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Jones destined for greatness

Seth Jones is the Nashville Predators’ highest draft pick since 1998. He gives the Predators another top-end defenseman to potentially build around for the years to come. He is the first NHL draft pick that is the son of a former NBA player. He has all the tools to become one of the game’s best defensemen. Amidst all of that, he is extremely impressive for a teenager that has been in the spotlight for much of the last few years.

Here’s the story of how Jones’ hockey-playing days started, how his dream was realized and why he is destined for greatness.

How the dream started

Popeye Jones remembers the conversation he had 13 years ago with Colorado Avalanche star Joe Sakic. As a member of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, Jones sought Sakic’s advice for how to get his three boys further into hockey.

“I was just walking through the weight room and saw Joe Sakic and stopped and asked him, ‘My kids want to play hockey; I don’t know what to do or what direction to go in,’” Popeye explained. “He just kind of looked at me and saw how big I was and basically said, ‘From the look of you, they are going to be huge. Just make sure they know how to skate. They’ve got good genes so they are going to be good athletes.’”

Although their father had aspirations of them following his footsteps and playing basketball, Justin, 9, Seth, 5, and Caleb, 3, were simply attracted to hockey at the time. They played a lot of street hockey at a young age and transformed a sport court in their backyard into a hockey-playing surface. Whenever the NBA and NHL playoffs were both going on in the springtime, Jones was relegated to watching the NBA playoffs in his bedroom or basement because the main TV in the house was set on playoff hockey.

“When the playoffs started, it was all about hockey,” Seth’s mother, Amy, said. “That’s all they watched.”

Everything came natural to Seth when he was young, whether it was hitting or throwing a baseball, shooting a basketball, hitting a golf ball. According to Popeye, that’s what separated Seth from his two brothers, Justin and Caleb. Seth just simply has that god-given talent, which is something his father did not have. Popeye had to work hard to keep his spot in the NBA throughout his 11-year career. The work ethic that was instilled in him as a basketball player rubbed off on Seth over the years and is a reason why he has become the elite NHL prospect he is today.

“I’ve always told him that we’re all blessed with different talent levels,” Popeye said, “but one thing we do control is how hard we work. I’d always say, ‘I’m probably never going to be as good as Michael Jordan, but I can work just as hard as Michael Jordan.’ I think that really rubbed off on him.”

When Seth was six, before he eventually became a Detroit Red Wings fan, he had glass seats for Colorado’s Stanley Cup-clinching victory in Game 7 in 2001. The rest was history. He was sold on hockey forever.

“I knew I wanted to be a hockey player from there when I saw [Peter] Forsberg, [Ray] Bourque, guys like that lift [the Cup],” he said.

After taking his first skating lessons from a figure skater at five years old, Seth was playing travel hockey by age 10. He dropped other sports like soccer and lacrosse to put all of his focus into hockey and just continued to get better and better at it. At the age of 14 he was featured in Sports Illustrated as one of 14 teens that could one day become star athletes.

“I was scared when Sports Illustrated came calling and wanted to do a photo [opportunity]. I was like ‘Gosh, he’s 14,’” Popeye said of Seth. “My advice to him was when people come to watch you in the rink now, the first person they’ll be looking for is Seth Jones to see where he’s at.”

Seth added, “That’s a pretty young age to do something so big; that was kind of my first big thing. My mom has done a great job over the years of really teaching me how to talk to the media. She didn’t do it herself, obviously; my dad did, too. She was always there, knew right from wrong.”

The calm, cool and collected 18-year-old credits Amy just as much as his father for his upbringing. Since Popeye wasn’t around as much due to basketball, Amy was left with the duty of getting Justin, Seth and Caleb to the rink on time for practices and games.

“There was a lot of bonding, a lot of lectures in that vehicle,” Amy said.

Seth’s last step before reaching the highly-anticipated NHL Draft was joining Portland of the WHL. It wasn’t an easy decision for Seth to go to Portland, though. He spent a year trying to decide whether to play in the WHL or attending the University of North Dakota. He loved everything about the university, and was raised in an education-first household, but personally felt it was right to head to Portland.

Assuming he stays in Nashville this upcoming season, his only major junior season was a major success. He tallied 56 points and a plus-46 rating in 61 games with Portland, 15 points in 21 playoff games. Portland advanced all the way to the Memorial Cup before getting ousted by Halifax. Mixed in was a gold medal victory with Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, where Seth had a standout performance after stating the U.S. had the “best team” in the tournament.

