NEWARK, N.J. -- Willie O'Ree knows the journey has only begun for prospects Seth Jones and Darnell Nurse at the 2013 NHL Draft in Prudential Center.
Now comes the hard part -- making an NHL roster.
Jones, a defenseman for the Portland Winterhawks, became the second African-American/Canadian player chosen No. 4 at the draft when he was selected by the Nashville Predators on Sunday. Jones now has something in common with Evander Kane, who had originally held that lofty distinction when he was picked fourth by the Atlanta Thrashers on June 26, 2009.
Nurse, also a defenseman with the Ontario Hockey League's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, would soon follow in Jones' footsteps when he was tabbed at No. 7 by the Edmonton Oilers.
O'Ree, who became the first black player to participate in a regular season NHL game on Jan. 18, 1958, with the Boston Bruins, was proud to witness the selection of both players in the opening round.
"When I broke in, I knew there would be other players of color coming into the League and when I see these young players being drafted and going to their projected teams, it just makes me feel so great that I had a little part in breaking down barriers and opening up doors to make it possible for these players," O'Ree told NHL.com. "It's a joy for me and I'm really proud and it's just a pleasure being here to witness it."
Jones led all rookie defensemen in the Western Hockey League with 56 points, including 14 goals. He also had a plus-46 rating in 61 games to help Portland to a league-leading 57 wins (57-12-1-2). He was named WHL Rookie of the Year and the Canadian Hockey League's Top Prospect of the Year for his outstanding season.
O'Ree said he wasn't at all surprised when Jones, who was No. 1 on NHL Central Scouting's ranking of the top draft-eligible North American skaters, dropped to the Predators at No. 4 in the draft. Many thought that if Jones wasn't drafted first by the Colorado Avalanche, that he would be chosen by the Florida Panthers second overall, but general manager Dale Tallon instead opted for Finland's Aleksander Barkov.
"In the draft, you never know," he said. "Throw some balls up in the air and where they land, they land. He was drafted and he's happy. He's with a good club, and he'll make his mark and do very well."
Nurse, meanwhile, was named the OHL's Scholastic Player of the Year in 2012-13 after carrying an 85 percent average in six Grade 12 University Prep courses. Previous winners of the award include Dustin Brown (2001-03) of the Los Angeles Kings, Steven Stamkos (2006-07) of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Matt Duchene (2008-09) of the Colorado Avalance.
"I just think they need to stay focused on what they want to do," O'Ree said. "They're going to be professionals not only on the ice, but off the ice. They can definitely be role models for young boys and girls that want to get into the sport or are already in the sport and want to pursue their careers. All I can say is they'll do very well and they're both going to be great role models for these kids."
Prior to joining the Bruins in 1958, O'Ree skated with Fredericton (NBSHL), Quebec (QJHL), Kitchener (OHA) and Quebec (QHL) from 1956-1957. During the 1960-61 season, he was called up by the Bruins and went on to play 43 games recording 4 goals and 14 points. He would have likely skated much longer in the League had it not been for a stray puck that left him 95 percent blind in his right eye in a game with the Kitchener-Waterloo Canucks of the Ontario junior league during the 1955-56 campaign.
"I told [Jones and Nurse] that it was rough at the beginning … being the only black player in the League," O'Ree said. "I just stayed focused on what I wanted to do and tried to represent the hockey club to the best of my ability. There were racial slurs and remarks directed toward me, but I let it go in one ear and out the other. All I wanted to do was play hockey and be the best hockey player I could be."
There's no question Jones and Nurse will look to follow the path O'Ree has set for all minority players.