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Friday, December 6, 2013
Feels like home for Seth Jones

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

BRENTWOOD, Tenn. – If you happened to be in St. Louis on Oct. 3 in the moments before the Nashville Predators' season opener against the Blues, you might have seen a woman hurrying down the steps to take a video of the Predators' warm-up. You might have seen her pressed close to the glass with her camera and then giving a quick wave to one of the Predators.

And you might have seen rookie defenseman Seth Jones shake his head in disbelief and look quickly away from his mother.

Even now, as Amy Jones retells the story in the living room of their handsome home perched on the edge of an exclusive golf course outside Nashville, her middle son shakes his head at the memory as though he still can't believe it happened.

"I didn't mean to wave. Honestly, I did not mean to do that," Amy insisted. "He just rolled his eyes and skated away," she added, laughing at the memory.

Did any of Seth's teammates catch the exchange? No, Seth said, and the unspoken "thankfully" is a given.

Amy is in the process of decorating the home into which they moved in early October, and there are three long stockings already hung from the mantel in the living room one for each of the Jones boys: Justin the oldest, just turned 23, is attending college and playing Division III hockey in Rhode Island; Caleb, 16, is the youngest and in his first year in Ann Arbor with the U.S. national team development program. Of course, Seth, 19, the reason that Amy has relocated to Tennessee, as he begins his NHL career.

She continues her work for a Dallas-based hotel development company in an office off the living room. That Amy is here at all is the result of the "pinky promise." Again, Seth shakes his head that this is being given voice. And while they cannot agree when the pinky promise was first made -- was he 12 or more like 15? -- the upshot is that as Seth's career arc became more and more clearly defined, they discussed what would happen if he was drafted and became an NHL player. They agreed, then, that if things unfolded as they hoped, Amy would live with Seth for the first three years of his career.

Seth Jones
Seth Jones hugs him mother, Amy, after being selected by the Predators with the fourth pick in the 2013 NHL draft.

"It was more of a 'ha-ha' kind of thing," Seth insisted. But as he got older, he realized that, from his perspective at least, three years was going to be way too long, so there has been a modification, a renegotiation of the pinky promise, so that the plan is that Amy and Seth will continue to live together for the first two years of his career.

At one point in our conversation, she refers to him as a young man. "Don't you mean 'adult'?" he asked, in mock hurt. "Young man," she repeated. "OK, 'young adult.'"

When discussion turns to Caleb and how his adjustment to life with the U.S. national team development program might not have been as easy as Seth's and how Amy has made a couple of visits to make sure Caleb is doing OK, Seth joked that he never got that attention.

But it is clear the younger brother greatly admires Seth's accomplishments. Amy recalled finding a paper Caleb had written for a class talking about his respect for Seth's dedication to becoming a pro hockey player. She admitted weeping when reading the paper and immediately demanded to know why her son hadn't shown it to her. Seth downplays the emotion reflected in the words explaining that, hey, they're brothers, let's not make too big a deal about it.

"It does make you feel good to know that," he said. "I don't think he wants to be like me, I think he looks up to me when it comes to hockey, though."

Over the years, and certainly now, attending all the home games, Amy has become a fan and, Seth joked, more than that -- an expert.

"On pretty much every aspect of the game," he said. "Pretty much anything you can name, she knows even though she's never played."

The two laugh. She recalled asking him after some games: Why did you do that? And Seth will explain that it was a set play. He was supposed to do that.

"And I'll say, 'Well, I don't like that play,'" Amy said with a laugh.

Back to the season opener -- which happened to coincide with Seth's 19th birthday -- when Amy found a fridge magnet shaped like a beer and presented it to Seth because he's not of legal age to drink.

"He didn't think that was very funny," Amy admitted, and Seth offered merely another rueful shake of his head.

There is an easiness between mother and son, and while she admits to tearing up at emotional moments -- like discussing Seth's departure for Ann Arbor when he was just turning 16 -- she is quick to laugh as they discuss Seth's seeming inability recall any or many of the events in his past. There is good-natured debate at what age he was when certain things happened, which teams he played for, the order in which things have unfolded. Seth makes a point of noting that although some reports have had him doing figure skating before he started playing organized hockey, he learned from a skating instructor who was a figure skater, a subtle distinction perhaps, but one about which Seth feels strongly.

