It’s a sun-drenched Tuesday morning in mid-July, and the for-profit four-pad rink in suburban Toronto is not exactly buzzing. Just the diehards here at this time of year. But it’s also the part of the hockey calendar when boys and girls whose parents have a lot of money or a willingness to make big sacrifices (or both) begin to set themselves apart from their peers. At the entrance of the rink, an enormous sign that reads “SET GOALS, SCORE GOALS” is surrounded by notices from hockey camps and development groups that promise to deliver an advantage when it comes to speed and skill. Just outside the attached orthopedic clinic are brochures for a company that offers off-season tournaments, events such as May Madness and Summer Meltdown. This is where hockey is a 12-months-a-year pursuit, where children and young adults put in the work that – maybe, just maybe, if everything falls into place – will vault them to the top of their cohorts and carry them to their hockey dreams.
Jack and Quinn Hughes have been here before, and they’re still here in 2019. Even after their family moved to Michigan in 2017 so the boys could play with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, they’ve made the pilgrimage back to Toronto every summer to train. On this day, it’s with renowned NHL taskmaster Andy O’Brien, while the youngest, Luke, who will follow his older brothers into ‘The Program’ this fall, is training on the other side of town. After a morning in the gym and running hills, they’re working out on the ice while kids gather around the glass and point at the player in the New Jersey Devils development camp sweater before someone acknowledges the guy in the black jersey and says, “And that’s his brother!” After so many years of working so hard, this is close to becoming reality.
Aside from games on ‘the ODR’ – better known as the outdoor rink – Quinn and Jack have played against each other only once: last fall when they faced off for a game between the NTDP and the University of Michigan. Quinn moved up from defense so the pair could take the opening faceoff, then Jack put on a show with a goal and two assists in a 6-3 win. “I don’t really like playing against him, honestly,” Quinn said. “For two reasons. One, he’s really good, and two, I remember that Michigan game and wanting him to do well, and then he ended up having three points, and I was like, ‘S—.’ I wanted him to have a big night, and he did, but in the end, I was like, ‘Oh s—, he just beat us. That’s bad.’ ”
It’s not like we’re stepping into college hockey. It’s the National Hockey League. It’s going to be tough, but it’s exciting.
– Jack Hughes
But as Carl Spackler said to the miscreant gopher in Caddyshack, we’re playing for keeps now. No more exhibition tune-ups to help a middling college team prepare for the season. Separated by exactly 19 months to the day, six draft slots and 3,000 miles, Jack and Quinn will become one of a small number of non-twin brothers to embark on their rookie seasons in the same year. That means they’ll both be playing for the Calder Trophy, an award each has a realistic chance of winning. With five games and three assists already under his belt with the Canucks, Quinn has dipped his toes in the water and will likely quarterback Vancouver’s power play. Opportunities to have a meaningful impact will definitely be there. Jack, meanwhile, will likely be the youngest player in the NHL this season and the first to make a direct jump from The Program to The Show. The Hughes boys have been around the game all their lives. Their father, Jim, is a hockey lifer, having coached and worked in player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs before taking a job in player development with CAA, the mega-agency that represents Jack and Quinn. Jim’s job allowed his sons to grow up in Canada’s biggest city and play in the monolith that is the Greater Toronto Hockey League. They wore Marlies equipment when they were kids and were comfortable around NHL dressing rooms before they were teenagers. They played mini-sticks with Wendel Clark’s son and the children of other Leafs players in the team’s family room after games. That will make the transition to life in the NHL easier for both, but just because they were given the same intel as 12-year-olds that was being imparted to NHL rookies doesn’t mean it’s going to be any less daunting. “It’s not like we’re stepping into college hockey,” Jack said. “It’s the National Hockey League. It’s going to be tough, but it’s exciting. It’s what we’ve dreamed of. Best life in the world, to play in the NHL. It’s going to be awesome.”
As the two of them each tuck into an order of steak frites after their workout, the Hughes brothers are trying their best not to look the part of rich young men who are about to get a lot richer. If Jack hits all his performance bonuses, his annual salary during his entry-level contract will be $3.75 million, and it’ll be $1.6 million for Quinn if he does likewise. They do little to draw attention to themselves, but they’re also comfortable in their own skin. They joke with and about each other easily, and it’s plain to see there’s a transcendental bond between them, even if they’re loathe to admit it. “If I’m playing with him, I know where he’s going to be, because I’ve been watching him for 15 years,” Jack said. “I know what spots he goes to and stuff. But off the ice, like when we’re sitting on the couch, I have no idea what he’s thinking.”
