The surprises came early at the 2013 NHL draft with the top-ranked North American skater and most talented defenseman in this year's class, Seth Jones, falling to pick No. 4, where the Nashville Predators were thrilled to select him.
Many experts predicted the Portland Winterhawks (WHL) star to be picked no later than second overall, but the Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning all decided to pass on the highly touted defenseman.
"I have a competitive nature and I get that from my parents. Yeah, you definitely want to prove [the teams that passed on me] wrong and you definitely want to show them why they should have picked you," said Jones in his post-draft media gathering. "That's not my only goal next year, but it's definitely on my list."
Another impressive defensive prospect with great size and skill who went in the top 10 was Darnell Nurse of the OHL's Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, who was selected by the Edmonton Oilers at pick No. 7.
Jones and Nurse are two great talents who will be forever linked from this draft class as players with the potential to grow the sport and inspire a generation of black Americans and Canadians to play hockey.
They have also made their journey to the NHL in similar ways. Both of them grew up with fathers who were professional athletes and gave them the support needed to reach their goals.
Despite growing up with a father who played in the NBA, Jones fell in love with the sport of hockey by watching the Colorado Avalanche, as Elliott Pap of the Vancouver Sun explains:
Young Seth was five and living in Denver when poppa Popeye Jones was a power forward with the NBA Nuggets. Popeye would take Seth and his brothers to the occasional Avalanche game – the Avs were in their glory days circa 1999-2001 – and Seth became intoxicated with the speed and power of NHL hockey.
“It was just the intensity,” he said Wednesday from Portland as the Winterhawks prepared for their Friday date in Vancouver against the Giants. “We lived in Colorado for eight years so I went to a bunch of Avalanche games and I was there in 2001 when they beat New Jersey to win the Stanley Cup.
We had rinkside seats and I saw them hoist the Cup and that game made me want to pursue my dream of hoisting a Stanley Cup one day. That's kind of where my motivation started.”
That motivation turned into a promising junior hockey career with the Winterhawks, where Jones played 61 games this season and put up 56 points (14 goals, 42 assists). He also added 15 points in 21 playoff games to help the Winterhawks capture the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions following two consecutive defeats in the championship series.
Nurse's dad Richard was a wide receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League, and one of his uncles is former Philadelphia Eagles star quarterback Donovan McNabb. In 68 games for the Greyhounds this season, Nurse scored 12 goals and added 29 assists. He also tallied 116 PIM with a plus/minus rating of plus-15.
As two young black players who play an exciting brand of hockey that fans in Nashville and Edmonton will absolutely love watching, Jones and Nurse have a phenomenal opportunity to help promote the game in their respective cities and countries.
What would be Jones' advice to any young and aspiring African-American hoping to one day play hockey as well as he does?
"I'd tell them to try new things. The NHL only has a certain amount of African-American players and that kind of threads people off to play other sports that African-Americans usually play, such as football. You need to try new things. You can do anything if you set your mind to it."
When Jones and Nurse make their NHL debut, which will probably be at the start of the 2013-14 season since both have skill sets and the physical strength to make the jump to the pros immediately, they will join a growing group of black players who played in the NHL last year.
According to statistics provided by the NHL, there were 44 minority players among the nearly 700 on rosters to start the past season. Of those, 22 were black and four were U.S.-born black hockey players. Jones grew up in Denver and now resides near Dallas while Nurse is from Hamilton, Ontario.
Gross also noted that the NHL had just seven black players 20 years ago, and with Jones and Nurse embarking on what promises to be successful careers, that number of 44 black NHLers in 2013 could grow substantially over the next decade.
Jones has a fantastic opportunity to become the first African-American superstar in the NHL, which would help grow the game in Nashville and other non-traditional hockey markets.
While living in Dallas, a city that received an NHL franchise when the Minnesota North Stars relocated to Texas in 1993, Jones was able to watch American star Mike Modano help transform the Stars into a championship-caliber team.
As arguably the greatest American-born NHL player of all time, Modano played a key part in USA hockey growing 1,156.8 percent in Texas from 1990 through 2010 (stat via Chris Peters of The United States of Hockey), and Jones could play a similar role in Tennessee.
Over the last 20 years, USA hockey has seen participation in the sport rise to incredible levels. In 1992-93, there were 262,873 players enrolled. That number has almost doubled to 510,279 in 2012-13.
According to Peters, participation in USA hockey in the state of Tennessee rose 264 percent from 1990 through 2010. With Jones joining the Predators (Tennessee's only NHL franchise), he will play a part in the remarkable growth of hockey in this state.
When Jones was asked if he could have an impact on kids playing in Nashville, he responded, "Yeah, I do. I'm not going to put all that weight on my shoulders specifically."
"I think the organization has done a good job of doing that. If that means me going in there and helping that and being a role model to young kids, then that's what it is."
As for Nurse, he could have the impact on black Canadian kids that former Calgary Flames superstar Jarome Iginla has since the late 1990s.
Iginla is one of the finest professionals in sports and plays the game hard as a power forward, but he also plays it cleanly and fairly. He has inspired a generation of black kids in Canada with his ability to play at a high level, display incredible class on and off the ice and immerse himself in the community by helping local charities.
In a 2005 interview with Mike Brophy of The Hockey News (via ESPN), Iginla talked about helping minorities realize they can be successful hockey players.
Yeah, I'm proud to be a black NHL player. I have had parents of children who are minorities tell me their kids really look up to me and that makes me proud. It's an honor. I had my picture taken with Grant Fuhr in our baseball uniforms when I was nine and it meant so much for me.
Kids would say to me there are no black players in the NHL and I would say, "Are you kidding me? Look at Grant Fuhr winning those Stanley Cups." I want kids, no matter what their nationality or background, to dream big and think it's possible. Don't think about race, just go out and follow their dream.
Nurse is a well-mannered kid, one who could play a major role in helping black Canadians embrace the sport. Even though the 18-year-old is a defenseman and Iginla is a winger, both are great skaters, play a physical game, excel on the power play and don't hesitate to drop the gloves. They each play a style of hockey that is exciting and fair. Their playing style makes it easy for fans to like and respect them.
Jones and Nurse have not only taken similar paths to the NHL as first-round picks, they will also set a fine example for black kids to follow both on and off the ice. The NHL has grown into a diverse league full of players from many different backgrounds, and it has helped make the product more enjoyable than ever.
As the NHL's impressive growth continues, Jones and Nurse will be at the forefront of the league's impact on helping minorities discover what makes hockey an amazing sport to play.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was also a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Follow Nick on Twitter for live updates from the 2013 NHL draft on June 30. All quotes obtained firsthand.