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JACK HUGHES HAS a split second to survey the ice and make up his mind. Five defenders and a goalie stand between him and the net. His options are limited, but as soon as Jack makes his turn, everyone in the arena knows what he'll do, and no one can hope to stop him.
Jack, a center for the U.S. national under-17 team and the early odds-on favorite to be picked No. 1 in the 2019 NHL draft, takes the puck to the net. The first Green Bay Gamblers defender doesn't even get a stick on him. The next looks to have an angle, only to see the 5-foot-10, 157-pound Hughes slip the puck behind him and collect it on the other side, unscathed. Jack slithers left between defenders who hopelessly poke their sticks and make just enough contact to knock Hughes off balance-but not enough to deny him a shooting lane. He tumbles while getting off the shot, and the puck flies over the right shoulder of the Green Bay goalie, whose body language suggests he can't believe what everyone just saw either.
Within a day of that play last November, video was making the rounds on Twitter, leading hockey fans across the continent to discover the 16-year-old phenom and, by extension, his equally gifted brothers, Quinn, 18, and Luke, 14.
No American family has ever had three players taken in the first round of the NHL draft, but in the next few years, the Hughes brothers have a shot. In fact, the 2019 draft is already being referred to as the "Jack Hughes draft." In early March, Jack broke the National Team Development Program's season scoring record for a player in his under-17 season: 87 points in 46 games. Through 51 games, he averaged 1.92 points, dwarfing the ppg marks of Auston Matthews (1.13) and Patrick Kane (1.11), the last two Americans who went No. 1 overall at the same age Hughes will be.
"Jack is the most naturally gifted player I've seen for 2019," one NHL scout says. "He's got vision, hockey sense-just pure talent. It's like he can do whatever he wants to do out there."
Quinn, a freshman on Michigan's first defense pairing, is expected to be a top-10 pick this year-if not top five-and he is Central Scouting's No. 1-rated North American defenseman. He had 28 points in 34 games, helping lead the Wolverines to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2011. His 0.82 points-per-game average is better than what NHL stars Ryan Suter and Kevin Shattenkirk had in any of their college seasons. Luke plays defense for the Little Caesars AAA hockey club in Detroit and is already generating buzz for his on-ice resemblance to Quinn.
If their success continues, the three could become the first family of U.S. hockey.
"It's in our bones," Jack says.
THE HUGHES BROTHERS have put in too much work to call their success predestined, but it also didn't hurt to have parents who were uniquely qualified to shepherd their development.
Their father, Jim Hughes, was a star defenseman at Providence College before embarking on a coaching career that moved the family around a lot. Early stops included Orlando, Florida, where he was a minor league assistant (and where Quinn and Jack were born; Luke was born in New Hampshire), and Boston, where he spent 2001-03 as a Bruins assistant. It was during the family's time in Boston when Ellen Weinberg-Hughes began to notice her boys' interest in the game. While other kids scattered to concession stands and souvenir shops, Jack and Quinn sat with their box of popcorn, fixated on the TD Garden ice. "You've got to learn something from that, right?" Ellen says.
In many ways, Ellen was her boys' first coach. A three-sport athlete at the University of New Hampshire-soccer, lacrosse and hockey-she went on to play for Team USA at the second IIHF World Women's Hockey Championship in 1992. She taught all three sons to skate, laying the foundation for what would become the most crucial element of their game, just as it was hers.
"She could wheel a bit," says Quinn, who has seen video of his mother's playing days. "She was an awesome player."
In 2006, Jim got a job as an assistant with the American Hockey League Marlies, and the family moved to Toronto. There, on most winter weekend mornings for the next nine years, you could find them at Toronto's Wedgewood Park-the ODR, as they called it, their shorthand for outdoor rink. Shortly after the frozen-over tennis court was flooded with a fresh sheet of ice, Ellen would roll up in a GMC Yukon XL filled with preteen boys and their hockey bags, usually before anyone else.
Those early mornings provided the best development for Quinn, Jack and Luke. No lines, no boards, no limitations. On this frozen canvas, imagination, creativity and plenty of warm layers were all they needed.
"They grew their passion for the game outdoors," Jim Hughes says. "There was no structure. They just had fun, but everything was a competition." If they weren't at the ODR, they were in their basement, with its tattered net and walls scarred from years of errant pucks.
"It doesn't matter what we're doing. If we're wakesurfing or skiing or shooting pucks or running up a hill, it's very competitive," Quinn says. "That's how you get better."
When Jim transitioned to a role as director of player development for the Maple Leafs, he had more time to attend the boys' practices and games, watch games with them on TV or study clips the Leafs coaches were showing their pro players.
"The things he was telling 20-year-old prospects, he was telling to us when we were 12," says Jack, recalling his father's many film sessions that expanded his hockey mind. "Whenever we got the chance to watch a game with my dad, it was like watching video with an NHL coach."
Jim's job also put his boys in the same orbit as NHL players, coaches and executives. Current Maple Leafs standout William Nylander even lived with the Hugheses after he was drafted in the first round in 2014. The boys watched his every move-what he ate, what time he went to bed, how many times he went to the ice. And being in Toronto gave the Hughes boys a chance to play for some of the most renowned youth hockey organizations in the world. All three played for the Marlboros, a club that counts Connor McDavid and John Tavares among its alumni.
SO WHO'S THE best Hughes? If you ask Quinn, it's Jack. "He's got fire in his heart," Quinn says. Jack returns the compliment, calling Quinn "unbelievably talented" and dynamic. "I don't know a better skater than him, personally."
Scouts and coaches come down on all sides. "Watch Quinn while receiving a pass and observe how he utilizes that millisecond to calculate what to do with the puck," says Dan Ninkovich, a performance coach who has worked with the Hughes family since Quinn was 13. "It's like he can slow down the time. That is hard to do."
"Jack is seeing things out there that we're not even seeing on tape," NTDP coach John Wroblewski says. "I can't even envision what he's seeing down there with how fast and efficient he gets around the sheet." And Luke? "With all three being high-end skaters, Luke might end up being the best skater of them all," Ninkovich says.
Soon enough, the NHL may get to be the judge.