(Zachary Kaufman/The Columbian)
PORTLAND — The top prospect in hockey grows a scruffy and patchy beard for the playoffs and yet loves the romantic drama “The Notebook.”
Seth Jones may fit in effortlessly among his Portland Winterhawks teammates, their practice arena filled with teenaged testosterone as expletives drop as much as pucks smash the Plexiglass. But he also minds his manners and will wash up before meeting with a reporter.
“He didn’t want to offend you,” a Winterhawks staffer explained, apologizing for Jones’ absence, “so he’s in the shower.”
The dichotomy of Jones — the Winterhawks’ celebrated defenseman who leads Portland into a second-round Western Hockey League playoff game tonight against the Spokane Chiefs and mild-mannered 18-year-old who hasn’t spent a single minute in the penalty box this postseason — casts an intriguing character. One primed to create his own path among vast expectations, and the National Hockey League sure doesn’t seem to care that he digs chick flicks.
Jones, a thin 6-foot-4 specimen and son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, is projected to become the first American-born top NHL draft pick since 2007 and only the second defenseman in 16 years to be picked No. 1.
But underneath the whiskers, this rising star does not look like your average hockey tough guy. More than just his mocha skin color — his father is black while his mother, Amy Jones, is white — Jones never strays from his modest personality, even while in skates.
“Defensemen are supposed to be mean and gritty and stuff like that. Obviously, there are guys in the NHL that play that style of game but off the ice, they’re some of the nicest people that you’ll meet, genuine and stuff like that,” Jones said. “With me though, I try to be as relaxed as possible on the ice. I think my temperament doesn’t change much when I’m on the ice. Obviously, if I have to hit someone or if I’m going to hit someone then you get an adrenaline rush and you might get a little angry but it’s not going to go over the edge.”
Ask the Winterhawks’ acting head coach Travis Green about the last time Jones dropped his gloves and he’ll chuckle.
“I don’t know,” Green said, amused. “Hope I don’t see it. He doesn’t need to fight. We’ve got enough guys who will fight. That’s not going to be part of his game.”
Seek insight into how Popeye Jones might have reared his middle son into a firebrand competitor and he’d rather talk about how as parents they raised Seth to be humble and hard-working.
“More than anything,” Popeye said, “to me, he’s just a great kid.”
And search for dirt from Amy Jones about Seth’s mischievous childhood days and she’ll simply remember the goofy kid who made muscle-man poses in family pictures at Disneyland.
So, this far into the narrative, the point should be clear — Jones isn’t your typical big, bad defenseman.
“Oh my gosh!” Amy exclaimed. “I can remember I used to get so mad at him because he would not hit anybody.”
Where others strike and slash, Jones plays a game in which he ponders and plots.
He spent his early years in Texas when his father played for the Dallas Mavericks. Then as Popeye’s NBA career moved through hockey hotbeds — Toronto, Boston and Denver — Jones and his two brothers discovered the ice.
Around these developing years, Jones looked up to defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, a lifelong Detroit Red Wing and described as a gentleman of the game. Lidstrom won his seven Norris trophies, awarded to the league’s top defenseman. Lindstrom won respect as much for his physical nature as for his mental strength, and this model is how Jones wants to pattern his game.
The most pressing criticism of Jones has focused on his aggression. Although last year Jones led the U.S. Men’s National Under-18 Team defense as the squad won a fourth consecutive gold medal at the World Championships, he still reads scouting reports like the one from The Hockey News indicting that he should become a “greater physical presence game in and game out.”
“Sometimes they’re right,” Jones said. “I think they try to find a weakness in everyone. That’s their job, as scouts, to do that. To find what people need to work on. But at the same time, you look at one of the greatest defensemen to ever play in Nicklas Lidstrom. I don’t think I’ve ever saw a mean streak in him, ever.
“He’s calm, he’s smooth on the ice. When he makes a mistake, he lets it go. It’s a game of mistakes and he always looks past it. Sometimes I agree with (the criticism) and sometimes I get the big hit and play the body a little more than I would. Other times, I think it’s necessary to just use your stick and be good positionally.”
Although Jones wears a target every time he skates for the Winterhawks and constantly hears the kind of trash talk that would make Amy Jones scream for her boy to knock some kid out, he will still measure the aggression in doses.
Take for example the March 23 playoff game against Everett when Jones knew that the Winterhawks falling into a 2-0 hole in the first round would be disastrous. So Jones ditched the thinking man’s ways and showed his physical side.
“He rocked a kid,” said Amy, who streamed the game online from her Dallas home. “Afterwards, (he asked), ‘id you see my hits?’ ”
Jones shoved behind the play, hit in the open ice and talked smack during a game that featured several fights, and the Winterhawks won to the tie the series. Eventually, Portland would wrap up Everett in six games.
“You’re going to do whatever you can to get into the other team’s head or make their life miserable,” Jones said. “I think it’s a little bit of tactic.”
As the Winterhawks move on, Jones focuses on winning the Memorial Cup but still can’t help but wonder where he might land on June 30, the day of the NHL draft.
The only problem?
When the NHL whisks him away into a new city, Jones knows that he’ll likely miss the Taylor Swift tour stop in Portland in late August.
Yes, the big, lanky hockey player even likes Top 40 pop music.
“Just kind of mellow, laid-back,” Jones said about his personality. “Normal.”