Next N.H.L. First for Jack Hughes: A Game Against His Brother


The Devils’ Jack Hughes, the No. 1 draft pick in June, is only 18 years old and has yet to score an N.H.L. goal, but his background has already been spun into hockey folklore.

His hockey education can be traced to scouting trips to see prospects alongside his father, Jim, who led player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2009 to 2015. Jack and his brothers, Quinn and Luke, would watch N.H.L. games and pepper their father with questions about this play and that formation, keeping the DVR active and extending the length of games by hours.

The family held fantasy-style player drafts. Jack would often ask his father hypotheticals like, “Would you trade this guy, Dad, for this guy?”

Jack’s mother, Ellen, a former member of the United States national hockey team, taught the boys to skate.

The appetite for and interest in hockey were present early on, dating to Jim’s two seasons as a Boston Bruins assistant coach, when Quinn was 3 and Jack not quite 2. When Ellen took them to the arena, both watched attentively. Jack, in particular, sat mesmerized, without any of the fidgeting one would expect from a toddler.

“He would just sit in the Babybjörn with me, or he’d sit in his own chair and just watch. He literally would have a bucket of popcorn in his lap, and he’d just sit. And he would watch,” Ellen said, before adding with a laugh: “Now, I never thought that was weird then. But looking back on it, I’m like, ‘Wow, that was a little odd.’”

On Saturday, Quinn and Jack Hughes can create another story to tell years from now: They will play against each other for the first time as professionals, Jack’s Devils hosting Quinn’s Canucks.

At the N.H.L. draft this summer, Jack Hughes, a center, led a cohort of eight first-round picks and 17 total selections from the U.S.A. Hockey National Team Development Program, where he smashed the record for career points. He finished with 228 points, 39 clear of second place, besting players who became N.H.L. stars, such as the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews and the Sabres’ Jack Eichel.

Quinn, who turned 20 on Monday, was the No. 7 pick in the 2018 draft and is still technically a rookie, like his younger brother. A defenseman, he made his N.H.L. debut last March, playing five games for Vancouver after starring at the U.S.A. Hockey development program and then attending the University of Michigan for a year. (Luke, a 16-year-old defenseman, is now in the development program.)

“Now we’re just parents watching this all unfold,” Ellen Hughes said, adding, “I would prefer not to have two sons enter their rookie seasons the same year.”

Though American by birth, the Hughes brothers spent their formative years in suburban Toronto.

Jack gave up his bedroom to let William Nylander, a 2014 first-round pick by the Leafs, board at the family house for a few weeks. The brothers played late-night hockey on ice inside the barn of the retired Leafs star Wendel Clark.

Jim and Ellen Hughes said they emphasized open-ended play over scheduled lessons.

The local tennis courts at Wedgewood Park were flooded for wintertime hockey, becoming a key site for shinny, or street hockey, that the Hugheses called O.D.R. for “outdoor rink.” There, they played sprawling 15-on-15 games devoid of line changes, requiring imagination and vision to find space.

“The closest analogy I can use would be basketball in Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn, where they’re just playing in the schoolyard,” Jim Hughes said. “What it allows you to do is work on your creativity, work on your mind and work on your hands and your skill sets. Then, most importantly, because they had so much fun, you’re going up and down a tennis court 200, 300 times a night, so the skating, the skating, the skating, the cutting, the maneuvering.”

Ellen often dropped Jack off at the outdoor rink for long afternoons of pickup games. He always wanted to play, even if he had Greater Toronto Hockey League games later in the day. Ellen said she acquiesced, so long as he remained a good teammate. She would sharpen his skates between sessions and drop him off at league games with a conspiratorial reminder: “Don’t tell anyone you were on the ice for the last three hours.”

Hughes is listed at only 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds and is universally praised for his exceptional on-ice vision and skating ability. John Wroblewski, his coach the past two years, praised Hughes for “his edge work and then his bravery within that speed game” — a maximum-effort commitment on every game shift and practice drill.

Dan Ninkovich, a fitness trainer who has worked with Hughes for five years, compared the way the youngster changed directions while handling the puck to a crossover dribble in basketball. He even nicknamed Hughes “Allen,” in honor of the former N.B.A. point guard Allen Iverson.

Devils left wing Taylor Hall first shared the ice with Hughes two years ago and was struck by the teenager’s precocious technique.

“I didn’t know who he was, and we were just doing a summer skill skate,” said Hall, the No. 1 pick of the 2010 draft and the 2018 Hart Trophy winner as the N.H.L.’s most valuable player. “He’s a pretty slender kid, obviously small.”

But Hall said he could see the skills and the skating ability. “I just asked, ‘Who is that?’” he added.

Hall tracked Hughes’s progress, observing an increase in strength that will help the teen’s shot. Having become Hughes’s teammate and locker-room neighbor this summer, Hall praised his game play, off-ice conduct and weight room work ethic.

Devils General Manager Ray Shero said Hughes had earned his way onto the roster in training camp, making it “apparent where he could fit in our lineup and complement some other players.” The modern N.H.L. emphasizes offensive skill over brute physicality, a shift from the Devils’ championship era in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Shero became the Devils’ general manager in May 2015, after the first of three straight seasons in which the team finished seventh or last in the eight-team Metropolitan Division. The Devils reached the first round of the playoffs during the 2017-18 season before falling back to last place last season.

Shero has preached patience during the franchise’s rebuilding years, crediting the team’s managing partners, Josh Harris and David Blitzer, for their willingness to stick with that plan and also noting the success of the arduous “Process” followed by Harris and Blitzer’s N.B.A. team, the Philadelphia 76ers. But winning the draft lottery and landing Hughes somewhat “accelerates” the process, Shero said.

In his first seven N.H.L. games, Hughes has collected only one point — an assist on Thursday night against the Rangers. But he netted three preseason goals in five games, including two in his debut and a breakaway score against Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Such moments serve as reminders why fans of several downtrodden hockey franchises adopted the #LoseForHughes hashtag last year.

“He has his own level of expectations,” Jim Hughes said of Jack. “It wasn’t weekend expectations. It’s an all-the-time thing. It’s practice and practice and practice hard, practice fast. That stuff carries into the games.”



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