There’s also a healthy amount of competition between them. Quinn is looking forward to showing up at the rink on game day with the Canucks at home and being able to watch his brother’s games before hitting the ice himself. The two haven’t paid close attention to the NHL schedules, or so they say. They know they play each other on Oct. 19, in an afternoon game in New Jersey, and again in a matinee on Nov. 10 in Vancouver. And Jack talks about how great it would be if both had their first goals out of the way by that time. “Maybe the best-case scenario, whoever plays first gets his first goal first.” Then with an impish grin, he added, “Eastern time is earlier, actually.”
Clearly, Jack has yet to realize the Canucks hit the ice in Edmonton on the league’s opening night on Oct. 2, two nights before the Devils play their season opener at home. When talking about his brother’s breathtaking skill set and his impact on the NTDP, Quinn acknowledges what many people believe: Jack is the most dynamic player the NTDP has ever produced. He scored 112 points last season and is the NTDP’s all-time leading scorer with 228. “Our leading scorer for the U-18s had 61 points, and we were sick,” Quinn said. “We went 27-3 in our last 30 games.” But then it’s pointed out that Quinn’s team won the World Under-18 Championship in its year, while Jack’s team, the most talented in the history of the program, rolled through the tournament before being shocked in the semifinal in a 3-2 shootout loss to Russia, where Jack lost the puck and didn’t get a shot off in his shootout attempt. “True,” Quinn said. “Yeah, we went 3-for-3 in tournaments that year.”
“Touchy subject,” Jack said.
• • •
Jack and Quinn enter their first full seasons in the NHL on teams that are still trying to find their identities. For Quinn’s Canucks, any illusion of a full-on rebuild under GM Jim Benning was laid to rest this summer. Despite having $9 million tied up in two overpaid fourth-liners, Loui Eriksson and Jay Beagle, the Canucks had plenty of cap space to work with and were aggressive in the off-season. They traded a first-round pick for J.T. Miller at the draft, signed Micheal Ferland in free agency to bolster their forward ranks and inked veteran defensemen Tyler Myers and Jordie Benn to strengthen their blueline. The moves will make them better in the short term but not good enough to seriously contend for a playoff spot. Into that comes Quinn, who will likely start the season on the left side of the second defense pair with Myers or Chris Tanev and work the blueline on the first power-play unit with right winger Brock Boeser. It’ll give Quinn ample opportunity to play a lot and put up points.
Maybe the best-case scenario, whoever plays first gets his first goal first.
– Jack Hughes
And here’s his younger brother’s scouting report: “Dynamic, runs a good PP,” Jack said. “Really good first pass out of the zone. He’s a one-man breakout, can break out himself. Entries, pull-ups, delays, doesn’t really dump the puck in, just skates the puck into the zone. Creates opportunities, really great defender, can play both the PP and the PK.”
Jack also enters an intriguing situation in his first year. The Devils are something of a mystery. They have an outstanding coach in John Hynes and a star left winger in Taylor Hall, just a year removed from his MVP season but also one year away from unrestricted free agency. New Jersey stunned the league by making the playoffs in 2017-18, way ahead of schedule, but fell way back to the pack last season, 49 games of which Hall spent on the injured list.
If the Canucks were bold in the off-season, the Devils were downright explosive. The day after taking Hughes first overall, GM Ray Shero acquired P.K. Subban for little more than futures, since the Devils were one of the few teams in a salary-cap position to absorb Subban’s $9 million for each of the next three seasons. Shero also signed Wayne Simmonds to a one-year deal and traded for big winger John Hayden, just in case, you know, a guy like Washington’s Tom Wilson gets any ideas about what he’d like to do to the Devils’ skill players.
With veteran Travis Zajac and third-year man Nico Hischier down the middle, Jack will have a better chance than Quinn to ease his way into the NHL. Does Jack go right to the top line with Hall and Simmonds as his linemates? It’s not unprecedented in New Jersey. Even though Hischier didn’t win the Calder Trophy as a rookie in 2017-18, he was instrumental in helping Hall win the Hart. If Hynes does go with a Hall-Hughes-Simmonds unit, that will be the first group that goes over the boards on the power play, with Subban and Will Butcher on the blueline.
And here is his older brother’s scouting report: “Dynamic, can create through the neutral zone, comes in with speed and can dance you if your gaps are bad,” Quinn said. “Can create in the zone. High cycles, can beat a guy 1-on-1. Really smart playmaker, can find anyone on the ice. And for me, his biggest trait has always been his will to win and his will to be the best, so I think those things put him over the top.”
• • •
Back at the rink, Jack and Quinn are part of a group that ranges from NHL regulars to minor leaguers and junior players. Among them are Scott Harrington of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Jamie Oleksiak of the Dallas Stars, a pair of mid-20s depth defensemen who have been traded a couple times already and have worked hard to become NHL regulars. Dominik Simon, coming off his first full NHL season in 2018-19, is also on the ice. Rounding out the group are Sam Miletic, an undrafted 22-year-old who just finished his first pro season after three years in the OHL, and Mason Primeau of the North Bay Battalion, the son of former NHLer Wayne and a fifth-round pick of the Vegas Golden Knights in June.
