Even before the National Hockey League shut down along with much of the world, this was an extraordinary year for Quinn Hughes.
The Vancouver Canucks rookie, who turned 20 two weeks into the regular season, had eight goals and 53 points in 68 games, and in the two months before play was halted on March 12 led all NHL defencemen in scoring with 23 points in 25 games while averaging 22:47 of ice time.
The 5-foot-10 dynamo led Vancouver defencemen in ice time after Nov. 1, which is about when he started seeing the opposition’s best forwards on a “shutdown” pairing with veteran blue-liner Chris Tanev.
Even with 13 games left on the regular-season schedule, Hughes’ 53 points are the most by a Canucks defenceman since Jyrki Lumme — who finished with 54 over 80 games in 1995-96 — and his 45 assists are the most since Paul Reinhart set up 50 in 1988-89.
And don’t be duped by the minus-10 rating the NHL lists for Hughes, that deficit is covered just by empty-net-goals allowed. Every front-line Canucks player — their top six forwards and top two right-side defencemen — had dramatically better possession numbers at even strength when Hughes was on the ice with him.
The Michigan resident — by way of Toronto — had an excellent chance to break Doug Lidster’s franchise record of 63 points by a Canucks defenceman (set in 1987) as well as Dennis Kearns’ record of 55 assists (1987).
And then everything stopped. After a lonely few days in his Vancouver apartment, Hughes was able to fly home to Canton, Mich., to live in the family home with his parents, Ellen and Jim, and hockey-playing brothers Jack and Luke. Jack Hughes, 18, was the New Jersey Devils’ first-overall pick last June, while Luke, 16, is part of the United States National Development Team program and one of the top prospects for the 2021 NHL draft.
In his first interview since the NHL shut down, Quinn talked to us about his remarkable season, competing with his brothers, binging on the television show Billions, and how COVID-19 puts the Calder Trophy race and everything else into perspective.
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited slightly for clarity.
Sportsnet: You’re in self-isolation, but not alone. How are you and your brothers handling hockey’s shut down?
Quinn Hughes: We play chess a lot. We play Fortnite, we play NHL on Xbox, we play ping pong, we play basketball. We work out, we shoot pucks. And we’re going through Billions on TV. We’ve been doing a lot, but we get bored. The first four or five days, we played ping pong non-stop, and now we haven’t played in four or five days. We’ve gone on to chess and basketball.
SN: So the Hughes boys are still competitive?
Hughes: I think it’s even more competitive now, for sure. Jack beat me three Game 7s in a row in table tennis. I took it to Game 7 and lost three times, and the last series I won. The basketball is really competitive, chess…it’s all competitive, actually.
SN: You and Jack are both 5-foot-10, but your little brother, Luke, is six feet tall and still growing. Does he have the advantage in basketball?
Hughes: Everyone has their day. If we’re playing basketball, if we’re playing one-on-one, Luke is the best. But if we’re playing two-on-two, he’s the worst. He’s way bigger than us, so he just plays bully ball.
SN: We’re picturing Luke backing you guys up under the hoop until he has a lay up.
Hughes: Seriously. He just takes us to the rim and the only way we stop him is with a foul. One-on-one, he’s better. But two-on-two, we double team him and he’s got nothing.
SN: Is there another brother we don’t know about, or does your Dad, Jim, who is a professional-development coach in hockey, also play hoops?
Hughes: (Laughs) Yeah. Usually it’s one of our friends, but under these circumstances, we put Jimmy in there. He’s been a great player. There’s not a lot of dads who can do that, so it’s fun.
SN: Is the hoop in the driveway?
Hughes: Yeah, we’ve got a nice court for basketball and a backyard, so it’s pretty good. But it’s a pretty quiet neighborhood, too, so we can walk around the block a bit.
SN: A lot of NHL players, especially young, single guys, don’t have the benefit of being with family these days. Do you feel fortunate in that way?
Hughes: I was happy to be home rather than in my apartment by myself doing nothing, having to worry about food. It’s nice to be home. In my apartment, I’m taking four or five steps to get from my couch to my kitchen to my bed. You’re not doing a lot. Here at least we’re playing basketball and doing things and getting through the days.
I wasn’t excited about coming home under these circumstances. But like everyone says, this is bigger than hockey and you’ve just got to take care of yourself. The first couple of days I was in Vancouver by myself, those were the longest days. I’m pumped to be home with these guys.
SN: Tell us about those first couple of days, after you had a shootout win at home against the New York Islanders on March 10, then flew to Phoenix for what was supposed to be an important road trip.
Hughes: It was really strange. We flew to Arizona and news came out (late on March 11) that one NBA player had the coronavirus. And we were, like: ‘Oh, my God, that’s crazy.’ And an hour or two later, the NBA was shut down. ‘Holy, if the NBA is shut down, what’s going to happen to us?’ We share stadiums.
We found out the next morning our game was cancelled. We didn’t really know what was happening; we had as much information as anyone else. We were trying to get updates, trying to figure out if we could go home, whether the borders were going to shut down. Once we found out the league was going to be down until April (at least), I was able to fly home.
SN: Airplanes aren’t desirable places to be during this pandemic. What was the journey to Michigan from Vancouver like?
Hughes: I usually don’t fly first class because I don’t mind sitting in the back and putting on my headphones and going to sleep. But I got in first class because I didn’t want be crowded. Some people were wearing masks. I flew home with Motter [teammate Tyler Motte], so it was nice to have someone there, too. But it was just weird, something neither of us had ever seen before. We went Vancouver-Minnesota, then Minnesota-Detroit.
SN: Besides basketball and table tennis, how are you staying in shape?
Hughes: Our trainer from the [U.S.] national team brought over some equipment for us, which was really nice. We’ve got a gym in our garage now. Everyone is pushing each other. If we’re doing a plank or something, I don’t want to drop before Jack does. Same thing with Jack. But it’s more everyone’s doing their own thing, just trying to get stronger.
SN: The Canucks are tied for the final playoff spot and you are going to be a Calder Trophy finalist. How disappointed are you that the season might end this way?
Hughes: It sucks. We have a good team, we had a good chance to make the playoffs. But I haven’t looked at it like it stinks because this [pandemic] is bigger than that. You can’t really worry about hockey. People are dying, crazy stuff is going on. It’s a real-life problem.
SN: Have you reflected on your own season?
Hughes: It’s too early to think about it because I’m still hopeful the season willstart back up and they’ll figure something out. As of right now, I think it was a really good season for me, a really good season for our team. If you look at [J.T.] Miller, look at Petey [Elias Pettersson], having a great years. The addition of Tyler Toffoli, Marky [Jacob Markstrom] having an absolutely tremendous year, I think a lot of guys are having great years. It was fun.
SN: Where the Canucks sit, do you consider them to be a playoff team?
Hughes: I honestly haven’t looked at the standings since the season ended, so I don’t really know what’s going on. I haven’t thought about it that much.
SN: There will be NHL awards whenever the season ends. What does the Calder Trophy mean to you?
Hughes: It’s a very prestigious award, and obviously it was one of the things coming into the year that I wanted to do. One of my goals, I would say. It would mean a lot. I think it’s naïve to say it wouldn’t mean a lot. But right now, that’s not what’s important.
SN: Thank you. Stay safe.