NEWARK – On Jan. 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree played for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens to become the first black player in NHL history. Fifty-five years later, O’Ree was at the Prudential Center to shake the hand of defenseman Seth Jones when he became the first African-American to be a top-five pick in an NHL draft.
“I’m still alive to see this, and I’m thrilled,” said O’Ree, now 77.
Jones was ranked No. 1 by some NHL teams, but he ended up going fourth to the Nashville Predators. The Colorado Avalanche selected center Nathan MacKinnon No. 1, and the Florida Panthers took Finnish center Alexander Barkov No. 2. The Tampa Bay Lightning used the third overall pick to take Jonathan Druin, MacKinnon’s linemate with Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“We had Jones rated No. 1,” said Predators general manager David Poile. “This is a franchise-type player.”
Jones is the son of former NBA player Ronald “Popeye” Jones. He grew up playing his youth hockey in Colorado and Texas. The elder Jones said he really wasn’t concerned how high his son was drafted.
“But he is kind of like me, so he probably wanted to go No. 1,” Popeye Jones said. “But it didn’t work out.”
Popeye Jones is from Dresden, Tenn., and played college basketball at Murray State. He still owns a house in Tennessee.
He said the historical significance of an African-American being drafted this high hasn’t “soaked in.”
“But I’ve always said (what) if guys like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Allen Iverson had put on skates when they were four or five. I wonder what kind of hockey player you would get,” Popeye Jones said.
Poile said a unique set of circumstances led to the Predators landing Jones, not the least of which was the fact that the four highest-rated players all have the potential to become stars.
The Avalanche’s perspective also might have changed after Patrick Roy was hired as coach. Roy coached in the Quebec league and is very familiar with MacKinnon.
“MacKinnon was fabulous in the Memorial Cup, and that’s when things started to change,” Poile said.
It also didn’t help Jones’ situation that the Panthers, picking No. 2, had a need for a premium young center.
“Any four of us could have been No. 1,” MacKinnon said. “Seth is a very special player. He’s going to have an unbelievable career in Nashville. I think that’s clear ... Obviously maybe in another draft, Seth would have been No. 1 or maybe even in this draft.”
The Predators traditionally like to have their prospects start their careers in the American Hockey League, but Poile said Jones will be given every opportunity to make the team next September. It is plausible that Jones eventually would end up playing with star Shea Weber. The Predators view him as a possible replacement for Ryan Suter, who was lost to free agency last summer.
“I think I can be a solid defenseman, produce a little bit offensively, as well,” Jones said. “I know people say it takes time for defensemen to really grow in the league, a couple years at least, so hopefully I can prove that theory wrong.”
Jones, one of three Americans taken in the first round, has been compared to five-time All-Star Chris Pronger.
“How good would it be if that turned out,” Poile said.
He was asked about Jones’ chances of making the 2014 U.S. Olympic team.
“They’re improving,” said Poile, named the USA’s GM this weekend.
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