I’d love to play with either one of my brothers – that would be awesome. But we haven’t even started our careers yet. We have a long way to go.
– Quinn Hughes
These are the kinds of players who need to be on the ice in the middle of July because every rep, every workout, counts. Jack and Quinn aren’t scrapping for every game, every contract, at this point in their careers, but with the circus that has been Jack’s world since being drafted first overall and the fact that the brothers played in the World Championship, there has been precious little time to train, and they’re behind in their off-season regimen. Plus, they’re leaving the next day for the family’s summer house in New Hampshire, the one they rarely ever see, for the one week in the entire calendar when everyone in the family can kick back and decompress from a schedule that is perpetually overstuffed.
As the workout winds down and the players begin to filter off the ice, Jack sets up at the top of the right faceoff dot while Quinn installs himself on the other side of the ice. As a left shot, Jack waits with his stick open as Quinn feathers passes to him for one-timers, something they did on the ODR as kids thousands of times. Then they switch and Quinn, who has a harder shot, starts drilling pucks on the net. “He’s been doing that his whole life,” Quinn said. “He’s always getting better at something.”
As always, they have to be summoned off the ice. While the rink attendant makes his way down to move the nets for the ice to be resurfaced, Jack immediately drops to his knees along with Miletic, the undrafted free agent, and Primeau, the fifth-rounder, to pick up the errant pucks and place them in a pail. In O’Brien’s sessions, there’s no written rule, but it’s an unspoken edict that the youngest guys pick up the pucks. “And good for Jack to value those little things,” O’Brien said. “He’s a hockey guy in the sense that he values the timeless traditions and etiquettes like that.”
Their ride from the rink is an unassuming one: a 2015 GMC Terrain, which was Quinn’s vehicle when he was with the NTDP and then became Jack’s when he played there and will now be passed down to Luke for his two years in Plymouth. The brothers arrive at the restaurant hungry and relieved that another hard workout day is in the books. Most days, they golf or relax by the pool at their rented house, but later this day Quinn is going to brave the Toronto traffic and travel across town to visit Tanev, his teammate with the Canucks. When Quinn arrived in Vancouver, he still had an ankle injury and the two of them worked out and spent down time together in their walking casts. “He’s so chill,” said Quinn of Tanev. “We’d just go sit on the couch and he won’t say anything for, like, 30 minutes. And I’m good with that. If we’re watching a movie, I don’t want any talking, you know?”
The two brothers debate about getting nachos until they discover they’re actually wontons and not corn chips and they come in strips. Quinn worries about the fact that the waiter keeps refilling his iced tea and whether he’ll be charged four bucks for each one. Those are the kinds of things that 18- and 19-year-olds have to consider before they become rich beyond their wildest dreams. Quinn is informed that he’s not paying for lunch and can have as many iced teas as he’d like. “Treat yo-self, boy,” said Jack with a laugh. Later, they do a couple Anchorman riffs and have some fun with Canadian accents, something they’ve mastered after all their years playing north of the border. “Thanks for coming, eh guys, eh,” Quinn said.
“Oh, friggin’ right, eh, bud. All right, 20 hard ones here, eh,” Jack replied.
The banter between the two is something to behold. All three brothers have always been tight even when their teams have separated them. But they’ve managed to stay together, or at least close to one another, until now. The family moved to the Plymouth suburbs when Quinn played for the NTDP, and he was only a half-hour away from them once he started playing at the University of Michigan. But starting this fall, Quinn will be on the other side of the continent in British Columbia, Jack will be on the East Coast in New Jersey and Luke, a promising defenseman, will be embarking on his quest to join them in the NHL. Nothing will be the same again, because now they’re playing for keeps.
The Hughes brothers are asked if they’d ever want to play together in the NHL. “I’d love to play with either one of my brothers – that would be awesome,” Quinn said. “But we haven’t even started our careers yet. We have a long way to go.”
“Another thing, too,” Jack said, “what if we fall in love with the places we’re playing, and we don’t want to leave?”
The realities of this new chapter in their lives are starting to hit. Quinn allows himself an I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening laugh when he considers that he and his brother are on the verge of it. While history tells us the chances Quinn plays his entire career in Vancouver and Jack retires as a Devil are remote, so are the chances they’ll be teammates in the NHL. The best chance will be in international tournaments for Team USA. “It’ll be easy,” said Jack about keeping the connection. “We’ll keep in touch and try to follow each other’s games. It’ll be the same, I think.”