From a basketball jones to hockey: Seth Jones is in a league of his own
Popeye Jones’ son has stepped outside of his dad’s shadow and is taking hockey by storm
BY MARC J. SPEARS, THE UNDEFEATED
NHL All-Star Seth Jones was taught to be colorblind, with one exception: chasing a black puck on white ice.
That is how he was raised by his African-American father, former NBA player Ronald Jerome “Popeye” Jones, and his white mother, Amy Jones. But every now and then, the Columbus Blue Jackets star defenseman is reminded about his race and his position as a role model.
“There have been a few African-American kids who have come up to me and said, ‘You’re my favorite player,’ ” Seth Jones, 22, told The Undefeated.
“They have my jersey or my T-shirt jersey on. That’s pretty cool. I am for whatever I can do to grow the game in all aspects. A black kid cheering for hockey or cheering for me is pretty rare. When you see that, you get pretty excited.”
Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958. Today, Seth Jones is one of a mere 18 black players on 30 NHL teams. And it runs in the family. His younger brother, Caleb, was one of a record three blacks to play on a USA Hockey junior team that won the IHF World Junior Championship last week.
The future of black players in the NHL seems to be getting brighter. But the small fraternity of black NHL players don’t deem it necessary to call extra attention to themselves.
“We don’t single each other out because we are part of the [black] community,” Seth Jones said. “It’s probably not something that they want nor do I want, singling five guys out and trying to make us different than anyone else.”
Seth Jones is proud of his African-American heritage, but he didn’t grow up in a black environment.
He grew up in predominantly white, affluent suburbs in Denver and Dallas. Most of his friends were white, Canadian or European from his hockey world. He did, however, interact with black players on the Dallas Mavericks, such as former guards Jason Kidd and Jason Terry, whom his father coached.
“I grew up in more of a white community,” Seth Jones said. “I went to a Christian school. Hockey is my dominant sport. I grew up around a lot of white kids. I see myself as half. I am white and black. I am not one or the other. When I’m out there playing, I’m just another human.”
His mother, Amy, echoed that sentiment, explaining how she raised her children.
“We very rarely ever discussed race, if ever,” she said. “It was never an issue in our family or with my kids and their friends. People are people. We actually talked more about kids that are less popular or less fortunate, about seeing kids being bullied or not being treated right by other kids and how to always go out of their way to include them and be nice to them. They have never really had to deal with true racism in any way, shape, or form that I can remember. They have been very fortunate.”
Seth’s father, Popeye Jones, grew up in a small town in Dresden, Tennessee. Today it is about 95 percent white and 4 percent black. He said he never faced any racial issues growing up or while starring at Dresden High School before becoming a two-time Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year at Murray State.
“I didn’t have any race problems in Tennessee,” Popeye Jones said. “I did hear some things from some friends who said that they did have some race problems. But I had a lot of white friends who I played baseball, football and basketball with. My school was predominantly white, but I never had any problems.
“You knew [racism] existed. You always wanted to shield your kids from it. You talked to them about it. You know how some people were. But the message always was, ‘You’re special, you can do whatever you want to do in life and be successful.’ ”
The 11-year NBA veteran explained how his sons grew to become a 2017 NHL All-Star and a projected future NHL player.
“My oldest son, Justin, came home from school one day saying he met a kid who told him he played ice hockey,” Popeye Jones said. “Seth was really young. So off we went to the store because [Justin] wanted ice hockey equipment. As a father growing up in a small town playing basketball and baseball, I didn’t know anything about hockey.
“Being a sports fanatic, watching the sport and trying to learn about it, it seemed fun and exciting. I thought it would be cool for [Justin] to try, and Seth just tagged along with us.”
The Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche often crossed paths as they shared the Pepsi Center stadium. During the 1999-2000 season, then-Nuggets big man Popeye Jones approached Avalanche star Joe Sakic for advice to give his hockey-intrigued sons.
“I said that my kids are interested in playing hockey and I have no clue what to do,” Popeye Jones said. “He looked and saw how tall I was. Joe wasn’t a big guy. He said, ‘By the looks of you, they are going to be very tall. Make sure they know how to skate.’ I told my boys, ‘Joe Sakic said you better know how to skate. You have to be a great skater.’
“From that point on, they all focused on skating by taking lessons, focusing on the details, learning their edges and becoming great skaters. If you watch Seth today, you see that. At his size, he’s a very great skater.”
Seth and his brothers completely fell in love with hockey when their dad took them to see the Avalanche play in a deciding Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup Finals against the New Jersey Devils. Seth Jones was only 6 years old at the time, but he still fondly recalls the wild atmosphere.
