Destiny is a dangerous word.
It erases human choice from the equation, reducing every outcome to the inevitable result of an elaborate, worldwide Rube Goldberg device. All we had to do was put the bucket in the right place next to the see-saw, and the ping-pong ball would drop right in.
So it wasn’t inevitable that Predators general manager David Poile, fresh off being named the general manager of the United States Olympic hockey team, would select American defenseman Seth Jones. He had choices — there were other players available, even forwards who can score.
But Seth Jones is special. Even now, days after the reality that he chose the top player on his sheet with the No. 4 pick, Poile can hardly stop beaming about this “special, special” player, repeating the word, as if saying it twice would intensify its veracity.
Jones is special, though, by nearly every metric coveted by hockey minds, at the top or near the top of nearly every expert’s mock draft list. Maybe it wasn’t destiny that he fell to the Predators with the fourth pick, but it was certainly serendipitous.
That serendipity manifested at an unlikely place the day after the draft. In a basement at Bridgestone Arena, team CEO Jeff Cogen and Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling made their pitch to the Sports Authority on the details of a new ice facility — a $14 million, two-rink complex in what is now an empty parking lot in Hickory Hollow.
In Cogen’s previous job — a similar gig with the Dallas Stars — he helped oversee a public-private partnership that built a handful of rinks in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, a project that helped grow the game and produced some good players, including a kid who learned to skate in Dallas — a kid named Seth Jones. A kid who told his dad, Dresden, Tenn.-born Popeye Jones, that he wanted to play hockey. A kid whose dad, despite being an NBA player, encouraged his son’s dream.
It all started at a place that looked a lot like what will be built in Hickory Hollow’s parking lot.
But Seth Jones doesn’t look like a lot of hockey players. And Popeye Jones doesn’t look like a lot of hockey dads. Seth Jones looks a lot like a lot of kids who live around Hickory Hollow Mall, and Popeye looks a like a lot of dads who do, too.
No doubt the Predators see Jones as an opportunity to market to a new group of hockey fans, and he’ll surely be asked to lead learn-the-game sessions at their new southside facility. If Shea Weber, Mike Fisher and Pekka Rinne are the faces of the franchise to the people who grew up with hockey and who have stuck with it in Nashville — those who were kids in 1998, with jobs and careers to support the team on their own now — then the team will be looking to Jones to be the face to a new group of fans.
Pinning a lot pressure on the shoulders of an 18-year-old isn’t always fair, but there have been many stories written about Seth Jones — the African-American who picked hockey, who excelled at hockey, who can be the first African-American NHL star. There will be many more. Jones is a big personality, who guaranteed — and delivered — a gold medal for the United States in the World Junior Championship, a tournament Canadians more or less consider a birthright. And Jones knows there’s not a lot of hockey players who look like him. He says race was never an issue in his house or in school or in hockey, but he also recognizes that he’s going to be someone that somebody looks up to.
“I hope I can be a role model for other African-American kids who want to play the sport,” he said in a radio interview with 102.5 The Game on Tuesday, making a broader point that the best thing he can do is encourage kids to believe — despite their background or their race or their geography — they can play any sport they want, because sometimes destiny does exist — it just needs the opportunity and the encouragement to become real.