By the time Seth had gone to Portland he had already burst onto the scene in the hockey world. At 16 years old he was a member of the U.S. national development program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He spent two years there and started to blossom into the defenseman everyone expected him to be.

That’s when his parents believed their son’s dream of becoming a pro hockey player was more than realistic.

“You heard people talk about things when he [was] a small kid; 12 or 13 years old,” Popeye said. “Once he got to the national program you started hearing some buzz that if he keeps improving he could be an NHL defenseman one day.”

How the dream was realized

The Predators never expected Seth Jones to be available to them at No. 4 overall. Not only was he the top defenseman on their board, but he was considered as their best player available. Once Colorado announced they wouldn’t take Jones, the Predators figured they would at least have a chance – a small one at that – to get the prized American-born defenseman.

As fate would have it, Sakic (the one who led Popeye in the right direction for his sons to learn how to play hockey) and the Avalanche passed on drafting the 6-foot-4 defenseman, who was in awe when they won the Cup in 2001, in favor of center Nathan MacKinnon.

With the No. 2 overall pick, Florida selected center Aleksander Barkov. Predators head coach Barry Trotz said, “That’s when our draft table said [Jones] could fall to us, like, ‘So you’re saying there’s a chance?’”

When Tampa Bay was on the clock next, Poile had a brief discussion with Lightning GM Steve Yzerman.

“After they had talked, David sort of looked at [assistant GM] Paul Fenton and [chief amateur scout] Jeff Kealty – I’ve seen the smile, it’s very subtle but there’s a little bit of a smirk. At that moment he didn’t have to say anything. We were getting [Jones],” Trotz said.

Just in case the off-chance of selecting Jones came to fruition, the Predators took a jersey with JONES on the back with them to Newark. Thirty minutes into the draft, Jones was wearing that gold jersey proudly on the stage at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.

“It was a perfect storm for us,” Trotz said.

The only reason the Predators didn’t run to the stage after Tampa Bay’s selection at No. 3 is because the NHL wouldn’t allow them to for TV purposes.

“I wish we had the No. 1 pick,” Predators general manager Poile said after the selection. “Then I wouldn’t have to say that I can’t believe the player was there.”

Draft day was the end of a long road for Jones and his family. Cameras followed them around that morning as they prepared for the day, as the draft was set to begin mid-afternoon. There was a lot of build up for that moment, and Amy mentioned there was a lot of relief – and nerves – after Jones had been selected.

“My stomach was upset; I didn’t feel like I could eat anything … Seth forgot to shave, so I had to send him back to his room,” said Amy, who believes she was more nervous on draft day than Jones himself. “It was nerve-wracking.”

Amy continued, “I cannot tell you how proud I am of him. I feel like he’s earned everything he has gotten. … He’s always had a vision of the path that he wanted to go down.”

Moments after being taken by the Predators, Jones, the consensus top draft prospect, admitted some disappointment in falling past Colorado, Florida and Tampa Bay. But don’t get Jones wrong – he is excited to be with the Predators. He backed off his disappointment in not going No. 1 overall when asked about it at last week’s development camp, where Jones was a rock star with the fans and signed his entry-level contract with his father in attendance.

“It was a little disappointing at first but I realized pretty quickly that Shea Weber is here and [Roman] Josi, and some great defensemen have come out of here – Ryan Suter developed here. They obviously know what they’re doing with defensemen,” Jones said.

“I think everything happens for a reason and I think I fit in just perfectly.”

How the dream could be fulfilled

Why was Seth Jones a Red Wings fan growing up? Because Nicklas Lidstrom was his idol, the guy he always wanted to be – on and off the ice. He would try to watch the Red Wings on TV whenever he got the chance and would always keep a close eye on Lidstrom.

“He was kind of the picture perfect player and character,” Jones said.

“One of the things that really drew him to Nick Lidstrom was that he always seemed to be making the right play and he did it with such ease and simplicity,” Jones’ father said. “I’d always tell him, ‘Look how easy he makes it look. It’s nothing special but it’s effective and helping his team win.’”

After years of spending time just watching Lidstrom, one of the players Jones has been compared to is the seven-time Norris Trophy winner. (“It’s crazy,” Jones’ father said with a laugh, “because you’re talking about one of the greatest defensemen to ever play the game.”) Other great defensemen Jones has been compared to are Chris Pronger, Larry Robinson and Rob Blake.

“It’s awesome to be put in that category,” an extremely humble Jones said.

Being placed in that category at 18 years old and without any NHL experience is going to be a lot for him to live up to. But Jones is set up perfectly to succeed, particularly in Nashville.

With Shea Weber patrolling the blue-line, Jones doesn’t have to be ‘the guy’ right off the bat like he would have expected to have been in Colorado, Florida or Tampa Bay; like other highly-picked defensemen (ex: Erik Johnson) have had to do. In Nashville, Jones doesn’t have to take on the immediate pressure of being a top-pair defenseman. He can ease into his NHL career with favorable surroundings.

“He’s going to be just fine,” Trotz said. “There are guys that come into the league and they have a minus-20 rating and they start to doubt themselves. I don’t think that’s the case with Seth. I think we can surround him. The tough assignments will still go to Shea Weber. … The transition for him should be really good.”

Having a prior relationship with Housley will certainly help Jones’ transition to the big stage, as well. Housley broke into the NHL as an 18-year-old with the Buffalo Sabres and succeeded immediately. He understands the ups and downs that come with being a young defenseman, knows what it takes to persevere through those tough times as a teenager.

If Jones has growing pains – and he will; it’s all a part of being in the NHL as a teenager – he has guys like Weber and Housley that he can lean on.

“I can go to him for advice,” Jones said of Housley. “It’s cool knowing you have someone else that went through what you’re going through right now and have the same goals back when he was 18 as I do right now.”

“I don’t think he can be in a better place as a young defenseman,” Amy said.

Another thing Jones has going for him is the fact that his father was a professional athlete and he grew up around that lifestyle. Popeye likes to tell the story of how Seth would have to set his alarm clock for early-morning practices, and that he would have to wake up his parents to take him to the rink. Amy couldn’t recall a time when Seth didn’t set his alarm.

“There were times when they wanted to go to these lessons or play pond hockey or different things they wanted to do, and I told them, ‘I don’t really want to do that, but if you want to do it you better set your alarm and come wake me up; otherwise we’re not going,’” Amy said. “I was making them show me they were committed and wanted to go.”

“That’s just another part of being a pro,” Jones added. “You don’t need your mom or your dad coming into your room telling you when to wake up and helping you out of bed, whether it be for school, practice or anything. At this level there’s not going to be anyone babysitting you.”

Jones’ father taught him how to be a pro, and a lot of that has already been on display when he has found himself in the spotlight – from the World Juniors to the Memorial Cup to the draft. Jones has developed good habits over the years, which has put him a step ahead of everyone who didn’t have that kind of experience as a kid.

All of that has helped Jones gain a leadership trait that very few kids his age possess. He was the captain of various U.S. national teams and, as the youngest player on the U.S. World Juniors roster last winter, he was an alternate captain.

“He’s not very vocal but he leads by example,” Popeye said. “Kids look up to him and they expect him to be out there playing well and expect to be in the foxhole with him.”

“You talk about players having good self confidence – he’s confident, he’s humble for someone who has had a little bit of a different background, with his dad playing in the NBA and some of the privileges you get with that,” Trotz said.

Jones is a leader and knows how to be a pro; he’s surrounded by talented individuals like Housley and Weber; he looked up to Lidstrom, dubbed as The Perfect Human; he has quality athletic genes; his work ethic is second to none; he has been accustomed to the spotlight since he was 14.

And then there is the sheer talent Jones has in his own game. He has a big frame and can skate like the wind; his hockey sense is world-class; his mobility is that of a running back in football; he can provide offense from the back end but can also be a shutdown defender.

Jones is the entire package. Most importantly, he just flat out gets it.

“I’m going to have to perform the best that I can and hopefully I’m given an opportunity to do that in Nashville next year, but I have to earn it first. I have to go to training camp and earn my spot,” he said at development camp. “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.”

When you add it all up, how can one not think Jones is destined to one day be a great player in the NHL?

“It’s easy to get excited,” Trotz said. “He’s a foundation type player that will be a foundational type guy for us for a number of years.”

 
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