Topher Jones’ passion for preserving the outdoors and wildlife is only trumped by his love of hockey.
The member of the Idaho Jr. Steelheads 14U youth team is taking a few days away from his effort to save salmon from going extinct so he can compete in the Chipotle-USA Hockey Youth Tier II 14U National Championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., with his teammates.
Jones, who is an eighth grader, founded the Lonesome Larry Project in October 2019.
“I’ve always really cared about the outdoors and it’s always just been something special,” Jones said. “Sometimes I go hiking with my family and we go camping and stuff, and when I look around I realize how important the outdoors is to me. When I learned about how salmon and other fish species were being threatened in the northwest, I thought that I needed to do something about it.”
While in one of his middle school classes, Jones learned how salmon and steelhead make a roughly 900-mile trip from the mountains of Idaho and Canada to the Pacific Ocean. After a few years, the fish head back up north. In 1992, instead of hundreds or thousands of sockeye salmon returning to Redfish Lake in Idaho, only one made it back. That salmon was nicknamed “Lonesome Larry.”
Jones came up with the idea to sell salmon-themed socks and a few other items to raise money for the Idaho Fish & Wildlife Foundation. To date, Jones has donated $30,000. Purchases can be made on Jones’ website: lonesomelarryproject.com.
“I really did not think it would come this far, although I’m really happy that it did,” Jones said. “My goal is to keep it growing and to go as far as possible to save the salmon. My view on the problem is that if something doesn’t get done, these fish are going to go extinct, so we might as well try and help.”
Topher’s dad, Gordon Jones — who is also a Jr. Steelheads coach — has helped his son with the project. But it’s taken on a life of its own.
“I’m really proud of him,” he said. “Topher’s definitely kind of the outdoorsman in the family, and that kind of led to his project that he’s been doing.”
In 2021, Topher Jones was named the Youth Conservationist of the Year by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. He’s also earned a number of other awards relating to his project.
“It was really special to me when I was named that, although when I got awarded that it just reminds me that there’s still more to do,” Jones said.
JR. STEELHEADS ROLL INTO NATIONALS
Topher Jones and his teammates haven’t experienced Nationals before, so the guys are loving every minute of their trip to Michigan.
The players hail from the Treasure Valley community where it’s a tight-knit culture on and off the ice.
“It’s a community where everybody knows each other,” coach Jones said. “It’s not sort of a barnstorming team. That’s fun to come with the kids you go to school with or you’re going to see every weekend. Again, we’re a small enough market that these kids see each other outside of that as well.”
To advance to Nationals, the Jr. Steelheads knocked off Coeur d’Alene Hockey Academy twice — 1-0 in overtime and 3-1 — in a best-of-three series that took place in February. In their only head-to-head, regular-season meeting, Coeur d’Alene beat the Jr. Steelheads, 4-1. Avenging that loss was huge.
“I’m really proud of the boys,” coach Jones said. “I think for us it’s being able to showcase hockey coming out of Idaho. I love the fact that this game is everywhere, and I think a lot of people think of traditional hockey hotbeds and places like Idaho where we’re playing good hockey. I think the kids have been really excited to qualify out of Idaho and ultimately come and face teams from places and geographies we don’t normally travel to.”
The Jr. Steelheads entered Nationals with a record of 13-16-4, which could be a little deceiving. The team started the season 2-9-1 with a challenging schedule against a stretch of good teams.
“We play a bunch of AAA teams, and the beginning of the year was all about a growth curve,” coach Jones said. “We finished 10-1 and made a great run to come to Nationals. This team kind of turned a corner in January, really gelling. To me, it was a season of sort of growing up to this level for some players and for other players it was being leaders. I would call it a momentum play, this season.”
Topher Jones said the team turned it on late in the season after players became better acclimated with one another.
“It was a strange year, because we had had some guys on the team that some of us had never played with before, so it took us a while to get used to playing with each other,” he said. “Eventually, we started playing more as a team instead of playing as individuals.”
Even though the Jr. Steelheads dropped their first game at nationals, 3-2, to the Maine Gladiators on March 31, coach Jones is encouraged about his team’s chances.
“We do believe we can do some damage in this tournament, so to speak,” he said. “From my standpoint, honestly, we’re coming here to win and have a great time. We’ll stop and celebrate the season with whatever happens, but the kids are having fun, playing loose.
“We think anything is possible. It would not be a miracle if we did well.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.