Hockey takes a back seat for Senators as assistant coach Bob Jones battles ALS

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Hockey teams are families, and the family is hurting from the news that assistant coach Bob Jones has been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Jones, 53, is working his fourth season as the Senators’ “eye-in-the-sky” coach and a gifted mentor to Senators players. He first noticed physical symptoms in November and following a series of tests, the ALS diagnosis was confirmed last month.

While players have known about the situation for weeks, the club went public with the news on Tuesday, at Jones’ courageous request, in the hope that it may help others dealing with ALS, or facilitate more medical research. Jones will continue to work with the Senators but is free to take “any time he needs away from the club during the season to concentrate on his health and his family,” as general manager Pierre Dorion noted in a statement.

In the off-season, Jones lives in Tecumseh, On., near Windsor, with his wife, Paige. They have two children – Blake and Brianna.

“It’s tough, you know,” said Senators head coach D.J. Smith. “I’ve coached with him for years, at Windsor (OHL Spitfires), known him for a long time. Players love him.

“He’s just a guy that has cared about players for decades.”

Born in Sault Ste Marie, Jones played defence for the Soo Greyhounds for four seasons in the late 1980s before a brief career in the minors. Quickly he transitioned to the coaching profession and was in the OHL for more than 20 seasons including a stint with the Spitfires as head coach (2010-11), with Smith as his assistant. Before and after that season, Jones spent seven other seasons in Windsor as an associate coach. The Spitfires won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009-10.

It was Smith who recommended Jones for the Oshawa Generals head coaching job in 2015, a gig he held for three seasons. In 2017, Jones nearly died from a burst colon. He recovered and joined the Dallas Stars organization for a year as an assistant coach with the AHL Texas Stars, in 2018-19.

He didn’t hesitate to join Smith’s staff in the summer of 2019.

“Me and D.J. worked well together and have a strong relationship,” Jones told the Sault Star. “Not just as coaches, but as friends.”

Brent Burns, Joe Thornton, Marc Staal, Ryan Ellis, Adam Henrique and Cam Fowler are just a few of the players Jones coached along the way.

“Every guy who came across him realized – he’s a funny guy, but he really does care about the players,” Smith said.

Long before anyone heard of a mental skills coach, Jones was practicing the trade. He has an innate ability to relate to players on a human level, aside from the daily Xs and Os of the sport. Jones was the coach to tell Smith about the impact on a player being scratched and when the timing seemed right to get him back in the lineup; the guy with the larger-than-life personality who could always crack a smile on a player’s face, even if he was struggling.

Though Smith himself is known as a players’ coach, Jones is the one players could talk to about anything – hockey or life, with that special bond certain assistant coaches have. Jones had more stories about his life in the game than Ovechkin has goals.

“Everyone loves hockey,” Smith says, “but the part everyone misses when they’re done playing is the camaraderie, the joking around. And he’s been able to do that with players in a non-stressful way.”

Captain said Jones had players in stitches by not being able to remember anyone’s first name.

“The first couple of years, he was not very good at first names so he just wanted the new guys to go by their last name,” Tkachuk said. “You’d ask (who someone’s name was) and he’s like – ‘I got no clue.’”

More seriously, Tkachuk said Jones was a massive help to his individual development in his first couple of years in the NHL.

Now, Jones working through his illness is inspirational to an emotional player like Tkachuk.

“It just kind of makes us want to leave it all out there,” Tkachuk said, “because we think, you know, a loss or a bad game is the end of the world but there’s people in life that are going through way harder things. The fact he wants to be here every step of the way and see all of us as a group and organization accomplish our dreams – it just says a lot about the person he is and how much he cares about the team and the players in the locker room.”

Veteran Senators winger Austin Watson is working alongside Jones for a second time. The two were in Windsor together from 2008-2010, with Jones behind the bench as an associate coach.

“Jonesy is always there for the players, no questions asked,” Watson says. “He’s the guy that I go to when my game’s not going good. Mentally, you get in a rut and he has such a great outlook on life and the game.

“To have him bear something like that (ALS), it hurts and you feel pretty shitty,” Watson adds. “But for us as the group here, all we can do is be supportive and try to bring a good attitude.”

Being around the team will help Jones’ mental health, Smith says.

No cure for ALS

According to the Mayo Clinic, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis is a progressive disease of the nervous system that impacts nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. There is no known cause, although heredity can play a factor.

The first signs of ALS are muscle twitching and weakness in a limb, or slurred speech. Ultimately, ALS affects control of the muscles needed to move, speak, eat and breathe. There is no cure for this fatal disease.

Calgary Flames executive Chris Snow, 41, has been battling ALS for three years in a very public way. On social media, Snow’s wife, Kelsie, has provided fascinating insights into the family’s experience with ALS, including tender moments and medical triumphs, mixed with sudden trips to the hospital where Snow recently needed a ventilator to breathe. Incredibly, he rebounded and returned home.

As much as possible, Snow has continued to work with the Flames and last June received a standing ovation at the NHL Awards Show.

The Senators will honour Jones and his cause in some way, possibly including patches on their jerseys or helmet, Tkachuk said.

Puts game in perspective

Jones’ illness is just another example of the human condition taking precedence over a sport we treat as life and death in this country. Out of respect for Jones, there were no hockey questions asked of Smith or the players on Tuesday – concern over the assistant coach was the only topic discussed.

“It makes you appreciate what you’re doing in life on a day-to-day basis,” Watson said. “You know, you go through some tough stretches, especially in this industry, and it seems so doom and gloom, so catastrophic. You lose a couple of games in a row.

“But here’s Jonesy coming to work, having to deal with something that’s a really shitty situation, and it makes you think. Hopefully, perspective changes . . . and if anything we can see an opportunity to try to enjoy every day.”

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