’s Indiana Pacers, said in a recent phone interview. “Ever since [being included in the magazine], he’s understood that every time he’s playing, all eyes are on him. It’s been that way for him for a while now, and he’s handled it all.”
On June 30, Seth Jones became not only the highest-drafted African American player in NHL history as the fourth overall pick, but also the new face of diversity in the league. It’s not a position he asked for, but one that he is ready to fill.
“Anything I can do to help the sport of hockey grow,” Seth Jones said. “Whether it’s with white people or black people, it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to do it.”
Jones turned 19 on Oct. 3, the same day he made his highly anticipated debut with the Nashville Predators. As he stepped on the ice for the first time in an NHL regular season game, his father watched proudly from the stands at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, confident that as the spotlight on the young defenseman grows, he is prepared to weather his complex position as young NHL star and role model.
Jones doesn’t identify himself as either black or white, but both. His mother, Amy, is white. Popeye is black. Now divorced, they taught Seth and his two hockey-playing brothers, Caleb and Justin, to be accepting of all races and ethnicities. Being among the few black players in their sport was irrelevant.
“We raised them so they could walk in a room with African Americans, white people, Mexican people, Chinese people, and not see color and get along with anybody,” Popeye Jones said. “He knew there’s not a lot of African American players in the NHL, and it didn’t faze him.”
Last season, the NHL featured 22 black players, four of whom were American. More black players are making a prominent mark in the NHL, including Montreal’s P.K. Subban, who was named the league’s best defenseman as Norris Trophy winner last year.
Washington Capitals winger Joel Ward, a Toronto native, has seen the ugly side of the sport’s relationship with race. After he scored the series-winning goal in Washington’s playoff series against the Boston Bruins in 2011, Ward received hundreds of racist tweets and even some threats.
In recent trips home, Ward noticed an abundance of kids from all backgrounds taking up the game he loves, and he thinks Jones will be able to serve as a positive role model.
“It’s good that younger kids can see we’re not just here trying to make it, but actually are impact players. For [Jones] to go as high as he did in the draft, I think that sets the bar higher,” Ward said. “With his background, he’s a great example of more and more kids getting involved. It’s a very special time.”
Jones, at 6 feet 4, 205 pounds, is a potential star, something that hasn’t gone unnoticed by marketers. Before Jones was drafted, he signed a prominent endorsement deal with Reebok-CCM Hockey and was being courted by Roc Nation Sports agency, founded by Jay Z.
Jones didn’t sign with Roc Nation and continues to be represented by Pat Brisson of CAA, who also serves as the agent for NHL stars Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane.
After a successful 2012-13 season that saw him help the U.S. under-20 national team win gold at the world junior championships and be named the Canadian Hockey League’s player of the year for his 56 points in 61 games with the Portland Winterhawks, Jones also was one of several up-and-coming young players invited to the U.S. Olympic orientation camp in Arlington this summer.
In Jones, Nashville’s top brass believes they’ve found their next stalwart defenseman.
“We’re so impressed with how grounded of a player he is. With all the hype and expectations and all that, he’s handled it all terrifically,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “From our standpoint, he looks like he’s a veteran in the league. He looks as close to the real deal as you’re going to find.”