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The improbable career path of Keith Jones

by Bob Snow
The textbook definition of "improbable" is "not likely to happen."

Label Versus studio analyst and Flyers' color commentator Keith Jones the quintessential walking and talking -- and even writing -- definition of the word.

In the history of the NCAA and NHL, coupled with the fields of authoring and television/radio journalism, there are few players who can parallel the improbable course of events that has put the affable and loquacious Jones into the homes of hockey fans in Philadelphia and across North America.

Not to mention bookstores and libraries as co-author with ESPN SportsCenter anchorman John Buccigross of Jones's 2007 autobiography, "Jonesy: Put Your Head Down and Skate -- The Improbable Career of Keith Jones."

"It's been awesome," said Jones about his unique experiences to date. "I really have to pinch myself sometimes."

How awesome -- and improbable -- for the self-professed "chicken-wing, beer guy" before landing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich., in the fall of 1988?

"I was playing Junior B and C as a 16- and 17-year-old. I was 5-foot-8 and grew another three or four inches when I was 18. After one year of Junior B in Niagara Falls, I was recruited by Western Michigan. After my first visit I never bothered with any others. I never heard of Kalamazoo but it turned out to be a pretty nice town."

Before his first shift for the Broncos, Jones was plucked by the Capitals in the seventh round of the 1988 Entry Draft.

"I think what [the Capitals] saw when I was 19 in Junior B was I went to the front of the net," said Jones about his prospective NHL stock. "I'd fall down but pick myself back up and played with a bit of an edge -- went after bigger guys. A lot of times I'd end up on the wrong side of it, but would keep going.

"I was a fan of the NHL, but never thought I'd be playing there. I'd go to Maple Leaf Gardens and watch games, but never dreamed of playing there."

Jones, from Brantford, Ontario, would keep on going for four years at Western Michigan, all the way to the CCHA's First All-Star Team his senior year of 1991-92.

The keys to that NCAA run -- and the following eight seasons with Washington, Colorado and Philadelphia?

"Conditioning," said Jones emphatically. "I was completely raw when I went to Western; never really lifted weights. I was a chicken-wing, beer guy. Everything from my toes to my head got stronger -- and bigger and better -- each year. The hockey sense was always there.

"I learned to play a different role each year at Western Michigan, all the way from a fourth-line guy to a first-line guy. Then when I started with Washington, I started all over again on the fourth line, but was able to contribute playing only 5-8 minutes a night. Like college, each year I got a little more responsibility. By the time I got to Colorado I was playing first and second line."

"We made it to Joe Louis once for the [CCHA] final four [in 1992]," reflected Jones about his college highlight, "and ended up losing the first and winning the consolation against Ferris State, 2-1. I scored late in the third for us to win. Then we were close, but weren't selected for the NCAA tournament."

Jones played 153 games for the Broncos, scoring 83 goals and 80 assists, setting the stage for that improbable professional career run.

The NHL stage would include 491 games with the aforementioned ‘Caps, Avs and Flyers (he now makes Philadelphia home) with 117 goals and 141 assists between 1992-93 and his retirement in November of 2000.

"Dale Hunter for sure at Washington," said Jones about the most influential person during his playing career. "He was my linemate; taught me how to play the game and prepare for the game, how to contribute in any way possible to get the team to victory, how to be a good teammate."

Jones' best season was 1996-97 when he went 23-20-43 in 67 games for Colorado.

There has been no one "best" season for Jones since retirement; each one seems to just get better, despite a few speed bumps along the way. 

"I retired abruptly in November 2000 because of on-going knee problems," said Jones. "Got a call shortly after from ESPN wondering if I wanted to do some work for them on the 'NHL Tonight' segment. Of course I jumped at the opportunity thinking it would transcend over to the TV side. It didn't work that way, I can tell you. I was awful when I started -- out of place and uncomfortable. I wondered if I could crawl back out on the ice and somehow squeak out a few more playing years after a few weeks of doing it.

"Mercifully, they brought me back for a few more shows. While I was doing that, I also started Comcast SportsNet in Philadelphia doing post-game shows for the Flyers. The ESPN thing kind of went away. The Philly stuff continued and for about five or six years, I did post-game shows and some intermissions for the Flyers before TV color commentary. It was a real comfortable setting and I got my feet wet without the high pressure of talking to the world.

"I did radio in Philadelphia at the same time; mornings for free for a year and a half on 610 WIP. I still do radio twice a week to this day. That really was the biggest factor in allowing me to be ready when the doors opened.

"I was a fan of the NHL, but never thought I'd be playing there. I'd go to Maple Leaf Gardens and watch games, but never dreamed of playing there."
-- Keith Jones

Those doors included analyst duties on Versus and during TSN game intermissions -- and authoring with Buccigross.

"They're all different which makes it fresh," said Jones about his myriad of jobs. "I enjoy them all equal to be honest."

Jones' upbeat and down-to-earth profile is grounded, in large part, to his Ontario upbringing, and from the inspiration of a courageous young girl whose foundation receives all of Jones' book profits.

"Alex's Lemonade Stand" is a foundation for kids with childhood cancer," said Jones about the recipient of his generosity. "Alex Scott was a little girl in the Philadelphia that started a lemonade stand to raise money for cancer, when she was fighting the disease herself. She lost her battle about five years ago but her cause still goes on today. I did not know her but followed her battle and have since gotten to know her parents.

"I got a call from John Buccigross, who was a friend of mine. He asked if he could write a book about me. I said, 'Yeah, sure,' thinking that nothing would ever come of it. It was very difficult; really hard to do. It has some good insights into life in the National Hockey League. About being traded and how that changes your life in the drop of a dime; the responsibilities of the professional athlete. It's a positive read for the most part."

Most reader reviews support that, while referencing favorite parts.

Said one: "It's like Jonesy is sitting next to you, talking to you, warts and all showing. He's just a regular guy."

Another: "[Best part was] handling his own contract negotiations with GM David Poile and bringing the empty briefcase to the meetings. I kept thinking of the Animal House scene where one of the Delta's points to his briefcase and smiles before the student body hearing."

A third: "To me, the best was the touching story of his friend, John Poor, who died at a young age of a terrible illness. The chapter on Poor, who was buried wearing a Keith Jones' Washington Capitals jersey, put tears in my eyes."

Finally: "If you doubt what a good guy Jones must be, just check the cover and see where the proceeds of this book go."

Where does the winding -- and improbable -- career of Keith Jones go now?

"At some point," said Jones, "I would love to be part of the Flyers [management]. It's such a loyal organization. I can't speak enough about how they helped me in my life after hockey."

Short term, Jones will usher in the New Year at the Bridgestone 2010 NHL Winter Classic in Boston.

"For Versus, we're actually going out New Year's Eve," Jones said, "and doing a show from 11 to 12:30 in the morning at Fenway Park. We'll be there with the lights on, putting together a show with the NHL doing the House of Blues party with some musical groups. We'll send it over and come back to highlight the best players of the decade. I won't have a role in the actual production when NBC takes over. I'll just be a fan, sitting back and watching. I'm looking forward to that."

While enjoying the improbable run of Keith Jones.

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