Two months before the NHL draft, Jack Hughes is sitting at the dining room table in his family’s home in Canton, Mich. A continuous loop of the NHL Network is playing on the big-screen TV in the family room just a few feet away, where his father Jim is relaxing in a recliner. “First five picks in 2013. Go!” Jim says. “OK. MacKinnon, Barkov, Drouin, Jones…” Jack replies, stuck on No. 5. “If you give me the team, I think I can get it,” he says. He’s told it’s Carolina. “Oh yeah, then it’s Lindholm. And Monahan sixth, right?”
There are some people who were put on Earth to play hockey. Jack Hughes is one of them. One of the first photos of Hughes is of a chubby, bald, 12-day-old baby in a Detroit Red Wings jumper sitting in the Turner Cup. A few years later, when Jim was an AHL assistant coach in Manchester, Jack would quietly sit in his seat and eat popcorn, enraptured with what was going on in front of him the way most toddlers are possessed by Sesame Street. As a youngster growing up in Toronto, he would tag along with his father on scouting trips and diligently write notes in a hardcover book about the players he watched. When he was old enough to take part in the family’s fantasy draft, he would dress in a suit and walk around telling people he’d be a GM in the NHL one day. He even made his own business cards.
Born in the U.S. and assembled in Canada, Jack has been on the path to stardom from the time he could walk. There was no escaping it. Jim played defense for four seasons at Providence College, captaining the Friars in his senior year. According to Jack, legendary USA Hockey coach Ben Smith once referred to Jim as “the biggest hack of all-time, like the dirtiest player, but then he said he was a really good player, too, and a good puck-mover.” Jack’s mother, Ellen, is in the University of New Hampshire’s Sports Hall of Fame for both hockey and soccer. She played for Team USA at the 1992 Women’s World Championship and, along with Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney, was named to the all-tournament team on defense. (Her silver medal from that tournament went to the Massachusetts Sports Hall of Fame but has since gone missing.) William Nylander lived with the family for a month when he first came to play in North America and often took Jack and the other Hughes brothers, Quinn and Luke, out on the ice to do drills. “We still do them,” Jack says. “We call them ‘Willy drills.’ ” In Jake Gardiner’s Twitter profile, his bio photo shows the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman on the ice at the 2014 Winter Classic at the University of Michigan, flanked by Jack and his two brothers.
Hockey is all over Jack’s DNA, beginning with his father. After winning the International League’s Turner Cup as an assistant coach with Orlando in 2001 (the IHL’s final year), Jim moved his family to Boston and then Manchester for assistant coaching gigs, and finally to Toronto in 2006, when then-Leafs GM John Ferguson Jr., an ex-teammate at Providence, hired him as an assistant coach with the Toronto Marlies. (Jim later became the Leafs’ director of player personnel before being fired in 2015.) The family settled in Toronto for the better part of a decade. There, Jim presided over all three of his sons’ minor hockey careers in the Greater Toronto Hockey League, as well as spring hockey, and exposed them to the best on- and off-ice resources in the world. There are photos of all three boys outside on what they call the ‘ODR,’ or outdoor rink, with Jim leading them in drills, every one with a purpose. So, clearly, Jack is one of those rare few who was born to play hockey, right? “I don’t know what I think about that,” Jack says. “I feel like I could be successful in a lot of things. I love playing baseball. I was a pretty good baseball player, and if I put as much time as I did into hockey into golf, I could be a pretty good golfer. If I wanted to do something smart, I could probably do that, too.”
Hockey world, meet Jack Hughes, uber-modern athlete and one of the most laidback teenagers you’ll ever meet. If he’s feeling the pressure of being the top prospect for the 2019 NHL draft and likely the future of the New Jersey Devils, there isn’t a single crack in his facade that would suggest that’s the case. When talk of the upcoming draft lottery arises at the dining room table, he picks up his phone to start searching for a draft-lottery simulator website. “Let’s do it!” he says. “What’s it called? Screw it, why not?” Then he gets giddy as he goes through it 10 times. (For the record, the Devils won three times.) What kind of teenager does that?
Hughes is a player the NHL needs. And he’s more than ready to become the first player to jump from USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program directly to the NHL. Patrick Kane, Auston Matthews and Jack Eichel would’ve been the first, second and third, but all three are late birthdays, so they had to spend their draft years playing elsewhere. When it comes to comparisons, Hughes falls in that netherworld of prospects. He’s not considered a generational talent in the Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid sense, but he’s not far off. Picture Kane playing center, and that’s as close as you’re going to get to putting a label on Hughes. Like Kane, he’s immensely skilled and fast. And even though he’s a little undersized, Hughes is about to enter a league where players who like to carry the puck can skate through the neutral zone without fear of having their heads taken off. “To me, Hughes could be superior to every other (draft-eligible) player in every skill attribute,” said TSN scouting director Craig Button. “The only thing he’s not better than other players with is his shot, which can be improved. But there’s no other area of the game where he’s not better than every player, in my view. He’s better than everybody.”
