International Ice Hockey Federation

Hughes that kid?

Hughes that kid?

Youngest U.S. star could become household name

Published 26.04.2018 23:41 GMT+5 | Author Lucas Aykroyd
Hughes that kid?
MAGNITOGORSK, RUSSIA - APRIL 20: USA's Jack Hughes #6 is presented with the player of the game award following a 8-5 win over team Switzerland during preliminary round action at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. (Photo by Steve Kingsman/HHOF-IIHF Images)
When you’re 16, time moves slowly. That makes it a little easier for Jack Hughes to not obsess about whether he’ll be taken first overall in the 2019 NHL Draft.

“Growing up, every kid wants to be number one,” said Hughes after the defending champion Americans closed out the preliminary round with an 8-0 pounding of Belarus. “That’s kind of a goal of mine, but it’s so far away. So many things can happen. So I don’t worry too much about it.”

However, the Orlando, Florida-born centre has caused plenty of worries for opposing goalies at the 2018 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. Hughes ranks second in tournament scoring (3-6-9) behind Slovakia’s Maxim Cajkovic (4-7-11). Team USA’s youngest player enjoys lethal chemistry with right wing Oliver Wahlstrom, and has assisted on each of Wahlstrom’s five goals.

“I love the kid,” said a smiling Wahlstrom, a likely top-10 pick this year. “He’s awesome. He’s got a lot of passion for the game. We’re roommates, so we chirp each other. We have fun with each other and it translates to the ice. We get on each other if something happens and we fix that. We just have a good relationship with each other on the ice and we click.”

Anyone who watched Hughes with the U.S. National Team Development Program junior team this season can’t be surprised. Blessed with blazing speed, dazzling puckhandling and the kind of on-ice vision that NHLers 10 years his senior would envy, the 179-cm, 72-kg ace put up 54 points in just 27 USHL games, facing players who are up to 20 years old. This season, he has scored at a higher points-per-game rate with the NTDP than previous U.S.-born #1 overall picks like Patrick Kane and Auston Matthews.

Garrulous rookie U.S. head coach Seth Appert does his best to manage the expectations – although he does acknowledge that he sees parallels between Hughes’s skating and that of one Connor McDavid. The 43-year-old Appert, who served as an assistant coach with last year’s gold-medal U18 team, felt Hughes was physically targeted by Switzerland in the U.S.’s 8-5 win, and he reduced Hughes’ ice time in the third period versus Belarus to be on the safe side. It’s all a learning experience.

“Jack is a world-class hockey player,” said Appert. “At times, he’s dominant. What we’re trying to get him to do here is to keep playing his offensive, attacking style and then mix that in with understanding that in a tournament of this caliber, with this level of pressure, [it’s important] knowing when the time is to get off the ice and make a proper change. These are all the things you need to learn when you’re 16 or 17 years old.”

Hughes came up through Toronto’s vaunted minor hockey system, but he also has a cornucopia of great role models at home. He comes from a family that can only be described as ultra-athletic.

His 18-year-old brother Quinn is a swift-skating University of Michigan defenceman who won U18 gold last year and World Junior bronze this year, and is projected to be a top-10 NHL pick in June. His 14-year-old brother Luke is making waves on defence in Detroit bantam hockey.

His father Jim played hockey at Providence College, had an extensive coaching career that included a stint as a Boston Bruins assistant (2001-03), and spent years as a Toronto Maple Leafs scout. His mother Ellen was a tournament all-star on defence at the 1992 IIHF Women’s World Championship for the silver-medal Americans, and also played soccer and lacrosse at the University of New Hampshire.

And that’s the short version of the family history. Nature or nurture? Either way, Hughes is deeply appreciative. This family gets it when he wants to spend five hours a day at the rink.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “They’ve been so supportive. My brothers are so competitive with me. They’re my two best friends. It’s been great. My parents have taught me so much. It’s been a really good lifestyle growing up.”

As the U18 Americans prepare for a quarter-final showdown with host Russia in Chelyabinsk on Thursday, NHL scouts are salivating over what Hughes might accomplish in this do-or-die situation. So are his teammates and coaches as they shoot for the record-setting 11th American U18 gold medal of all time.

“He’s obviously an offensive talent and can pretty much do it all,” said Cameron York, whose six points tie him with Sweden’s Adam Boqvist for the tournament lead among defencemen. “Whenever he’s got the puck, good things happen. Whenever he’s out there, we try to find him.”

“Honestly, he’s probably the best hockey player I’ve ever played with,” said forward Alexander Turcotte. “He’s a great player and a great guy off the ice. He’s really fun to watch.”

“Jack is an unbelievable competitor,” added Appert. “That is what really separates him. His talent is great, his skating is great, but what separates him from most elite players is his competitiveness.”

Hughes’s teenage enthusiasm bursts out when he’s asked who he’s supporting in Game Seven of the first-round playoff matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins: “Leafs, for sure! I’ve lived there the last 11 years, so for sure the Leafs! I’m with A-Matt, so hopefully they get the win.”

That the diminutive and dashing Hughes is such a big part of the NHL conversation is a testament to how the game has changed. Back in the 1990’s, towering, bulky centres like Eric Lindros, Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier were the Holy Grail for scouts. Today, shifty USA Hockey stars like Johnny Gaudreau and Clayton Keller are more representative of the direction hockey is heading.

“It starts at the youth level with the ADM philosophies and the philosophies that are being pushed through USA Hockey on skill, speed, skating, and puck touches,” said Appert. “We’re reaping the benefits from that. Also, USA Hockey is a college-based system. For a long time, college hockey has embraced the mid-sized or under-sized player. There have been unbelievable players between 5-8 and 5-11 that went through college. We’re used to seeing it in the United States. Now that the game has changed in the NHL to more of a speed-based game, those players are becoming elite NHLers.”

The 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver will be here more quickly than Jack Hughes might think. If he still needs to add some strength and muscle before jumping to the NHL, Hughes could find himself in college, Canadian major junior, or even Europe in 2019-20. But wherever this electrifying forward goes, he’s well on his way to becoming a household name.

 

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