NHL rookie Seth Jones, the Nashville Predators’ Music City monster

Ryan Kennedy
Seth Jones

The hit debut single Cruise by country duo Florida Georgia Line may be the perfect anthem for Nashville Predators rookie Seth Jones. Not only was the song remixed by rapper Nelly – bringing together two of Jones’ favorite musical genres in what the 19-year-old calls a “bonus” – Jones himself has been cruising through his first NHL campaign. And that’s no small feat for a defenseman.

While his stunning draft day fall to the fourth pick overall meant the potential No. 1 selection wouldn’t be going home to Colorado to play for the Avalanche and the man who helped get Jones into hockey, Joe Sakic, it may have landed him in a perfect locale.

Jones’ backstory makes him the perfect candidate for hype and overexposure. He’s the poster boy for all the good work USA Hockey has done at the grassroots level, playing minor hockey in Colorado and then Dallas before heading off to the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. He’s the son of former basketball player and current Indiana Pacers assistant coach Popeye Jones and a visible minority in a sport where that is still notable. And he’s really good at hockey. Preternaturally good.
But in Nashville, he’s been able to find his footing without facing 20 reporters a night. With teammates Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne being big stars in the NHL and internationally, there was no need to trot out a “Seen Seth?” campaign after the draft and with the Predators playing 15 of their first 25 games on the road. The timing wouldn’t have been very effective anyway.

But make no mistake, there’s a big Seth Jones market out there. His interview requests have come from more varied corners than perhaps any other NHLer. He’s garnered requests from hip-hop magazines and basketball publications, Nickelodeon News and even Esquire, which featured him in a special 80th anniversary portrait collection that attempted to capture the “American Man.” Other notables in the series included former president Bill Clinton, the reverend Jesse Jackson and legendary actor Robert Redford. It’s a lot to process, but Jones has always been comfortable as a symbol of bigger things.

“It’s good for the sport,” he says. “I’m getting out there and people other than hockey people are finding out about me. Whatever I can do to help the sport grow, I’ll help that cause.”

As all this buzzes around him, he’s been receiving guidance from Weber and occasional defense partner Kevin Klein and established a level of comfort early. He’s also seen what it means to be a leader.

“It’s not always verbal, but it’s the way they handle themselves,” Jones says. “Shea and Kevin are both great leaders in the room and on the ice. You need those kinds of guys to mesh the dressing room and they do a great job. There are very few cliques on our team and they do a good job of keeping everyone open around each other and keeping the group relaxed.”

So far, The Nashville Way has paid off handsomely. “We’ve had a lot of time on the road which is actually good for bonding,” Klein says. “The one thing we’ve always had in Nashville is a close team, which is nice. A lot of guys live close to each other, so it’s not too spread out. We’ve got a great leadership group and no one shies away from the rookies. They’re involved in everything and that’s a good thing.”

Though he’s still too young to hit a lot of the nightspots in a city where music is king, Jones is happy to be in a town with so many entertainment options. He’s a Taylor Swift fan who now lives in the same city as the songstress and he got to catch a Beyonce show over the summer in Nashville. The latter was kind of cool, since Beyonce’s husband, rapper and business mogul Jay Z, was thought to be coveting Jones for his new player agency last year. That turned out to be sloppy reporting by the tabloids. The real story was that Jay Z’s company, Roc Nation, was in talks to work with Creative Artists Agency Sports in a marketing capacity. Superagent Pat Brisson was always going to represent Jones, but perhaps Jay Z and crew could help with commercial opportunities. Once again, Jones was thrust into the spotlight.

“It was definitely hectic,” he says. “It was right in the middle of the WHL playoffs. I think it was Games 3 and 4 of the Western final so…great timing. I got bombarded with that for a few weeks, but it calmed down and Pat did a great job.”

Being in Nashville should help Jones tamp down the outside noise, too. Because the city is used to seeing famous country music performers (not to mention stars of other genres, as well as movie stars) stroll around town, celebrities aren’t rushed by a mob every time they step outside Whole Foods.

Jones began his Predators experience by moving in with Weber during training camp. Weber had previously opened the doors of his home to Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling and Roman Josi, so he knew what he was doing as a host.

“He’s obviously a really good kid and easy to have around,” Weber says. “It was fun having him and we enjoyed it when he was there.”

After the month with Weber, Jones leased a place with his mom, who came up from Dallas and will live with her middle child for two years. It’s nice for the rookie not to come home to an empty apartment and there’s also the matter of home-cooked meals that come well-prepared.

“I can cook,” Jones says. “But she definitely makes it easier. I do cook every once in a while.”

On the ice, Jones has sizzled from the start. He potted his first NHL goal in his fifth career game:

He’s averaging about 22 minutes of ice time, the most among NHL freshmen, though that number has been consciously pushed down recently by coach Barry Trotz.

“He was playing too many minutes, too many for a 19-year-old,” Trotz says. “He was playing upwards of 28 minutes a night and we felt it was too much, mentally and physically.”

