PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Jack Hughes draws a crowd.
Detroit general manager Ken Holland and former Red Wing star Steve Yzerman chatted during the first intermission of one of Hughes’ recent games. Scouts from the NHL were scattered throughout USA Hockey Arena that night, taking notes for teams paying them to evaluate the world’s best hockey players.
Hughes, a 17-year-old center , will likely be the top pick in the NHL draft in June.
USA Hockey has developed the nation’s top players for more than two-plus decades and four of them have been selected No. 1 overall — including Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane — from its National Team Development Program. Hughes is expected to be next.
Hughes chose to surround himself with the best American hockey players his age as an amateur instead of getting paid as the No. 1 pick in the Ontario Hockey League. He also could have graduated high school a year early to play with his brother, Quinn, a freshman at Michigan and a defenseman drafted No. 7 overall last summer by the Vancouver Canucks.
“I feel like it’s the best place to be for a 16-year, 17-year-old,” Hughes told The Associated Press. “No one trains as hard as us. We skate every day. We lift three days a week. We play a great schedule. I think it’s the best place to be to groom yourself to be an NHL player someday.”
Hughes was born in Orlando, Florida, where his father, Jim, was assistant coach for the Solar Bears in the International Hockey League. He wasn’t there long. Jim Hughes moved his family a few months later to Boston because he got a job as an assistant with the Bruins. Two years later, the former Providence defenseman went to New Hampshire — where he, his wife and three boys vacation each summer — to be an assistant and later head coach with the Manchester Monarchs in the American Hockey League.
Jim Hughes’ next job appears to have been pivotal in the development of his sons’ hockey careers because it landed him in Toronto as an assistant with the AHL’s Marlies. He later became director of player development for the Maple Leafs.
“I always played him a year up and that’s not easy to do in the hockey mecca of the world,” Jim Hughes said. “Even when he was 5, you could see he had a special skill set. As he got older, coaches were yelling at their players to hit him and teams were trying to attack him. And quite frankly, he was still dominant.”
Jack Hughes starts his day at 6:15 a.m. with two eggs on a bagel with cream cheese and salami along with some fresh fruit, orange juice and a vitamin. He has to arrive at school shortly after 7 a.m. and if he’s tardy or misses a class, USA Hockey has a staff member who knows it and there are consequences.
Hughes, who plans to graduate this month, takes four classes before heading to USA Hockey Arena in suburban Detroit to drill on a shooting pad, lift weights and go through an intense, two-hour practice before going to study table. His favorite meal is his father’s grilled steak. Shortly after dinner, his parents don’t have a hard time getting him to go sleep.