"I did not figure skate," Seth said.

Regardless, he learned very quickly the nuances of the game and Amy recalled parents and coaches talking in awe about his skating ability when Seth was just 6. Ask Nashville GM David Poile about how this has all unfolded, from the moment he realized at the draft they were going to get a chance at whom they had ranked as the top player available in the draft, to his play, to the fact that his mother has moved to the area to be with Seth, and, well, it could hardly have worked out better.

"This is absolutely the best," Poile said. "He gets to learn about the professional life but still has the stability of having his mother here."

The team has almost no history of teenagers playing in the NHL, and the model from other teams usually involves billeting a young player with a more veteran player and his family or installing him in some family situation. Nathan MacKinnon, the first overall pick in last June's draft, is living with Colorado goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Sidney Crosby lived with owner Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh for a number of years. Patrick Kane lived with GM Stan Bowman in Chicago in his rookie season. But no matter how inviting the family is, nothing compares to being able to come home and have your mother to share a movie with or to remind you to clean your room or, as is the case on this day, to get your hair cut. If they're on their own or even with a billet, there's too much free time, too much time to spend too much money, perhaps do things that aren't in a young players' best interests, Amy explained.

Jones
At 19, Seth Jones is on the U.S. Olympic team's radar to make the roster for Sochi.

"It's easy to get lost and not understand" all of the things that are going to or can happen to you, she said. "If you don't have someone there to help you and guide you, you see it all the time," with athletes going broke or getting into trouble, she added. Plus, when Seth is on the road, he is with the guys and has his freedom there, but when he comes home, he comes home to family. "I feel like we have a really good balance," she said.

The two have worked out a monthly budget together. "Most 19-year-olds might not like it. But I think it's the right thing to do, the smart thing to do," Amy said.

And the bottom line is that everything is in Seth's name, he can do what he wants, but it's clear the two have found a nice groove.

"It's great having her here," Seth said. Not that Seth is a kid who is looking for trouble. He has always been a good student, well-liked. His mother tells the story about picking him up from preschool only to find his teacher had been regularly taking Seth into the staff room on her breaks and feeding him doughnuts because she enjoyed his company so much.

Talk to people around the NHL, specifically around the Predators, and there are some givens when it comes to Seth Jones. First, he's good, and most observers believe he's going to be really, really good maybe sooner than later. He's on the radar for the U.S. Olympic team and an early favorite to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. But it's more than playing well, it's being able to accept all that is happening to him without developing an ego or bristling at having to deal with the media or crumbling when he makes the mistakes that come with the territory of being a teenage defenseman playing top minutes against the league's best players.

"He gets it. He understands it," Poile said of the defenseman's understanding of his role. "He has that 'it' quality, if you will, both on and off the ice."

For head coach Barry Trotz, Seth very early on showed he could play a man's game at the NHL level.

"Really, during training camp, he started winning the respect not only of myself but of his teammates as well," Trotz told ESPN.com. "There's times that he looks like he's 29 and at other times he looks like he's 19, and that's sort of the growth process. But there's more good that happens with him than bad and you sort of take the good with the bad right now. He's a sponge. He doesn't have any arrogance. Only once or twice have I said to him 'Hey, you've got to respect the league a little bit more, they're starting to pick your pocket.'"

Trotz has had Jones playing with captain Shea Weber (with whom he lived previously), which meant switching to his off-hand on the left side. He moved for a short time down the lineup, and with Weber injured, he's back playing on the top pairing with Roman Josi. One former NHL coach noted that what sets Jones apart from lots of defensemen and certainly other young players is his confidence to not press the puck into dangerous areas. If he's leading a rush and doesn't see an opportunity, he'll reverse the flow, curl back and wait for something better.

"He's been really good," Trotz added. "I always say every year those top 0.1-percenters are going to play. It's tougher for a defenseman, I would say, because you can hide forwards a little bit. With Seth on the back end, there's nowhere to hide. He's been playing big minutes against top people and sometimes doing extremely well, better than I ever thought, and other times he's doing exactly what I thought as a 19-year-old he'd be doing. But overall I couldn't be more happy. We were very fortunate, he's one of those 0.1-percenters."