But the move was more preventative than punitive. Trotz is pleased with his new charge so far.

“He surprised me,” Trotz says. “Coming into the year I didn’t know how much you could play a 19-year-old, but he really has beaten all expectations.”

Having a little extra motivation never hurts. After winning world junior gold with Team USA in early January, Jones appeared to be the No. 1 prospect for the 2013 draft. He guided the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks to the league title as a rookie on the circuit, pushing a team that had lost in the final two years running over the top. Then at the Memorial Cup, Jones helped the Hawks to the title game, where, for the second time in the tournament, he and his mates were scorched by Halifax center Nathan MacKinnon, a friend of Jones who recorded hat tricks in the round-robin and championship against his buddy.

When Colorado won the draft lottery, it seemed like kismet, since Jones learned to play hockey in Denver when his dad was a member of the NBA’s Nuggets and Sakic was a superstar with the Avalanche. Now Sakic was in the front office in Colorado with a chance to select a burgeoning talent whose dad once asked him for advice about getting the Jones boys into hockey. Colorado had three excellent centers in Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and Ryan O’Reilly and weren’t stacked with talent on the blueline.

But new coach and team exec Patrick Roy made it clear in the weeks leading up to the draft the Avalanche were eyeing MacKinnon, who burned Roy’s Quebec Remparts in the Quebec League playoffs the year prior. When the actual selections were made in New Jersey, it proved to be no bluff. That left Florida with a choice at No. 2, but the Panthers opted for big Finnish center Aleksander Barkov. Tampa Bay always seemed destined to take MacKinnon linemate Jonathan Drouin third, which dropped Jones in Nashville’s lap at No. 4. The kid who was so often a winner in his athletic career was all of a sudden the talk of draft day and his disappointed body language in Newark betrayed Jones’ diplomatic words in the media zone. With hindsight, Jones is moving on, but not forgetting the past.

“You know what? It’s not good when you get caught up in that stuff,” he says. “I definitely want to play in a way where teams will regret it down the road. That’s why you play, I’m competitive, it’s in my nature. I’m focused on the now and the Nashville Predators. I try not to worry about that stuff.”

photo by Dave Sanford/NHL

photo by Dave Sanford/NHL

Having a defensemen jump straight to the NHL from junior is generally reserved for special teens and even though Jones fell into that category, his roster spot had to be earned in Nashville. After the draft he returned to Dallas for a few weeks to prepare for that mission.

“That was my goal,” he says. “Whatever number I went, whatever team I went to, I wanted to step in right away and play. I did everything I could to impress the coaching staff in the pre-season games and training camp, intrasquad games and those sorts of things. I thought I played with confidence in the pre-season and luckily I got an opportunity to play.”

On the ice, the Predators have given Jones the chance to succeed. His mucho minutes have come in all situations and he partnered with Weber before settling in on a second pairing with Klein. Not only does that balance out Nashville’s blueline, but those relationships continue off the ice.

“I know ‘Kleiner’ and Shea spend a lot of time with Seth on the road,” Trotz says. “It’s really a good mentorship for Seth to have those two quality guys around him.”

Klein is a stay-at-home defenseman, while Jones has always been lauded for his physical gifts. He’s already 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, but skates effortlessly and can be effective in a shutdown role or as an offensive blueliner, charging in for a score.

“He’s done a really good job,” says center Mike Fisher. “He came in from Day 1 and has looked real comfortable. He’s a big-bodied ‘D’ who moves real well and looks confident with the puck. He makes real good plays, he’s shifty and fun to watch. And he’s only going to get better.”

Klein has also seen a game-by-game progression in his young partner and has been happy with the communication on the pairing. And when the defensive assignments are sewn up, Jones knows he can jump into the play and make things happen for the Predators.

Because of Jones’ early knack for converting his potential into results, he was still in the running late into December for Team USA’s Olympic squad. As incredible as it would be for a teenager to make the team, there actually aren’t that many locks on the American blueline. Ryan Suter, definitely. Kevin Shattenkirk and Dustin Byfuglien are probably there, too, but then there’s a big grey area with many fine candidates. Even if Jones doesn’t make the final cut, the shout-out has been great for his confidence.

“It definitely helps,” he says. “It was cool to hear I was still in contention, but I’m not thinking about it too much. It’s not going to change anything, I’m still going to play my game, play the same way. If I end up making the team, it would be a tremendous honor, but if I don’t, I’m going to stay with the Predators, try to get better and hopefully in four years I’ll get another shot.”

Not too high, not too low. It’s the sort of attitude veterans try to instill in youngsters as quickly as they can, but it usually takes a while. Jones has always been known for his maturity on and off the ice and perhaps it’s because he’s had so many things thrown at him early on.

But in the Preds dressing room he’s just one of the guys and that’s not a bad thing. He’ll keep cruising along – maybe all the way to the Calder Trophy.

This feature originally appeared in the Dec. 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.