And it’s been that way for a few years now. Those who follow the game have known about Hughes since his days as a minor hockey phenom in Toronto. In his final year of midget – a year he played at that level because Hockey Canada denied him exceptional-player status to play in the OHL as a 15-year-old – he had 58 goals and 159 points in 80 games. He’s more likely to pass than shoot, and his speed and smarts set him apart from his peers. His array of offensive talents even prompted a “Lose for Hughes” campaign, which the Devils won in early April. One day, teammate Matthew Boldy showed up at the team’s training base at the USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich., wearing a “Lose for Hughes” T-shirt with the ‘O’ replaced by a USA Hockey logo. A company in Buffalo was distributing the shirt, but as confident as he is, Hughes wasn’t about to add one to his wardrobe. “I just feel like that would be super cocky,” he says.
Hughes has been the unanimous projected No. 1 selection for most of the season, save for a blip around the World Junior Championship when he was playing hurt and was limited to four assists in four games. Finnish phenom Kaapo Kakko, meanwhile, scored the winner in the gold-medal game against Team USA. Hughes had an assist in that game, but the sense was that Kakko’s performance had narrowed the gap between them. Kakko has three inches and 23 pounds on Hughes, and not only did he spend 2018-19 playing against men, he excelled against them, with 38 points in 45 SM-liiga games. His 22 goals broke Aleksander Barkov’s record for goals by an 18-year-old. But do you want to talk about records? Going into the world under-18 championship, Hughes had already set the NTDP’s all-time points record, a mark that had previously been held by Kane, then Phil Kessel, then Clayton Keller. His 197 points were 30 more than Matthews and 58 ahead of Jack Eichel’s numbers with the program. Hughes also holds the single-season mark for assists and is second in points (see pg. 21 sidebar).
Led by Hughes, the group of 2001-born American players on that team has blazed a trail that could end up with every single player being drafted in 2019. Every. Single. One. There could be as many as seven first-round picks from the team, one that also lays claim to the program’s all-time leading goal-scorer in Cole Caufield. “I’ve seen every iteration since Day 1, every single team since Day 1,” Button said. “This team, the 2001-borns, they’re the best team that has ever come through this program. They are unbelievable. Last year, five of their players from the U-17 team went up to the U-18 team and played prominent roles.”
Things are going swimmingly in the Hughes household when, all of a sudden, there’s a rumbling down the stairs and in walks Jack’s younger brother, Luke, confident and buoyant. At 15 years old, he’s all arms and legs at the moment, so he has a lot of filling out to do, but anyone who has seen him play claims he’s better than their oldest brother, Quinn, was at the same age. At 5-foot-11, he’ll also be the biggest of the three. Like his two brothers before him, Luke is off to the NTDP in the fall, where he’ll play for the next two years before going in the 2021 draft. If he goes in the top 32 (that will be Seattle’s first draft), the Hughes will become the second family to have three brothers picked in the first round. (Four of the six Sutter brothers were first-rounders in the late 1970s and early ’80s.) “Hey Luke, you want to come and sit over here, bud?” Jack asks. “Come on over here, big dog.”
There’s clearly an ironclad bond among the brothers, one that was forged on the ODR back in Mississauga, Ont., when Luke desperately tried to keep up with his siblings. Both Quinn and Jack were born in Orlando when their father was coaching there, and Luke was born in Canton just weeks before Jim started as an assistant coach with the Bruins. When their father was with the Leafs and the Marlies, the boys didn’t actually have tickets for the games but would show up early and go and stake out a spot in the standing room area with Kody Clark (the son of Leafs legend Wendel), who was drafted in the second round by the Washington Capitals in 2018. The Hughes brothers had every resource at their disposal wherever they went, but it was in the fresh air of Canada where they learned to exploit their talents. “You never get tired on an outdoor rink,” Jack said. “You hear a million people say that, but once you experience it, you realize, ‘Holy crap, it’s true.’ Being out there for hours, then going in and watching the Leafs games with my buddies at my house, probably eight or nine kids, and playing mini-sticks until we go to bed. It was always hockey, hockey, hockey.”
While Jack is speaking, Ellen approaches with her open laptop. She has some home movie footage of Jack to share. In one video, he’s a five-year-old playing against six-year-olds, wearing a Marlies helmet and using a pro stick. As he watches himself cut through his opponents with ridiculous ease, he makes an observation. “I look like Jack the Monkey,” he says, comparing himself to the star of the movie Most Valuable Primate.
