There are a few minutes before living, breathing history walks into the hotel conference room and shakes Seth Jones’s hand with a grip strong enough to break it.
Jones is sitting on the end of the long wooden table, in a dark gray suit with a striped blue tie. He is 18 and a very talented hockey player who Sunday will be one of the top picks in the NHL draft. His hands are crossed in his lap. His back is to the doorway.
Then, history walks in. He is wearing khaki slacks and a black polo shirt with the Boston
Bruins logo — the spoked-B — over its heart. He is barrel-chested with forearms thick as logs. He is balding on top. He’s 77 years old. Jones rises, turns, and is humbled.
They had never met until just now, but Jones knows full well what Willie O’Ree did for hockey — and, by extension, for Jones — when O’Ree became the first black man to play it
professionally. Which O’Ree did with the Bruins in 1958 against Montreal.
They sit. For the next 15 minutes, O’Ree talks about the old days, which weren’t always so good.
“There was a period and a time when it slowed down,” O’Ree says, “but I knew in my head it was still there. I knew when I stepped on the ice during some part of the game, there would be some racial slur or some racial remark directed toward me.”
Jones doesn’t speak. He leans forward on his chair situated a few feet from O’Ree, and Jones listens. At times he shakes his head in disbelief.
Later, Jones will say that not once has the idea of race crossed his mind as he’s played hockey — and he’s played it almost all over the world for much of his life.
Jones will say that he’s never heard one slur, one racial remark. Not one.
And there, in the few feet that separate them in the hotel conference room in Copley Square, lies the chasm of disconnect between O’Ree and Jones, between what it meant to be black and to play hockey professionally back then versus now.
It matters to Jones, in no small part because he’s told at nearly every turn that he’s the next role model for blacks and other minority races in the white-dominant sport, where last season there were 44 non-white players among the 720 on NHL rosters — just 6.1 percent.
“He has as much or more potential to change the face of the game probably since Willie O’Ree,” said Bryant McBride, an entrepreneur and investor who is black and was formerly the NHL’s vice president of business development.
Change the face of the game.
There might come a day when Jones can only think of hockey. But that day isn’t today. There’s progress to be made. He wants to help. He wants to grow the sport in inner cities.
“I’m trying to be a role model and do whatever I can,” he said.
Yes, only so much progress has been made, and there are still marks — insignificant though they may seem — to be made that are tied only to the color of someone’s skin.
Jones could make that history Sunday, when he might become the first black player to be selected first overall in the NHL draft.
Colorado holds the first pick in the draft, and if the Avalanche select Jones, they’ll be bringing him home, in a way, to the place where he fell in love with hockey.
At 5 years old, he first slipped on a pair of skates, rentals, on New Year’s Eve as 1999 turned to 2000 and the world was supposed to end because of Y2K and all that.
But when Jones first stepped onto the ice on a pond in Beaver Creek, Colo., where his parents took him and his two brothers, Caleb and Justin, he appeared, his father said, like a “natural.”
He didn’t slip, or slide. No, he only glided, pausing to skate backward or stop.
Eighteen months later, Jones sat center ice, pounding on the glass during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final between Colorado and New Jersey, which the Avalanche won.
The intensity, the speed, the physical play, the determination on the players’ faces to take that one game and win it all — Jones had never seen anything like it before.
“Once I saw that game, I knew I wanted to be a hockey player,” he said. “I knew one day I wanted to lift the Stanley Cup.”
There was a point when his father, Popeye Jones, the former NBA forward for several teams including the Celtics, met Avalanche legend Joe Sakic at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
Popeye told Sakic that his son was becoming interested in hockey.
Sakic, who is now the Avalanche’s executive vice president of hockey operations, eyed Popeye’s large frame — 6 feet 8 inches, about 250 pounds.
“Well, from the look of you, your kids are going to be huge,” Sakic said. “Just make sure they know how to skate.”
From there, Seth Jones started taking figure skating lessons.
If there was a moment when Popeye became convinced that his son had special talent, it came when Seth was 14 and they were living in Dallas.
On the other end of the phone was Dallas Stars defenseman Trevor Daley, a family friend who had seen Jones play, and, Popeye said, “He was raving.”
“You could tell he was going to be a special hockey player,” said Trevor Hanas, who coached Jones on a youth team in Dallas and is also a scout for the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League.
“His smarts for the game is probably what separates him from a lot of other defensemen,” Hanas said. “He’s just really intelligent — with and without the puck. When you combine that with great skating skills and great size, now you’ve got the full package.”
By 15, Jones was playing for USA Hockey’s U-17 and U-18 national teams. Then, he graduated high school early and joined the Winterhawks, where the 6-4, 205-pound Jones became the WHL’s rookie of the year after scoring 14 goals and 46 assists in 61 games.
Winterhawks coach and general manager Mike Johnston praised Jones’s IQ, even-keeled personality, smoothness on the ice, evasiveness for a player his size — and more.
“He’s very mature,” Johnston said. “When you talk to him, you would think he’s probably 21. He does have that presence. He’s quiet, but he leads through example.”
Jones’s mother, Amy, is white. His father, Popeye, is black. They’re divorced now.
But as they raised their children, they taught them that they are black and white.
“You understand slavery and the struggles that black people went through, but you also understand the culture of white people,” Popeye preached.
Those lessons, Amy said, were a way for their children to avoid viewing life through the prism of race, which she said was never really discussed anyway.
But, she said, it has come to light more in the past few years as Jones has risen through the hockey ranks of a sport in which there simply isn’t much diversity.
“He understands the magnitude of it,” she said. “He does understand he can do a lot for the sport, if he does it the right way.”
And so we go back into that hotel conference room, where O’Ree is talking and Jones is listening.
There’s a point when O’Ree reminisces about fighting all the time on the ice, not because of racism but because he was speared and head-butted and cross-checked all the time and he had no helmet or shield because you just didn’t wear that stuff back then.
“I can’t even imagine,” Jones says, shaking his head once more.
But after telling Jones to conduct himself accordingly on and off the ice, O’Ree starts to talk about image.
“We’re three individuals inside ourselves,” he begins.
“We’re the person we think we are. We’re the person who other people think we are. And we’re the person that we really are. So just look inside yourself and say, ‘This is the person that I am, this is what I want to do,’ and go out and stay focused.”
Years ago, when O’Ree broke into the league, he was asked if he could envision not just more black players but more players of all races playing hockey one day. He said yes. He meant it, too.
Years later, in this hotel conference room, O’Ree, with the Bruins’ spoked-B over his heart, stands and shakes the hand of a player he believes can be a role model just as he was.
And perhaps one day, when enough progress has been made and all that matters is the game, Jones can pass down stories to another future role model, to show how far their game has come.