VANCOUVER – About two hours before the Vancouver Canucks announced Wednesday that their players would be wearing special warmup jerseys for Pride Night on Friday, defenceman Quinn Hughes explained why.
“Everyone has their own beliefs and it’s not my place to tell someone what to believe in,” Hughes said. “But I know that we have pride in wearing that jersey.
“It’s about just, you know, feeling welcomed and enjoying the game. If someone enjoys the game … you should be able to find the same joy from it as anyone else. We preach hockey is for everyone and I certainly believe that it is. And if you say you believe in that, then you should be able to put the jersey on.”
Earlier, the 23-year-old told reporters at Rogers Arena: “I think that everyone in this room is looking forward to it and I know in our organization everyone is welcomed. Every time we’ve done Pride Night, I’ve worn the jersey and celebrated the night. So, we’re looking forward to it and it should be a great night, should be a good game.”
Hughes said the question of whether or not to wear Pride jerseys never came up in the Canucks dressing room. The team announced Wednesday afternoon a full schedule of events and performers for Friday’s Pride Night game against the Calgary Flames.
It’s difficult for many of us in one of the most diverse and progressive cities in North America to understand how a special night with a simple message of inclusion, acknowledging the LGBTQ+ community, could be twisted into a flashpoint for society’s ongoing intolerance. But that’s the National Hockey League for you.
Hughes, whose emergence this season as a team leader in Vancouver is every bit as impressive as his development into one of the NHL’s truly elite defencemen, cited his friend, Florida Panther Matthew Tkachuk, and Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid when explaining his own support for Pride Night.
Tkachuk said last week that Pride Night, “for me, is really about including everybody. In my opinion, it’s by far the greatest game in the world, and everyone’s invited in my locker room.”
McDavid said: “I know here in Edmonton we strongly believe hockey is for everyone.”
“Hearing those guys talk about it and … how important it is,” Hughes said, “it’s a great night and it really is important.”
Canuck defenceman Ethan Bear said after Wednesday’s practice: “Obviously, from my background and things I’ve gone through (as an Indigenous player), it’s important for everyone to be included. No matter whatever your gender, your sexuality, your race, it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s welcome in the game. But from the point of guys not wearing that jersey … I can’t really relate to it. It is disappointing for a lot of people but for me, it’s just kind of confusing. I never think that way, so I can’t really relate.”
A frequent defence partner for Hughes – and cited by name in Canuck president Jim Rutherford’s letter Wednesday to ticket holders reaffirming the organization’s plans to build a team capable of challenging for a Stanley Cup – Bear has his teammate’s back, on the ice and off.
Acquired by the Canucks in an October trade from the Carolina Hurricanes, Bear marvels at Hughes’ maturation and ascension this season. Despite missing four games early in the season due to illness, Hughes has already broken his own Canuck records for points (72) and assists (65) by a defenceman.
Only San Jose Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson has scored more points from the blue line this season (74 GP, 22-69-91). But since Jan. 9, Hughes leads all NHL defencemen, with 41 points in 35 games. The American is also plus-18 on a Canuck team that has been outscored by 19 goals at five-on-five. He has posted positive possession metrics, and in the second half of the season is third in average ice time (26:01) behind only Karlsson and Los Angeles King Drew Doughty.
“I think he’s had a hell of a year,” Bear said. “But what just amazes me — I think the biggest thing I picked up on this year — is just his competitive edge, his competitive nature. Some games, he looks like he’s sleepy and he’s not going to be there. But then all sudden, the puck drops and he’s going. For me, that’s just like, ‘Wow, that’s fantastic.’”
And yet there seems to persist a defensive knock against the five-foot-10 Hughes outside of Vancouver. When ESPN canvassed 20 NHL players and managers about the game’s best defencemen, for instance, the February findings named 17 blue-liners, none of them named Hughes, who struggled defensively for stretches in his first two seasons.
“Honestly, I think his defensive game is really good,” Bear said. “I think it has really grown. When he first came into the league, I know people criticized it but, like now, with the minutes he’s been playing, I think he’s done a great job defensively.
“The thing is, the league is so fast these days. If you can move and evade checks and have a good stick and break plays up, it’s just as good as being physical. Huggy is a fantastic skater. I definitely love watching him. Sometimes the moves he pulls off, it’s like, ‘Damn, he makes it look easy.’”
Hughes, who was taught to defend by his professional development-coach father, Jim Hughes, has focused on that side of his game the last two off-seasons. Last week, he told reporters that “anyone who says I’m a defensive liability, frankly, hasn’t watched the games.”
The Canucks play in the Pacific time zone. Many people, literally, don’t watch Hughes play.
“I think right now, like I’m (almost) plus-20,” he told Sportsnet on Wednesday. “I know in my head and I know people know that I’ve been good defensively. And as far as the points, of course you look at it because you want to be competitive with the other guys in the league. I’m trying to push myself against some of those top guys. Karlsson’s having an amazing year and a bunch of guys are having great years, but I’m just trying to push myself.
“I feel really good. I just feel really comfortable with my game. I feel right now I’m making a bunch of plays and breaking out pucks — and I’m good defensively. I’m creating more than I’ve ever created. You could say, ‘He has always been good offensively.’ But I’m better offensively than I have been in the past. And I didn’t really play that good in the first 20 games this year, so I think that there’s still a bunch of room for me to grow next year.
“I wish we were (going to) the playoffs because I don’t feel tired. Sometimes when I was younger, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God, the season’s over, I need to rest.’ Right now, I feel like I could go another couple of months.”
Instead, he has only 16 more days and eight games. Don’t miss them.