“They won the [Stanley] Cup there in 2001 and I was able to go to that game,” Seth Jones said. “It was Ray Bourque’s first cup and Sakic passed it to him. That jumped up my love for the game. My two brothers, Justin and Caleb, also wanted to play, so we kind of got into it at the same time. You don’t get many chances to go to a Stanley Cup game and that was a special one.”
Seth Jones began playing organized hockey in Denver when he was 8 years old. His family moved to Dallas in 2007 after Popeye Jones landed a player development coach job with the Mavericks. Seth Jones eventually grew into a young hockey star who succeeded in AAU tournaments worldwide.
Despite the predominance of white players, Popeye Jones said, he and his sons always felt comfortable.
“When we walked into hockey arenas and different tournaments, I felt comfortable,” he said. “Maybe it was because I grew up in a small town that was predominantly white. The kids I went to school with were predominantly white. I never felt like people were staring at me. And even if they were, when I talked to them I didn’t feel that.
“Even in the locker rooms when my sons started playing and were the only African-American on the team, I just taught them how to be a good teammate, work hard and enjoy the game. They always did that and were always treated fairly. They were never judged by race.”
Seth Jones said he has never experienced racism during his hockey career, but he is familiar with some of the NHL’s black eyes. He recalled when fans threw bananas at Philadelphia Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds during an exhibition game in London, Canada. Then-Washington Capitals player Joel Ward also received vicious tweets after his first-round playoff series-winning overtime goal in Game 7 against the Boston Bruins in 2012.
“I have not faced anything to this point,” he said. “I know growing up it happened with some players that I knew, but never to me. I don’t know if I’m fortunate or lucky. I try not to put myself in that position to make it happen, but I know it may. You saw in NHL a few years ago in Boston with Wayne Simmons.
“It just happens. There is no way around it. It’s the world we live in.”
Popeye Jones said he never pushed his sons to play basketball or any other sport, but privately wished they took up his passion. He said Seth was actually a very good basketball player. However, Seth made it clear at a young age that he was committed to hockey.
“We always played basketball in the driveway or at the health club,” Popeye Jones said. “But there was always a passion or love for the sport of hockey. I never pressured them to do anything. But anytime I asked, ‘Do you want to play basketball, you want to play football, soccer?’ [Seth] would always say no.
“He was a good football player on the playground, and when his friends asked him to play organized football, he’d say no. He’d say, ‘No, I’m a hockey player.’ ”
“I always got the question in school about why I wasn’t playing [basketball]. I just didn’t want to,” Seth Jones said. “I loved the game, I loved watching it. But hockey took all my time and I stuck with it.”
Seth was considered a No. 1 pick prospect in the 2013 NHL draft. He was selected as the fourth overall pick of that draft by the Nashville Predators. At 19 years old, he scored his first NHL goal against the New York Islanders.
“Seth is a special case. You don’t see many kids get to go to the NHL on their draft year,” Popeye Jones said.
The Predators, however, traded the 6-foot-4, 220-pounder to the Blue Jackets in 2016. A “shocked” Jones had scored 63 points in 199 career games at the time of the trade, but he landed a bigger role in Columbus. He has had seven goals and 11 assists through 34 games this season as the team has enjoyed a team record 16-game winning streak.
On June 29, 2016, Jones agreed to a six-year, $32.4 million contract to remain with the Blue Jackets.
“It’s been good so far. I’ve grown a lot since coming in the league,” Seth Jones said.
While hockey is Seth Jones’ sport professionally, his favorite sport seems to be basketball. He is a huge LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers fan, and admits to watching more NBA games in his spare time than NHL games.
“Even to this day, I love going to play pickup basketball,” Seth Jones said. “It’s crazy, but I’d much rather watch a basketball game than a hockey game on TV. I love basketball. Obviously, I love hockey, too. I play it for a living and I love to play. But I love watching basketball on TV. LeBron and [Russell] Westbrook are my favorites.”
Popeye Jones said he has talked to his son about being more involved in the offseason in Columbus, Ohio, and he expects him to. Seth Jones said that some local African-American organizations and charities have reached out to him, and he plans to get more involved in the offseason.
“I understand the role that I have to play and I’m very willing to do that,” Seth Jones said. “I got offers from a couple organizations in Columbus, and I will look at all of those in the summer. And this is not just African-American, but the unprivileged …
“It’s one of the most important parts of being a professional athlete. You have a privilege to play a sport for a living and make a lot of money and have a good life. To give back is very important.”