Like any youngster, Seth has had to school himself not to be in awe of his situation. It's hard lining up against Sidney Crosby or Pavel Datsyuk or the Sedin twins, guys he watched and admired as a fan. But, he said, to watch with awe is to get into deep trouble on the ice. So, he watches video with his former World Junior Championship coach Phil Housley, now an assistant in Nashville, and he reminds himself that he belongs here.

Can you draw a line between Mom's good-natured admonishments to shave regularly and get his hair cut, and the fact Seth Jones has already far exceeded normal, modest expectations for rookie NHL defensemen? David Legwand, an original Predator who has seen every single player in franchise history come (and oftentimes go), believes you can.

"His demeanor's unbelievable. He's a kid that's grown up around professional sports and you can kind of see that. He's obviously learned and his family's done a tremendous job with him, obviously, growing up through the hockey ranks and supporting him and doing the right things with him," Legwand told ESPN.com. "He's come in here and he's been fantastic. Obviously, for a 19-year-old kid to be playing 23, 24, 25 minutes a night is a huge thing. He gets to learn from Webs and do those type of things and that's huge for him also. His growth is going to continue and he's on the right track."

Seth Jones and Shea Weber
At times, Seth Jones has been paired this season with All-Star defenseman Shea Weber.

Veteran forward Matt Cullen has seen a lot of highly touted youngsters come along (and sometimes pass just as quickly from sight) in his career and, like Legwand, has been wowed by Jones the person and Jones the player.

"He's a good kid. I've been impressed with that. He's been very good in the room. I've been very impressed with the way he's gone about his business and done everything. He's obviously come in here with a lot of hype but he works very hard and he's been doing a really good job," Cullen said in an interview. "I'm always so impressed when I see a young guy like that play defense in this league. To come in and play wing or play forward is one thing but to come in and play defense the way he's played, you get a lot thrown at you every night and he's done a really good job,"

Does it ever get old, being the subject of so much positive feedback, so many compliments?

"It's better than being negative. I'll take the compliments," Seth said with a smile. "I've worked hard off the ice to have that kind of reputation."

He talks about the old adage that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and a moment to lose it. He is aware of the truth of such a statement and works hard to ensure that he follows that premise. In that sense, it puts us in mind of other young players -- Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby -- who have become iconic figures in the sport.

We actually first ran into Amy the previous evening after the Predators' 3-1 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in Nashville. She was chatting with former Predator Tom Fitzgerald, who was in town for an alumni event, and the two are reminiscing about the time Seth, not yet 10, played on a team of Boston-area kids Fitzgerald was coaching in a tournament in Toronto. When the Joneses arrived from Denver, Seth's equipment ended up in Vancouver and they were forced to cobble together a set of gear, including borrowing skates from a youngster who had just played in an earlier game.

Didn't matter, though, because Seth was impressive, something that has marked virtually every step of his hockey career from the first, tentative steps during an open skate with another family in Denver whose children were involved in hockey.

If this was only about a mother making sure her son stays on the right path, it would of course be understandable. But there is something more here at play, a chance and a rare one at that, for making up for lost time. When Seth left for the U.S. national team development program on the eve of his 16th birthday, it was during the time that his parents were going through a divorce and Amy was rejoining the work force. Seth still talks frequently to his father, the former NBA basketball player and now assistant coach with the Indianapolis Pacers, Popeye Jones, although they don't see as much of each other given the conflicting NBA and NHL seasons.

But for Amy watching her middle son leave home for Michigan and then move on to Portland, where he lived with a billet family while playing major junior hockey before being drafted by Nashville fourth overall at last June's draft, the time was right for him to leave what was a difficult situation, even if it made the move no less painful.

"Divorces aren't good for anyone," Amy said.

"It was probably harder on her than it was on me," Seth said of the move to Michigan. "Sometimes it just has to happen. She knew and I knew it was where I needed to go to develop."

And so this opportunity, the chance to make a more or less traditional home again at a time when most young men and certainly most young professional athletes don't have that opportunity, wasn't one Amy was going to let slide by. Given their relationship, it's not all that surprising that moving back in under the same roof appears to have been seamless. There was no period of adjustment, Seth said, and from Amy's perspective it has gone even better than she had hoped.

"We don't have conflict at all," she said. "It's nice to get some of that time back."