Seth Jones remembers the toughest part of wanting to play hockey as a child.
“Convincing my dad,” he said. “He probably wasn’t too happy at the time.”
Hockey represented a culture shock for Jones’ father, Popeye. He was a black NBA player who grew up far from ice rinks in northwest Tennessee. He expected his kids to play basketball.
Seth and his two brothers were persistent. With the backing of their mother, they soon had skates and early-morning ice times and had joined a growing number of minority youths who’ve opted to give hockey a whirl.
“It’s definitely a white-dominated sport,” Seth Jones said. “That’s not a secret at all. But hopefully with some more black players starting to play we can convince or sway some young African-American kids to start playing hockey.”
The burgeoning diversity of the NHL is on display as the league heads toward the draft. Eight minorities attended the scouting combine this month. Nine could hear their names called at the selection show on Sunday, led by Jones. He is expected to be picked in the top two, which would make him the highest-drafted black player ever.
“Every game changes,” said Darnell Nurse, the second-rated North American defenseman behind Jones. “The colors change. You saw it with basketball years and years ago. More black players came into the league. Baseball with Jackie Robinson. But it’s not at that point in hockey.
“There’s guys already in the league, but this really shows that colored players, minorities have taken an interest in this game. It’s showing in the draft. With that said, it’s not just black players. There’s going to be Asians and brown people that jump into this, too. That’s the best part of sports. You get into the room with guys, and they become family no matter what color they are.”
The rise in minority participation has special meaning for Willie O’Ree. He became the NHL’s first black player in 1958 and is the ambassador for the league’s “Hockey is for Everyone” initiative.
“I just had my 15th year with the diversity program, and I can see more kids – not only kids of color and black kids, but more kids in general – getting into hockey and wanting to play this sport,” O’Ree said by phone. “I just think it’s due to watching it on television, being at the rinks and working with the coaches. It’s a great spectator sport, and the kids seem to just enjoy it.
“The clinics that I’ve conducted over the years with the diversity program, once you get these kids on the ice, 90 percent of the job is done because they just seem to enjoy it so much. Those that have not only learned to skate but are now playing in organized leagues just seem to have a great time.”
The NHL sponsors programs in 38 North American cities to help children of all backgrounds learn to play hockey. More than 45,000 boys and girls have been exposed to the sport through Hockey is for Everyone, including kids who participate in Hasek’s Heroes in Buffalo and skate in East Aurora with the Aurora Ice Association.
“By giving kids access, they’re starting to make some choices that they may want to participate in this sport,” said Buffalo native Ken Martin, the NHL’s vice president of community affairs and diversity programming. “It’s such an important thing for these kids. I know my son who played hockey, he’s 22 now, but when he was 7 we used to go to tournaments and we were the only minority there. Now you go to all these tournaments and you see a wealth of minorities playing and participating in the game.”
Seth Jones says attending games was the toughest part for his father. A 6-foot-8 professional athlete would stand out anywhere, but that was particularly true in ice rinks.
“People would obviously give him weird looks and those sorts of things,” said Jones, who eventually got his dad on the ice, but just once. “He did not let go of the boards. Literally, did not, grabbing the boards, pulling himself around the rink.”
Seth Jones obviously has more skill than that. He also has the drive to make a difference in the community, a common trait for the draft-eligible minorities. Buffalo’s Justin Bailey, for example, has made regular visits to Hasek’s Heroes.
Those involved say it’s important for minority kids to see others like them succeed.
“They’re at a young age and it’s a big responsibility, but they will judge themselves accordingly and they will be professional not only on the ice but off the ice,” said O’Ree, who met Jones in Boston last week before a Stanley Cup finals game. “He’s the type of individual that would want to give back when he comes into the NHL, working within the community and helping these kids set goals for themselves and helping them be all they can be.
“He’s going to be a great role model for not only black kids but kids of color that are playing. They can look up to him and say, ‘I can be a Seth Jones.’ All it takes is staying focused on what you want to do, work toward your goals and make it happen.”
The nine minority players eager to be drafted – Jones, Nurse, Bailey, Madison Bowey, Jonathan-Ismael Diaby, Jordan Subban, Anthony Duclair, Nicholas Baptiste and Stephen Harper – have the opportunity to add to the league’s changing look.
There were 69 minority players in the NHL this past season, including 44 who were on a season-opening roster. Of those 44, half were black, 11 were native/aboriginal (including the Sabres’ Cody McCormick), four were Hispanic, three were Asian, two were West Asian/Arab, one was Inuit and another was South Asian/Indian.
Diaby could become the first NHL player of Ivory Coast descent. His father was a professional soccer player there before moving to Canada.
“They don’t really know much about hockey there,” Diaby said. “My father didn’t know much. I started playing because of my friends at school, and I enjoyed it so I kept playing.”
Getting on the ice is often all it takes. The prospects could inspire more minorities, and Hockey is for Everyone will help them find a place.
“With all these young players coming in, it’s going to be interesting to see how this impacts our game,” Martin said. “Obviously, Hockey is for Everyone is not something we do to create professional hockey players. It’s really to be able to address some other important social issues, whether it’s education, socialization, access and opportunity. In this case, it’s a plus and a bonus that we’re getting some role models.
“If it just spurs a little bit of interest in kids saying, ‘I want to give this sport a shot,’ it’s a win-win for us.”