Black top NHL draft picks are changing face of hockey

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Last week featured some of the top, young black athletes being selected in a professional sports draft.

Teams selected those players in hopes that they may be the future of their franchises, and hopefully, the league as a whole.

Normally we’d be describing the NBA Draft. And last week’s draft did feature some of the best young basketball players in the world. But last week also featured a historic NHL Draft, where two of the top seven players selected were black.

Seth Jones was selected No. 4 by the Nashville Predators. Leading up to the draft there was speculation that Jones would be the No. 1 pick. While he did slip, he still made history in being the first African-American as a top-five choice.

Darnell Nurse went No. 7 to the Edmonton Oilers. Jones and Nurse, whether they like it or not, will be two players forever linked, and forever looked at in changing the way we view hockey. In a sport where 94 percent of the players are white, Jones and Nurse will be counted on to change perceptions and to act as role models for young black players.

An opportunity to lead

Jones has been heralded as the next great hockey player for years now, and is acutely aware of the pressure that will be on him to perform at a high level. Willie O’Ree broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958. There’s hope that Jones will have a similar effect on the sport.

“He has as much or more potential to change the face of the game probably since Willie O’Ree,” said Bryant McBride in a recent Boston Globe article. McBride is a black entrepreneur and investor, who was formerly the NHL’s vice president of business development.

Former black NHL player Anson Carter said of him: “Seth will take it to another level. He’ll help open the eyes and help bring credibility and awareness to African-American athletes. When they see a player of their own that’s born and raised and trained Stateside, I think it’ll be a great thing.”

Now accustomed to the spotlight, Jones has been featured in Sports Illustrated articles, has a noteworthy father, and was the top prospect in his class. He understands he’ll be analyzed, and ultimately scrutinized, for any and everything he does. To his credit, he seems to be relishing the pressure.

“He understands the magnitude of it,” Jones’ mother Amy said in the Boston Globe article. “He does understand he can do a lot for the sport, if he does it the right way.”

Said Jones: “I do know that if I can help set an example for any kids or help them get started in the game, I’d like to do that. I don’t mind trying to be a role model.”

Nurse doesn’t have quite the same hype, nor the same pressure, as Jones. But he may be even better equipped to handle the potential hardships that come with being an African-American player in the spotlight, thanks to his famous lineage. His uncle is Donovan McNabb, who as a black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, was often judged harshly (and at times unfairly), due to being a black player competing in the NFL’s most glamorous position.

Inspiring new talent to hockey

While Nurse may not have as many former players and experts singing his praises yet, he does already realize that he’ll have to work harder than his counterparts to live up to the pick, and showcase that black players can be stars in the league.

Said Nurse: “Being an inspiration for someone one day is something that definitely drives me.”

Jones and Nurse have already made history before they’ve played a professional game. Being selected as high as they did will forever etch their names in the record books beside players like O’Ree.

But it’s 2013, and being a top black player in the NHL isn’t enough anymore. These two have the opportunity to set in motion real change in the sport.

Luckily for both, they have players like O’Ree who can offer advice through personal experience.

“I just think they need to stay focused on what they want to do,” O’Ree said in an story. “They’re going to be professionals not only on the ice, but off the ice. All I can say is they’ll do very well and they’re both going to be great role models for these kids.”

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace