It wasn’t by accident that Jack Hughes found his stall right next to captain Patrick Kane’s in the Team USA dressing room at last month’s IIHF World Championships.
The strategic seating chart allowed the expected No. 1 choice at this weekend’s NHL Draft in Vancouver to probe the hockey mind of another five-foot-10 super-skilled first-overall American.
“More than quite a bit. That’s a guy I grew up idolizing, so to be in a room with him, and him treating me as well as he did, it was a lot of fun,” says Hughes, who seized the opportunity to learn as much as he could from Kane and spend a month around pros before his first year among them.
“It was awesome. I was really grateful to get the opportunity to play at that level and be around those kind of guys,” Hughes adds. “Thank USA Hockey for that — a really good experience for me.”
Kane, 30, has matured into a go-to mentor for emerging American superstars. Dylan Larkin picked his brain when he first entered the league. Auston Matthews once spent an entire flight hot-stoving with the three-time Stanley Cup champ. And fellow hockey nerd Alex DeBrincat — who recently said on the Spittin’ Chicklets podcast that Kane no longer drinks — is frequently soaking up knowledge from his Blackhawks teammate.
As a fervent supporter of the kids trying to follow in his skate-steps, it should come as little surprise to hear Kane pump the tires of Hughes, as he did to NHL.com in May.
“When smaller players come into the league and they have that offensive-type game, it seems to be easy to compare them to a guy like me,” Kane said. “But I think he does a lot of things better than me, to be honest with you.
“He’s always moving, always skating, and even if he’s not near the puck or the action, he’s still got his speed and he’s coming into the zone or coming into the action with a lot of movement and speed.”
Like Kane, Hughes eats, sleeps and breathes hockey. Bulldozing his way to the Rogers Arena podium, the 18-year-old crushed U.S. National Team Development Program career records in assists (154) and points (228), posting a 2.07 points-per-game average in 110 games over two seasons.
Yet he is humbled by Kane’s praise.
“At first, you’re probably like, ‘You’re lying, man.’ He’s a guy who has Cups, Hart trophies, Art Rosses. You name it, he’s got it,” Hughes says. “So, for him to be talking about you like that? It’s really nice, but it just shows how good of a person he is.”
Between his USNTDP games, his junior tournaments and the men’s worlds, Hughes participated in an impressive 92(!) games in his draft campaign, a workload that should prepare him well for the NHL grind.
“Yeah, it was a long year, but I’m a hockey player,” he shrugs. “It’s what I do. It was a lot of fun.”
Like older brother Quinn, Jack carries himself in front of hockey reporters with a confidence and calmness that defies his age.
Having seen Quinn go through the draft night circus just last spring and having been raised in NHL barns by his father, Jim — a player turned coach turned director of player development — it’s difficult to imagine a kid better prepared for the glare of the draft weekend’s spotlight. Unless you count youngest sibling, Luke Hughes, who’s on track for the class of 2021.
“Always competitive, always a busy house. There were three of us, but there were always six or seven guys in the house because we’d always have friends over playing mini sticks,” Hughes says. “We had a really good childhood growing up. Our parents never said no. We were always pushing them, and they always gave us what we wanted.”
That included plenty of time spent around the Maple Leafs, for whom Jim oversaw player development during Quinn and Jack’s wide-eyed minor-hockey days.
“I was a Leafs fan. I was up there for 11 years. My dad worked for them, so it was a lot of fun to be around the Leafs. Not a lot of Cup runs there, but it was awesome growing up there,” Jack says. “I like Jake Gardiner — he was always nice to us. [James] van Riemsdyk. The core guys: [Phil] Kessel, [Dion] Phaneuf, [Tyler] Bozak. Big fans of the Leafs, and we always try to go to their games.”
In advance of Ray Shero’s announcement at No. 1 Friday, Hughes has already established relationships with New Jersey Devils stars Taylor Hall and Cory Schneider. He has spoken with members of the New York Rangers to get a sense of that organization, too, just in case he slips to No. 2.
“They’ve been pretty good helping me out with that,” Hughes says of his soon-to-be NHL peers. “I picked up a couple things, got some knowledge back, learned some things. I think those spots would be unbelievable.”
Hughes isn’t cocky to the point of assuming he’ll be selected over Finnish phenom Kaapo Kakko, but he has visualized what it would be like to hear his name called first. As Kane’s was in 2007.
He’s certainly not shying from the moment.
“It’s special,” Hughes says. “I’ve worked a lot of years for this, so if does end up being that, it’ll be an awesome moment.”