Nashville newcomer Ryan Jones no distant cousin
Relative of John Tonelli is 'lost for words' about his quick entry to NHL
Ryan Jones grew up in small-town Chatham, Ont., with many of the same hopes and dreams as millions of other young Canadians.
First and foremost, he wanted to play in the National Hockey League.
But it wasn't until high school, while serving detention, that Jones decided to make a serious push to follow the ice path blazed by his cousin John Tonelli, a four-time Stanley Cup champion with the New York Islanders who retired as a player in the early 1990s.
"I looked up, and on the wall was one of those posters they put up in every school that says only one in every 125,000 people become a professional athlete," Jones, 24, told CBCSports.ca on the line from Nashville. "I remember thinking, 'Way to try to smush everyone's dreams … I'm going to do my best.'"
Well, Jones's best has landed the rookie left-winger a spot on the Nashville Predators' 23-man roster for Friday's season opener in St. Louis.
Not bad for a guy who a year ago began his fourth and final season as captain of the Miami University Redhawks in Oxford, Ohio, and ended the campaign in the American Hockey League, playing four regular-season games and four playoff contests with the Minnesota Wild's affiliate in Houston.
However, Jones's NHL dreams were nearly shattered over the summer following arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder to have a torn labrum repaired.
"It's definitely been extreme highs and the surgery was a fairly extreme low because they [doctors] didn't know if I was going to play again," said Jones, who was traded to Nashville on July 1 along with a 2009 second-round draft pick for high-scoring defenceman Marek Zidlicky. "It was pretty severe.
"They said I was going to lose a lot of range of motion, and how that was going to affect my shooting ability and stickhandling ability was up to me and how much effort I put into [rehabilitation] this summer. I wanted to still play hockey, obviously."
Big opportunity to make Predators
So, the six-foot-one, 207-pounder soon began a training regimen that included numerous stretching exercises and light weights to get himself in shape for his first main NHL camp in early September.
Jones was presented with a great opportunity to stick with the Predators, given the long-term injuries to forwards Steve Sullivan and Jed Ortemeyer, along with Alexander Radulov's decision to sign with a Russian team in the off-season while still under contract to Nashville.
He impressed head coach Barry Trotz and his assistants early in camp with his willingness to go to the tough areas on the ice and take punishment in front of the net while remaining in position for scoring opportunities.
"I knew right away the coaches were going to test whether I was able to play a high number of games in a short period of days," said Jones, a finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as the top player in U.S. college hockey last season. "I played five games in six days, so it was a matter of being consistent and not change the way I play.
"I was really happy [with my performance] and surprised myself with the speed that I was making decisions. You get a puck and there's a guy right on top of you. You have to make the play at that time, whereas in college you could take a couple of strides."
As camp wore on, Jones gained confidence and realized his game suited the NHL style of play. He finished the exhibition season with a goal, three points and plus-1 rating in five games.
"They always say that a guy who's willing to go to the hard areas [on the ice] is somebody every team needs and every team wants," said Jones, who scored 90 goals and 147 points in four years at Miami University. "I'm kind of that guy. That's been my game my whole life.
"When I came into camp … it gave me a lot of confidence and eased my mind that I wasn't going to have to make a huge transition in my game to make it to the next level.
"One thing I have always taken pride in is that I play with a lot of heart. What you lack in other areas you can tend to make up when you have a lot of heart," added Jones, who attempted to secure Tonelli's No. 27 but instead will wear No. 28.
It's that heart along with a strong work ethic, determination and intensity on the ice that Jones believes is in his blood.
For parts of three decades, Tonelli was an energetic power forward and consistent scoring threat, finishing his 15-year NHL career with 836 points in 1,028 regular-season games.
"If [Jones] turns out to be John Tonelli, we'll be very happy," Predators general manager David Poile told CBCSports.ca.
Jones expects to begin the season in a checking role for Nashville, but could see some spot duty on one of the power-play units.
"He's played pretty high [on the depth chart] in some pre-season games and in practice he's been playing first, second, third and fourth line," said Poile, whose interest in Jones became more serious in the player's final two years at the collegiate level.
"It's an 82-game schedule and we've got a number of young players on our team, so I'm sure there will be a lot of opportunities to move up and down in our lineup based on how an individual plays.
"And Ryan, being a young player, he'll have to be open-minded to the coach's thought process from game to game."
If Jones remains with the big club, he will earn $625,000 US on a one-year contract.
"I'm still somewhat lost for words on how I managed to have a good enough camp to be here without experiencing too much of the minors," Jones said.
"But it's not over yet. I'm on a two-way contract so at any point, a couple of bad games, [and a demotion] comes back into the picture. Consistency is the big thing."
So far, that has been the least of Jones's worries.