Ty Jones is still smiling over the neighborhood feeling of his international debut.
There he was in Helsinki, Finland, with the world as a stage and the kid from back home standing next to him.
When Jones lined up with Team USA at the World Junior Tournament over Christmas, he was sharing one of those can-this-really-be-happening-to-us moments with one of his closest friends from Eagle River, Alaska.
Jones and Scott Gomez of the Western Hockey League Tri-City Americans, teammates with Team USA, go back nine years - half a lifetime to them - to a time when both were just getting serious about hockey.
Rivals at first, friends and teammates later, they twice finished second with their teams at age-group nationals. The game eventually became a highway out to a future they’re still defining.
Their commonality, aside from their Alaskan roots, is a taste for playing hard on and off the ice. “We’re wild men when we’re together,” Jones said.
“Hockey has taken me so many places,” he said. “Gomez and I talk about it. I’d be on the streets of Alaska someplace right now. Instead, I’ve been drafted (in the first round by the Chicago Black Hawks.) The Chiefs are playing for the M.C. (Memorial Cup) this year. Gomez and I went to Finland with USA. We’ve done stuff at our age that people don’t do in their whole lifetimes.”
With a face-splitting grin, Ty Jones - the Spokane Chiefs’ 18-year-old forward with the two maple tree trunks for legs - is going through the chairs of development, milking as much fun from it as he can.
The World Junior Tournament, as he explains it, was a harsh lesson in the benefits of home cooking. The Finns, it seems, won the gold before the home crowd while everybody else struggled with the menu.
“The food in Finland was the worst,” the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Jones said. “We had whale one day. I think it was whale. If I came back leaner I’ve gained it back at McDonald’s.”
The cholesterol-deprived Americans who were new to the U.S. program learned something else in Helsinki - the quick shift from North American style to international hockey.
“We go over there, throw it in and go crush guys,” Jones said. “There’s a lot more stick-handling stuff over there. There’s more holding. Lots of screens and picks. The puck’s on your stick more. You’re passing a lot more.
“They called almost everything over there, except interference,” he added. “It’s pretty much power play/penalty kill the whole time. There are a lot of dives from Europeans, trying to get penalties called.”
Jones learned to deal with the acting jobs, and in the attack zone the frustration of trying too hard to score one for your country.
“I had a couple goals called back, but I missed a lot of chances,” said Jones, who had one assist in seven games. “My whole line did. It was a learning experience. We’ll go back with a lot more confidence.”
The prevailing theory is that players return to the Western Hockey League better for the worldly experience.
Actually, the strength of competition isn’t that much steeper, Jones said.
“Hopefully, I’m a better player. But how much better can you get in a couple of weeks?” he said. “If I’m a better player, that’s awesome, but right now I don’t know. I’ll find out in a couple of weeks.”
Experience pays off
In his first start back from the tournament - a 4-2 win at home over Portland - he seemed to play with greater patience. His hands seemed just a little softer, his anticipation heightened just a bit.
“Maybe I picked up a little of the European game,” he shrugged. “Maybe I picked up some patience. Hopefully, I have.”
As for the U.S. in next year’s World Juniors, “We have a good group coming back,” he said. “My linemates were Gomez and David Legwand from the OHL. They put us together maybe thinking about next year. I think we can win it.”
Experience does count a bunch. Beating Canada was the highlight of Jones’ tournament.
“You could hear the Canadians all the time in the locker room,” he said. “The Canadian guys (with the Chiefs) always give me crap. They sent me a fax.”
It read, “It’s not bad to finish second.” The meaning was clear. Team Canada would rule again.
It didn’t. Canada - a disappointing eighth - lost to the U.S. 3-0. The U.S. team wound up in fifth place.
“Everybody wrote on that fax except Benny (Johnson, a Minnesota native),” Jones said. “It’s nice coming back with braggin’ rights for the year.”
The U.S. team came on late.
“We started to learn the systems,” Jones said. “There are so many systems you have to learn in a short time. We were thinking so much that we weren’t winning. By the end of the tournament we were playing pretty well, but by then we were out of it.”
Playing as a team
Nationalism ends when the Chiefs uniform comes on, Jones said.
“It doesn’t matter where you’re from - Slovakia, Canada, the U.S. We’re a team. When Slovakia beat us at the World Juniors, Cisar (Spokane’s Marian Cisar) had a great game. I was pumped. I was really happy for him. He’s on my (WHL) team - he’s my liney (linemate) - and in that game he was on fire. Everything that hit his stick went into the net, it seemed like.
“Some of our (Team USA) guys from college didn’t know who Cisar or (Marian) Hossa (of the Portland Winter Hawks) were. As a team we overlooked them and got our butts kicked because of it.”
Former Spokane forward Yegor Mikhailov - the most severely injured of the Chiefs in last January’s crash of the team bus - was in Helsinki, winning a silver medal.
“I was hearing that there was this guy on the Russian team wearing Chiefs stuff,” Jones said. “Guys wanted to know who he was. It was Eags. We had to go over the old times. His English is still so good. I couldn’t tell if there was a scar on his face anymore. When they beat us by one with like 30 seconds left, he got the game-winning assist.”
Jones looks like he regularly squats dump trucks, but looks are deceiving.
“I hardly ever pick up a weight,” he said. “I lifted for about a month last spring before the draft, but they started flying me in for stuff and I just had to shut her down. Right after that we got into training, where you pretty much play hockey and more hockey.
“I’ve had about four weeks’ weight training my whole life. My strength is natural. This summer I’ll work on it.”
Games and experiences are beginning to blur.
“Everything’s flying by,” said Jones. All this NHL talk still blows my mind. I’ve always dreamed of it, going back to when I was like 3 years old. Now that it’s starting to become a reality, everything is going so fast you sometimes want to put your life on hold for a while.”
The draft - like lining up at the World Juniors with your best friend - was a moment to re-live.
“It’s like you go blank,” Jones said. “Being drafted, having your named called and going on the stage, I’m surprised I didn’t pass out on ESPN. At least I didn’t fall over. I always wondered what they were doing there, right after they get drafted, talking on the phones. I finally found out.
“I was talking to every reporter in Chicago, it seemed like.”
Jones is not among the half-dozen Chiefs who were selected to the WHL all-star game, even though there can’t be six players who make more of a difference for the Chiefs from night to night than Ty Jones.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’m happy for the older guys who get the chance. Like Greg Leeb. He and Trent Whitfield are (among the forwards) really deserving. We have six guys going. I’m happy for all of them. They’ve been in the league longer, they deserve it.”
Diplomacy aside, Jones at the all-star break gets “to go home and see the boys in Alaska.
“Go have some fun,” he said. “The all-star game is a fun game but I need a break.”
What will the guys just recently out of Chugiak High School think of Jones, now? How much has success changed him?
“They’ll think I’m the same Ty,” Jones said. “We still talk on the phone all the time, most of the guys. My phone bill is outrageous. Maybe they’ll see me as different, but I hope they don’t treat me any differently.
“I’m the same guy. I’m nothin’ yet.”
He’s already looking forward to next year’s World Junior Tournament in Manitoba.
“It’s not that far from home,” Jones said. “Like I said, I think we have a chance to win it.
“I know one thing. The food will be better.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Color Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: On ice Ty Jones by the numbers: Games: 33 Goals: 17 Assists: 24 Points: 41 PM: 101