This is how far we’ve advanced in hockey: Before the 1981 National Hockey League Draft, young goalie Grant Fuhr fretted about being chosen by a U.S. team.
“If I had been drafted by a team with a large black population they could have used it as a promotional thing,” Fuhr, the first black player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, said in the 1982 book “The New Breed: Hockey’s Hot Young Superstars ” by New York MSG cable hockey analyst Stan Fischler. “I think that would have been hard for me.”
Defenseman Seth Jones isn’t worried about where he will go when the brain trusts of the NHL’s 30 teams convene at Newark, N.J.’s Prudential Center this Sunday for the 2013 NHL Draft to find hockey’s next superstars from among the world’s best eligible amateur players.
Jones is more concerned about how high he will go. He’s listed as the top player in numerous mock drafts ranging from the NHL’s to the respected hockey analysts on Canada’s TSN.
If forecasts hold true, Jones would make history as the first African-American player ever to be chosen first overall in the league’s draft. Not a bad for a 18-year-old kid who was born in Plano, Texas, caught the hockey bug growing up in Denver, gained fame in Oregon playing junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, and achieved stardom on USA Hockey’s gold medal-winning 2013 International Ice Hockey Federation Under-20 World Junior Championship team.
“From a hockey standpoint, it says a lot about the growth of our game. Seth is a great example,” Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goaltender-turned analyst for the CBC’s “Hockey Night in Canada,” NHL Network and NBC Sports, told me recently. “It’s great news for the league, great news for the game, great news for USA Hockey. and great news for kids of any background who aspire to play the game.”
The stars seem aligned for Jones to be No. 1 – or so most hockey experts thought. The Colorado Avalanche holds the draft’s first pick. Jones, the son of former National Basketball Association player Popeye Jones, began his hockey journey in Denver when his dad played for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets.
As his son turned more and more into a rink rat, Popeye, who knew more about playing defense on the hardwood than on frozen pond, reached across Denver’s Pepsi Center and sought advice from Joe Sakic, then a superstar scoring machine for the Avalanche. Sakic told Popeye to make sure that his son master skating before any other aspect of hockey.
Fast forward to 2013: Jones is the top-ranked player and his hometown team – with the aforementioned Sakic as its vice president of hockey operations – owns the first pick. Kismet. Right? Maybe not.
Sakic caused a lot of head-scratching recently when he said that the Avalanche may pass on Jones in favor of taking a highly-ranked forward such as Nathan MacKinnon of the Quebec Major Junior League’s Halifax Mooseheads, his teammate Jonathan Drouin or Aleksander Barkov of Tappara in Finland’s SM-Liiga. That’s if the Avalanche doesn’t trade the pick in exchange for some established veteran NHL talent and/or a move down in the draft.
“If we do pick first, we’re leaning toward one of those three forwards,” Sakic told The Denver Post.
Say what? Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Wherever Jones lands – the Florida Panthers own the No. 2 pick – hockey experts say that team will get a player who, at currently 6-foot, four-inches tall, 204-pounds, will develop into a big, a dominant Top 4 defenseman able to take care of his end of the ice and contribute offensively because of his superior skating ability and a hard shot from the blue line.
“He has all the tools to be a Chris Pronger-type player,” said Weekes, referring to the injured Philadelphia Flyers defenseman who combined bruising toughness – many NHL forwards would say “nastiness” – with offensive finesse.
Jones isn’t the only black player expected to go high in the draft. Darnell Nurse, a defenseman for the Ontario Hockey League’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the nephew of retired Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, has seen his stock rise in mock drafts. Nurse is projected to go anywhere from No. 4, held by the Nashville Predators, to No. 11, where the defensively-challenged Philadelphia Flyers would love to grab him.
Draft gurus expect defenseman Jordan Subban of the OHL’s Belleville Bulls to be taken around the second round. He is the brother of P.K. Subban, the Montreal Canadiens defenseman who recently won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top D-man, and goalie Malcolm Subban, a former Bull who was the Boston Bruins’ first-round pick last year.
“Jordan plays more of a cerebral type (of game),” big brother P.K. told TSN.com. “He’s more of a thinker. I play off my instincts and I try to do a little bit of everything, but Jordan’s skill level is higher than mine. I mean, I’m on the ice with him every day during the summer doing skill stuff and he’s the one demonstrating the drills…I’m not. I’m the guy still trying to learn them.”
These 2013 draftees-in-waiting will follow in the skates of others. There have been black first-rounders before: Fuhr, chosen eighth overall by the Edmonton Oilers; forward Kyle Okposo, chosen seventh overall by the New York Islanders in 2006; forward Evander Kane, taken fourth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers, now the Winnipeg Jets, in 2009; California-born forward Emerson Etem, 29th chosen overall by the Anaheim Ducks in 2010.
And there are black hockey heroes: Fuhr, one of the best goaltenders of his era, owns five Stanley Cup championship rings and a spot the Hall of Fame. Angela James, regarded as the female Wayne Gretzky by Canadian hockey fans, is the second black player and one of two women enshrined in the Hall. Retired NHL forward Anson Carter, now an analyst for NHL Network and NBC Sports, scored the overtime game-winning goal against Sweden in the 2003 World Championship.
Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jarome Iginla will forever have hockey-god status in Canada, not just for being the long-time heart and soul of the Calgary Flames, but for scoring two goals that powered Canada past the United States in the 2002 Winter Olympics, a game that gave the Great White North its first Olympic Gold Medal in 50 years. He also notched an assist on Sidney Crosby’s Gold Medal-winning overtime goal against the U.S. at 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
But there’s no denying that there’s an air of excitement and a sense of possibilities of what Seth Jones could do for hockey – and himself – once he’s drafted. Jones’ star potential has piqued the interest of rapper, Beyonce spouse, and budding sports entrepreneur Jay-Z, who reportedly wants to be involved in the marketing and branding of Jones. Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports – which represents New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith, New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano and others – has a partnership with CAA, the firm that represents Jones.
In another interesting “Six Degrees of Separation” link, Jay-Z had a minority stake in the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets before selling his shares earlier this year to go into the sports agent business. Popeye Jones was an assistant coach for the Nets last season.
Whether Jay-Z lands Jones or not, some say Madison Avenue has already gotten hip to the coming of Seth Jones and the rise of minorities in hockey. PowerAde, for instance, gives hockey players of color their due in this smartly-done 30-second TV ad: http://youtu.be/ywfIREWf6Bw.
Eugene Morris, a Chicago-based African-American advertising executive, said the attention garnered by the drafting of Jones “could be the start of something.”
“Will black people immediately start watching hockey in droves? I doubt it,” said Morris, chairman and CEO of E. Morris Communications, Inc. “I think certainly if he can reach his potential and be the star that he can be, he’ll generate interest. It won’t be an immediate game-changer – it will be the start of something.”