Another black defenceman rated in the top five is Darnell Nurse of Hamilton, who played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. He is related by marriage to football player Donovan McNabb, but Nurse is Canadian.
Jones, asked about being a trailblazer for African-Americans, said he embraces the role.
“Yes, I do, not just on the ice but also off the ice,” he said. “Helping the community and being a role model for kids to look up to. And if they play hockey as well, that’s awesome.”
Until now, the highest-drafted black player is Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets, a Canadian chosen fourth overall in the first round by Atlanta in 2009. The highest-drafted African-American player from the United States was Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, chosen seventh overall by them in 2006.
Last season, according to the NHL, the league had four African-American players, down from a high of seven in 2009-10. There were 22 black players (of all nationalities), down from a high of 26 in 2009-10.
But the trend is positive in other ways. A black Canadian – P.K. Subban – won the Norris trophy as best defenceman, a first for the NHL. His brother, Jordan, is ranked 55th among North American defencemen in the Sunday draft. Their brother, Malcolm, is a junior goalie for the Belleville Bulls, selected by the Boston Bruins 24th overall last summer.
Another milestone this year was the naming of Bryce Salvador of the New Jersey Devils as the third black captain in league history. And the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks have three black players, the most ever on a Cup champion. The most black players ever on one team was five, the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010-11 and the Edmonton Oilers of 2000-01.
Discussions of hockey’s black history often begin with Willie O’Ree and Herb Carnegie. O’Ree, the league’s first black, was a Canadian who broke in with the Boston Bruins in 1958.
Carnegie, also a black Canadian, was in his prime a decade before O’Ree and became a star of the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Carnegie was offered only a minor-league contract by the New York Rangers in 1948.
Carnegie died at 91 on March 9, 2012. Three years before, at 88, he told CBC in a television interview that when he was 18, the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Conn Smythe, wanted him to play for the team “if someone could turn him white.”
“How would you feel?” Carnegie said, recalling his memory of hearing about this. “I can’t forget it because he cut my knees off, he broke my legs.” Carnegie, blind by the time of the CBC interview, began to weep through sightless eyes.
But Canada’s black hockey history precedes Carnegie and O’Ree. Historians George and Darril Fosty, in their book Black Ice, researched the “Colored Hockey League of the Maritimes,” started in 1895 and based in the community of Africville in Halifax.
The peak of the league, they said, was 1903 through 1906, when four to six teams competed. A 1903 newspaper ad touts the “COLORED HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP” of Feb. 26 between the Eurekas and the Seasides.
Perhaps the best black hockey player has been goalie Grant Fuhr, a Canadian and the first black member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. He played for Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers when they dominated the league in the late 1980s.
In a 1982 book by journalist Stan Fischler, Fuhr said he felt worried before the 1981 draft about his race and destination. “If I had been drafted by a team with a large black population, they could have used it as a promotional thing,” Fuhr said. “I think that would have been hard on me.”
Thirty-two years later, Jones and his agent, Pat Brisson, have no such fears. Jones recently signed on for equipment endorsements, Brisson said. “He’s a great communicator,” Brisson added. “He’s got great self-confidence.”