In 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first African American ever to play in the National Hockey League for the Boston Bruins.
In 2013, Seth Jones became the first African American ever chosen in the top five of the NHL Draft, and he is coming to Nashville.
The Nashville Predators selected Jones with the ‘number four’ overall selection in last weekend’s draft, a most fortuitous circumstance for all involved. Jones, the ‘number one’ prospect going in according to NHL Central Scouting, surprisingly slid to ‘number four,’ and it was due to little more than draft luck.
Colorado had the top pick and seemed certain to take Jones, but new Avalanche Coach Patrick Roy wanted a kid he had coached in juniors in Quebec, Nathan MacKinnon. So the number four prospect went number one. Florida and Tampa Bay then went with whom they had each counted on in Alexander Barkov and Jonathan Druin respectively, filling their needs and going according to form. This led to Jones falling into Nashville’s lap, and they could not be happier about it.
“We had Jones rated ‘number one,’” said Predators general manager David Poile. “This is a franchise-type player.”
“We were thrilled that he was there at four,” Nashville’s Chief Amateur Scout Jeff Kealty said. “He’s a terrific defenseman and a world-class player that can do it all, both offensively and defensively.”
Seth Jones is the son of former Murray State and NBA player Ronald ‘Popeye’ Jones. He is 6’4”, 205 pounds, imposing defensively with rare gifts offensively for a defenseman. Make no mistake, the Predators brass sees him as a future offensive star to match perfectly with the brawn of Shea Weber. Jones tallied 14 goals and 42 assists in 61 games for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks in capturing Rookie of the Year honors. An integral part of his team’s championship run, he added five more goals and 15 points in 21 playoff games.
Before his first NHL game, at age 18, Seth Jones is already being compared to some of the greats in Stanley Cup champions like Rob Blake, Scott Niedermayer, and Chris Pronger. All were captains; all were looked to perform every night; and each delivered.
So can Seth Jones step in and play right away? Nashville historically has brought along players rather slowly, and defensemen tend to develop a bit more slowly anyway. For his part, Coach Barry Trotz is already thinking of him right alongside Weber. If there is one position the Predators are strong in, it is defense—so they can take some time. But Jones has offensive skill not currently found anywhere on the roster let alone on defense, and there will be pressure to put him in.
The historical nature of this pick, though, cannot be lost. Evander Kane was drafted ‘number four’ overall by Atlanta in 2009, an African Canadian. But this is a first for an American. Additionally, Canadian Darnell Nurse went ‘number seven’ to Edmonton, the nephew of NFL QB Donovan McNabb. For Willie O’Ree, it was a joyous day.
“When I broke in, I knew there would be other players of color coming into the League—and when I see these young players being drafted and going to their projected teams, it just makes me feel so great that I had a little part in breaking down barriers and opening up doors to make it possible for these players.
“It’s a joy for me and I’m really proud, and it’s just a pleasure being here to witness it.”