Blair Jones baptized under fire

By Corine Gatti

After practice, Blair Jones was scheduled to give a local television crew a tour of his beach rental. It was going to be a rendition of MTV’s Cribs, a show that gives tours of celebrity homes and mansions. On that day, the center would be giving a walk-through in front of the cameras to give fans an idea how he lives, and what he is like off the ice. It seemed like an easy-going day. But that was not always the case for the Admirals center. Like most players aiming for the NHL, the walk to stardom is more of a crawl at best.

“The issue with all kids is that you gradually want increase ice time from maybe 12 to 15 minutes or you run the risk of them failing and becoming discouraged,” said Norfolk head coach Steve Stirling. “But I am a firm believer of baptism under fire. Jonesy has done very well under pressure. He’s has the No. 1 role in the power-play, and is playing 25 minutes a game.” 

The 21-year-old was pushed again into the spotlight this season when veteran center Craig MacDonald was called up by the Tampa Bay Lightning.  He split time ice with Adam Henrich.

Exposure to the spotlight came early. When most kids his age were buried in sports video games, 16-year-old Blair Jones was striving to prove himself worthy of a career in the Western Hockey League in 2002. In his rookie season with the Red Deer Rebels, the youngster started out at a slow pace. In 37 games, the Craik, Saskatchewan native recorded seven points. The following year, he posted 31 points in 72 games. At the time, he was under the direction of coach Brent Sutter.

“I learned a lot from Brent, he was a good player in the NHL. He had high expectations and he tried to pass that onto his players,” said Jones, who parted company with his coach because of a mid-season trade in 2004-05.

At the time, it was speculated that the Sutter was not happy with the prospect’s inconsistencies and personal deficiencies on and off the clock. Rumors surfaced that the youth was lackadaisical, and that was the reason for his eventual trade to Moose Jaw.  But the center vehemently denied any rumors that there was a conflict between the two at the time, and shrugged his shoulders with pragmatic restraint. Regardless of the reason that surrounded the trade, he finished his last 39 games with the Rebels and recorded 25 points. Although he would not admit that he did not enjoy time in Red Deer, he concurred that he was happier with the new organization, particularly when talking about the final season.  The town of Moose Jaw is about 92 miles northeast from his birthplace in Central Butte. It was not quite home, but the combination of playing on the top forward line in Red Deer and a more all-around comfortable setting paid dividends.

“It was a little more laidback atmosphere. I felt that every night that I was going to be one of the go-to guys. It was a good time and good hockey,” said Jones, who ended his stint with the Warriors by posting a career-high of 50 assists and 85 points. During that same 2005-06 season, he was the backbone of the power play, his agility helped to spark a team-high of 14 power-play goals. Jones just grins when he reflected on the evolving accomplishments over the last few years.

After signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the summer of 2006, Jones split time between Springfield of the American Hockey League and NHL. Last winter, Jones joined the Lightning for the first time, where he recorded three points in 20 games.

“That was a very surreal experience going to the NHL during my first year,” he said. “It was exciting to play against guys you watched growing up.”

After entering the AHL as a rookie with the Springfield Falcons last year, Jones was sixth in assists 16. After the affiliation change, he is in Norfolk. During the first half, he has been tested in defensive zone coverage — a test Stirling did not want to give, especially against the Philadelphia Phantoms.

“We were lean in the middle against Philadelphia, and I put Jonesy out there on the second line for three to seven minutes. I didn’t want to, but again, he did very well.”

Jones needs to improve on his shooting, passing, and stick-handling skills. Presently, he is winning key face-offs and playing better down low in the defensive zone. Moreover, he has succeeded playing on the top lines with veteran wingers Norm Milley and Karl Stewart. A few weeks ago, that line dominated offense and helped carve a way to a four-game winning streak. It could be a prelude of what will happen in Tampa Bay.

“I project that he will do very well in the NHL. He will be a third-line center and become one of the top six forwards,” said Stirling.

Recently, Jones earned the nomination for the RBK/AHL Player of the Week, when he recorded seven points in three games. Overall, he has notched 6 goals and 13 assists in 26 games this season. According to Stirling, he will continue to see the same amount of ice time or more in the New Year. 

“I was a late bloomer; I wasn’t the most mature kid when I started out at 16,” Jones said. “It has taken me a while to learn how to be successful at a certain level both professionally and in just in general. I’m still learning, but I’m happy that I’ve come such a long way, and I am ready to become a major contributor.”