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For all the influence he had on his son's career, Popeye admits he was not the driving force behind it. His ex-wife, Amy, whom he divorced in 2011, was, he says, "an unbelievable woman who deserves more credit than she gets. She's tougher than I am. She was the hockey coach in the family. She made rules. The boys didn't break them."
Seth was only eight when he scribbled a message to Amy on four yellow Post-it notes: "Mom, I love you so much," he wrote, "and I will never leave you even when I go to the NHL." When he was 13, he set the long-term goal of making the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., starting a to-do list to help him work toward that destination. (He made the team when he was 16, in his first year of eligibility.) He considered taking a scholarship to play at North Dakota but opted instead for the WHL despite Amy's misgivings. Seth promised her he would further his education; he is earning college credits by taking online courses in business and sports psychology through the Winterhawks. He also explained to her that each step he took had to prepare him for what would come after, and that the more demanding 72-game schedule in the WHL was superior to the 36-game slate in the NCAA. "He always has detailed solutions for big decisions," says Amy. "I'm happy for the young man he's becoming."
Jones ruffled feathers last month before the world juniors when he insisted that the U.S. had "the best team," adding, "There's not much another team can do to take us off our game." His boast was uncharacteristic, but Jones (one of Team USA's alternate captains) and his teammates backed it up. The U.S. held its opponents to nine goals in seven games, and the team's top three defensemen—Jones, Jake McCabe and Jacob Trouba—were exceptional, leading NHL coaching great Scotty Bowman to say on Twitter, "USA World Jrs Defence Core remind me of my Montreal Canadiens days in the 70's with [Serge] Savard, [Larry] Robinson, [Guy] Lapointe. The USA Guys are big and mobile."
The team actually dropped two of its first three games in the preliminary round, to Russia and Canada, by identical 2--1 scores. Before the fourth game, against Slovakia, Jones and Trouba spoke convincingly in a players meeting about how the team had been just a few subtle adjustments from victory in that pair of defeats. The U.S. promptly went out and thumped Slovakia 9--3. "Any time we faced adversity," Housley recalls, "you could see how the other guys looked to Seth in the room. On the ice he really breaks down the opposition forecheck because he makes smart first passes out of the zone and he can also carry it out. He really compromises other teams' capacity to put pressure on our team and creates offense from our own zone."
Off the ice Jones has a chance to be a more prominent face of the game than the NHL's other black superstars. Goalie Grant Fuhr won a lot of games for the Stanley Cup--winning Oilers in the 1980s but played in the shadow of Wayne Gretzky. Winger Jarome Iginla, now in his 16th season with the Flames, has never won a Cup and has spent much of his career playing for a bad team in a small market.
There are detractors who say that while Jones isn't afraid to hit somebody, he could play with more menace. They concede that he has a booming shot but feel he could be more creative when he joins the rush. Such talk doesn't bother Jones. Even his favorite player, future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom—who retired last season after 20 years with the Red Wings—had his critics. "Nick wasn't the flashiest, he certainly wasn't the strongest," Jones says. "I learned so much from watching him, because he always read the play so well and seemed to make the right decisions."
The book on Jones has barely started. Some day it may be required reading too.