It is illuminating to hear what the Portland Winterhawks' Seth Jones thinks about likely being the highest-drafted black player in NHL history.
The colour of a player's skin might not garner comment in the workaday reality of major junior hockey, especially when people are trying to be sensitive. Hockey is also, at long last, starting to resemble the general population of North America, where black, brown and Asian players are no longer novel although still rare. But Jon-Paul Morosi went into the topic — if Seth Jones becomes the first black player selected first overall, what would it mean — it was a compelling read.
Jones, 18, is considered the Western Hockey League's best NHL draft prospect. It was noteworthy that Jones told Morosi he has "never really been into the whole race thing" but accepts the mantle that's been placed upon him by, well, society and the sports media.
Even if he isn't the No. 1 pick, Jones is likely to surpass Evander Kane (fourth overall, 2009) as the highest-picked black player selected in the NHL Draft. To the extent that any 18-year-old could, Jones has an appreciation for the responsibility — and opportunity — that would come with that status.
"I grew up with a white mom and a black dad, and I've never really been into the whole race thing," Jones said in a recent interview. "But hearing that — that's awesome. That's a privilege and an honor. I know African Americans don't play hockey too much. Maybe this would get a couple more kids into it here and there.
"I grew up in a family where race didn't matter, but that would be a great thing. That'd be awesome, for me to be that guy who little kids say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' That's an honor, to be honest with you." (FOX Sports)
That is the argument, if one family takes up hockey who would otherwise not have after seeing Seth Jones does it, then it would be worth it. At the same time, it should not be overlooked that's not how he necessarily sees himself.
It is about having people who blaze a trail. Maybe it's a straight-line view but would a Buffalo Sabres prospect Kevin Sundher, who is of South Asian descent, have played if not for previous Indian players such as Robin Bawa, Ajay Baines and Manny Malhotra? Reaching back about 35 years, would Tony McKegney, who was one of the very few black NHL players in the 1980s, had played if Willie O'Ree hadn't made it to the NHL a generation earlier?
Morosi sought out Hockey Night In Canada analyst Kevin Weekes, who sponsored the Skillz Hockey charity in Toronto that has helped several black Canadian players advance. Few probably had a parent who could ask Joe Sakic on where to sign up for skating lessons, but as Weekes noted, that's really not important.
"If Seth is able to go No. 1, or even No. 2, it would be such a huge turning point for so many people," Weekes said. "Not only black people or visible minorities, but people in general. That's what North America is all about — having the opportunity. In hockey, it's about growing the game, taking it to the next level, making sure as many people as possible can enjoy it. That's where we're headed. We're not there yet. But we're going there."
Hey, someday people will play because the sport seems fun and open to them, notwithstanding the endlessly escalating expense. In the meantime, a role model who resonates still matters.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.
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