By: Ben Raby
Popeye Jones didnt know it at the time, but when the 11-year NBA veteran joined the Washington Wizards in 2000 he made a decision that would shape the life of a future hockey wonder kid.
Seth Jones is a projected top-three pick in next years NHL Entry Draft and the 17-year-old is USA Hockeys top rated underage prospect. Hes also the son of a well-travelled NBA player and coach.
I guess when you sit back and think about it, it is odd for a professional basketball players son to play hockey at such a high level, Popeye Jones said in a phone interview with CSNWashington.com.
I grew up playing basketball, football and baseball- my town didnt have hockey- but sports in general were always in my blood so really this isnt that odd to me or Seth because were a huge sports family.
As Seth Jones aims to become the first African American taken first overall in the NHL Entry Draft, its worth noting that the 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman could have very easily gone his entire life without even trying on a pair of skates. A family game plan from father Popeye would change that.
Popeye Jones was traded to the Wizards in September 2000, just three weeks before training camp. Washington was Jones fifth NBA home in less than five years and the thought of again having to uproot his family didnt appeal to the 30-year-old father of three.
So after NBA stints in Dallas, Toronto, Boston and Denver, Jones moved to D.C. and encouraged wife Amy and sons Justin, Seth and Kaleb to settle in Colorado.
At the time, Jones middle son five-year-old Seth- was just starting to participate in organized sports. Seth dabbled in soccer, but living in the Rocky Mountains in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the fastest growing sport was hockey and the best team in the region was the Colorado Avalanche. It didnt take long before Seth was on skates.
When we moved to Colorado when I was playing for the Denver Nuggets, the Avalanche was really big, Jones said.
They had won the Stanley Cup in 1996, they had Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Patrick Roy and so all the kids in the neighborhood really took to hockey and they were always playing roller hockey in the streets in our neighborhood.
Seth wanted in. It didnt matter that dad was a professional basketball player; Seth was hooked on hockey. Popeye knew it and did what any pro athlete with privileged access would do- he sought the advice of a future Hall-of-Famer.
I ran into Joe Sakic down at the arena and I just asked him about the game, Popeye said.
He didnt know who I was and I just kind of asked him for advice with my kids wanting to play hockey and he just looked at me and said from the looks of things your kids are going to be huge. You just need to make sure that they can skate.
When Seth was eight, he was already among the best and biggest athletes in his age group in suburban Denver. Sakic told Popeye that the best athletes can easily learn to shoot and handle a puck but that skating is the most important skill.
So from that point on we started getting skating lessons with a lady that was actually a figure skating coach, Popeye explained. She taught him twice a week, a lot of technical stuff like how to properly use his blades and edges She would always tell us that Seth would pick up on things quickly.
As the final years of Popeyes NBA playing career took him from Washington to Dallas and then to Oakland, Seth remained in Denver working his way up Colorados youth hockey programs. Given his size and skating ability, Seth was encouraged to become a defenseman.
I just kept telling him that defense wins championships, Popeye said. Maybe that was the professional in me, but I told him that if you can stop the other teams from scoring then youre going to win games. After that, he really took to the position.
ON THE MOVE:
In 2007, Popeye was named an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks and after eight years in Denver, the Joneses moved to Texas.
Seth was 12, but his hockey development continued with an elite travel team in Texas. Among his teammates in Dallas was 2012 NHL draftee Colton Hargrove (Boston Bruins).
By the age of 15, Jones was already on USA Hockeys radar as one of the best prospects in the country and in 2010 he moved again, this time to Ann Arbor, MI to join the U.S. National Development Team.
The two-way defenseman spent the past two years with the USNDT and he captained USA Hockeys under-18 team to a gold medal at the World U18 Championships last spring.
I know that hes at a young age, but hes also really mature, Popeye said. I think one of the main lessons that Ive taught him is to keep your head down, keep working hard, dont get caught up in all the press clippings and all of that and I think hes done a terrific job of doing that. Hes humble and very hard working.
Now Seth Jones is entering the most important year of his hockey career- his draft year. Unlike most USNDT players who accept hockey scholarships and attend university, Jones has decided to play for the Portland Winterhawks of Canadas Western Hockey League.
Jones is also expected to play for the U.S. at the 2013 World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia from Dec. 26-Jan. 5.
The years of hard work and sacrifice will culminate in June when Popeye and the rest of the family he once left behind in Denver will attend the NHL Entry Draft in Newark, NJ.
It will be very rewarding, said Popeye, now an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets. I was a second-round pick in the NBA in 1992, so I wasnt invited to the draft. Its going to very exciting and without looking too far ahead, I know its day that Seth is anxious for as well.