We had an NHL coach in our house teaching us the game, going to our games, managing what we do, evaluating us and helping us out on and off the ice – Jack Hughes
It’s an exciting time for all three brothers. A couple nights earlier, Quinn appeared in his first NHL game with the Canucks and registered an assist, and Luke, who just finished training camp with the NTDP and made the under-17 roster, is days away from the OHL draft. In 2015, Quinn was taken in the third round, 49th overall, by the Sarnia Sting. Two years later, Jack would’ve gone first overall to the Barrie Colts, but he made it clear he wasn’t going to play junior hockey. That didn’t prevent the Mississauga Steelheads from gambling on him with their first-round selection. Ellen jokes that with their record of spurning the OHL, teams will have gotten the message and Luke will go a lot lower in the draft than his brothers. “That was like Christmas morning for me, man,” says Jack of being picked in the OHL draft. “I went eighth overall. Early morning for me.” He then turns his sights directly on his younger brother and says, “Dude, if you don’t get drafted, 15 rounds, man. Oh my god, you’d better re-evaluate your sport.”
Undaunted, Luke endures the ribbing. (And for the record he does get drafted – eventually. Despite having first-round talent, Luke falls all the way to the 14th round, 281st overall, to the Saginaw Spirit.) After a while he excuses himself. “Nice meeting you,” he says. “But I’m going to rip some ‘Chel.’ ” For the uninitiated, that means he’s going to play some NHL 19. Until he discovers that Alex Turcotte, the son of ex-NHLer Alfie Turcotte and Jack’s teammate on the NTDP who lives with the family, has gone to visit his grandfather and taken the console with him.
Easy is a relative term. When it comes to Jack Hughes, he knows he’s been afforded a lot of advantages that other kids go without. Like any elite player, though, he has combined his physical gifts with both his opportunities and his passion for the game to get where he is. There have been a fair number of sacrifices. On this day, he and Luke are sitting in their house watching the NHL Network because Jack’s season is still going on and Luke is about to play in the USA Hockey national championships. They’re doing that instead of going somewhere for spring break, something they’ve never done in their lives. “Growing up in this house just made all of this really kinda easy,” Jack says. “I mean, growing up has been really easy, and the hockey side has been easy because my parents have been through the same experiences.”
It’s a household where Jack is actually the outlier. Jim played defense in college, as did Ellen, and both Quinn and Luke patrol the blueline. But Jack is a center. He only played defense once, in an elementary school tournament in Toronto alongside Luke. When you have an undersized kid with the puck skills Jack has, that’s not somebody you want to put on defense. And while everyone in the Hughes household has played a part in getting Jack to where he is, Jack brings it all back to his father. “I always say none of us would be here without (him),” Jack says. “He was telling a 12-year-old me the same thing he was telling a 21-year-old prospect. We had an NHL coach in our house teaching us the game, going to our games, managing what we do, evaluating us and helping us out on and off the ice. When we’d be watching a game, the first period would take an hour-and-a-half, just from rewinding every play. It’s still like that a little bit, but it was awesome.”
Part of what makes Hughes so special is that his upbringing has left him undaunted. He’s been interacting with adults all his life, many of whom occupy NHL teams’ executive offices and hold the levers of power in the pro ranks. No wonder the kid is so confident. Nothing about the journey he’s about to embark upon intimidates him. He said he was more nervous during his OHL draft year than he has been this season. When you’re 15, he says, you’re worried about how many Instagram followers you have. Having just turned 18 in May, this season has been all about staying more balanced and just going out and playing the games. “That’s really the only thing you gotta do,” he says. “Every player in the NHL deals with it. I mean, they’re getting paid, and they have to live up to what they’re getting paid.”
That day will come when the NHL drops the puck for the first game next season. Jack Hughes will no longer be on the outdoor rinks or playing mini-sticks in the basement with his brothers. He’ll no longer have the protective cocoon that has enveloped him for all of his hockey-playing life, and the father who was always in the front seat of the car will be hundreds of miles away. But you get the sense he’ll be just fine. He’s been preparing for this all his life.
WE’RE GONNA NEED A BIGGER SHELF
Hughes’ list of accomplishments from 2017 to 2019 runs deep:
> U-17 Worlds: All-Star Team
> U-17 Worlds: Gold Medal
> U-17 Worlds: Most Assists (10)
> U-17 Worlds: Most Points (15)
> 2017-18 USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year
> U-18 Worlds: All-Star Team
> U-18 Worlds: Best Forward
> U-18 Worlds: Most Points (12)
> U-18 Worlds: Most Valuable Player
> U-18 Worlds: Gold Medal (He is currently in the middle of the U18s)
> U-18 Worlds: Silver Medal