NEWARK, N.J. -- While it remains to be seen if defenseman Seth Jones of the Portland Winterhawks will become the first African-American player selected No. 1 in the history of the NHL Draft, the thought has generated great interest throughout the hockey community.
The 2013 NHL Draft is Sunday at Prudential Center (3 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TSN).
"Knowing Seth could be selected No. 1 shows a lot of change, and it's obviously great for the game of hockey," Montreal Canadiens Norris Trophy-winning defenseman P.K. Subban told NHL.com. "It's not just great for me, but great for everybody. But first and foremost, you want him to be seen as a great player and not just a black player. That's how I've gone about my career. Just kind of try and make myself the best player possible."
Avalanche executive vice president of hockey operations Joe Sakic publicly admitted if his team does hold on to the top choice, he would select one of the top forwards: Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads, or Finnish center Aleksander Barkov.
Jones knows that any of those players could go No. 1. If it happens to be him, he would be thrilled, but it wouldn't change what he believes already.
"It would mean a lot to me, but me and my family have never been into the race thing … whether you're white or black it really doesn't matter," Jones said. "Going No. 1 is special. But I could see why that is a big deal around the world. It's just that I never really thought about that kind of stuff."
If he is selected No. 1, Jones would be the seventh top choice from the United States and the first since Patrick Kane in 2007. In addition, he would become the highest-drafted black player in the 51-year history of the event. Evander Kane holds that distinction after being selected No. 4 by the Atlanta Thrashers on June 26, 2009.
Would Jones be disappointed if he isn't chosen No. 1?
"It would have been a cool story for everyone I think, and [I] know it looked like it was going in that direction at one point, but Joe and Pat [Roy] think they know what they're doing," Jones said. "If they think that's what's going to help their team win, then that's what they think."
Asked if he considers himself a role model for young African-Americans, Jones smiled.
"Yeah, I think that's a great category to be in," the 6-foot-3.5, 205-pound prospect said. "Anytime I can enthuse other people to play the game of hockey, I'm obviously doing something good."
That's certainly music to the ears of Lester Patrick Award winner Willie O'Ree, who broke the NHL's color barrier with the Boston Bruins in 1958, almost 11 years after Jackie Robinson's big-league debut.
"It's going to mean a lot," O'Ree told NHL.com when asked about Jones being taken No. 1. "It's going to mean a lot to the League. Just to know he's a black kid that wanted to play hockey, set goals for himself, worked towards his goals and said, 'Hey, I'm here and I'm going to be the best hockey player I can be.'"
"I hope the day comes when we don't even have to discuss [the fact a black player is regarded as the best prospect]," Oduya said. "To me, it's something we should consider normal and it shouldn't be a big deal. But we aren't there, and until we get there, and as long as it's done in a positive light, it'll be good."
Jones is one of a handful of exceptional minority draft-eligible players this year, including Sault Ste. Marie defenseman Darnell Nurse, Kitchener Rangers right wing Justin Bailey, Belleville Bulls defenseman Jordan Subban, Sudbury Wolves right wing Nicolas Baptiste, Kelowna Rockets defenseman Madison Bowey, Victoriaville Tigres defenseman Jonathan-Ismael Diaby and Quebec Remparts left wing Anthony Duclair.
Jones, who finished his rookie season in Portland with 14 goals, 56 points and a plus-46 rating in 61 regular-season games, was No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's final ranking list.
Nurse, Subban and Bailey told NHL.com that having Jones selected first would be exciting.
"I think hockey is probably the only sport where there aren't as many African-Americans, but I think more kids are starting to play now since there are more guys making it and they're becoming role models," Bailey told NHL.com. "I think with Seth Jones, if he goes either first, second or third, it won't matter. I think he'll be a great NHL player someday and I think he'll be a great role model and hopefully more minorities will pick up the game of ice hockey as a result."
Bailey, who had 17 goals and 36 points in 57 games as a rookie for the Rangers, is No. 38 on Central Scouting's final list of North American skaters.
Subban's older brother, P.K. Subban, was this year's winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman. Jordan Subban is No. 55 on Central Scouting's final ranking. In his second season with the Bulls, Jordan finished sixth among OHL defensemen with a career-high 51 points (15 goals, 36 assists) in 68 regular-season games. He had five goals and 20 points as a rookie in 2011-12.
"The fact Seth has a chance to go first is great and it shows how the game is evolving with diversity and you see more ethnic players of different backgrounds playing and being successful," Jordan Subban said. "I think that's great for the game and it will only help the game grow."
Nurse is the second-rated defenseman on the board after Jones, coming in at No. 4 on Central Scouting's list. He produced career highs across the board in his second season with the Greyhounds with 12 goals, 29 assists, 41 points, a plus-15 rating and 116 penalty minutes.
How does the 6-foot-3.5, 185-pound left-handed shot feel about Jones going No. 1?
"It definitely has meaning," Nurse said. "As a kid, everyone grows up and you have high standards. When I was younger, I always watched Jarome Iginla, and just the way he worked. Knowing that Seth could possibly go first overall would be great and maybe even influence more minorities to play hockey. Not just black players, but those with all other ethnic backgrounds."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter: @mikemorrealeNHL
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