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Hughes vs. Hughes: How hockey’s new first family navigates its opposite-coast stars

On Saturday afternoon, for only the second time in their hockey-playing lives, brothers Quinn and Jack Hughes will line up on opposite sides of the ice. And this time they will do it wearing NHL uniforms, just as they had dreamed of while playing on outdoor rinks growing up, honing their preternatural skill and creativity.

Plenty of siblings have played against each other in the NHL over the years, from the Staals to the Espositos to the Niedermayers. But few have met on the ice at such a young age — Quinn turned 20 on Monday, and Jack is only 18 — and as such highly-touted rookies.

Jack, a center who went first overall in the 2019 NHL draft to the New Jersey Devils, was ESPN’s No. 1-ranked NHL-affiliated prospect heading into the season. Quinn, a defenseman drafted seventh overall in 2018 by the Vancouver Canucks, was slotted at No. 4. Both are viewed as legitimate threats to win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.

It all makes Saturday’s 1 p.m. ET matchup involving the Devils and Canucks an extra special one, featuring two of the brightest, budding American stars in the game. It will also be unfamiliar territory for a pair of brothers who have spent hours on the ice together growing up, but very little time in competitive games, whether on the same team or not.

The only other time the brothers went head-to-head was just over one year ago, when Jack led the U.S. national under-18 team with three points in a 6-3 win over Quinn’s University of Michigan squad. The game began on a more playful note, with Quinn leaving his spot on defense to take the game’s opening draw against the brother 19 months his junior.

But don’t expect that to be be repeated when they square off Saturday. Things have become rather serious quickly, especially for Jack, who was held without a point until the Devils’ seventh game of the season, when he registered an assist against the New York Rangers.

Quinn is off to a stronger start. After appearing in five NHL games at the end of last season in which he registered three assists, he has one goal and two assists through six games this season. His goal came in the Canucks’ home opener, and a mob of reporters surrounding Quinn after the game quickly called attention to Jack’s lack of points and jokingly inquired whether he had family bragging rights.

“I think that would be kind of childish,” he replied.

It was a window into the mind and demeanor of a protective older brother. And the reaction wasn’t a surprise to the brothers’ father, Jim Hughes.

“You know, Quinn’s got a big heart, and he’s very thoughtful. No one is a bigger fan of Jack than Quinn,” he says. “Quinn understands Jack’s capabilities and the interior expectations Jack has.”

Jim and Ellen Hughes have tried to give their sons space as they begin this transition to the NHL in what will be a life-changing year for all of them.

“We’ve stayed out of their way, as we should. We’ve been really paying attention from afar,” Jim says.

For both Quinn and Jack, this season is the first time they’re not living within a reasonable driving distance from their family home, which has been in Canton, Michigan for the past three years. The boys were born in Florida, but the family moved around a bit, with stops in Boston and the Toronto suburbs before landing in Michigan.

Quinn had a little more experience away, moving to join the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) before the family relocated to Michigan from the Toronto area. He also lived on campus, while just down the road, at the University of Michigan and now is on his own in Vancouver. But Jack was under the same roof with his parents until leaving for New Jersey — where he now resides with Devils goaltender Cory Schneider and his family.

Having boys on opposite sides of the continent, it has been especially difficult to try to make it to games. Jim still hasn’t seen Quinn play a live game this season and had been only to two of Jack’s NHL games.

“Quite frankly, it’s been more productive because we just stay at home and have one big computer, a smaller computer and then the big TV and we’ve got all the games right there,” Jim says.

That will change Saturday when Jim, Ellen and 70 close friends and family members will be in attendance for the first Hughes-vs.-Hughes NHL matchup in Newark.

One family member who won’t be in attendance, however, is the youngest of the three hockey-playing Hughes brothers, Luke. He will be with the U.S. national under-17 team in their USHL game against the Chicago Steel that same day. The 16-year-old has continued the recent tradition of playing at USA Hockey’s NTDP while wearing the No. 43 both Quinn and Jack wore in their U17 seasons.

“We offer the same support to Luke that we gave the other two, which is why we’re still here in Michigan,” Jim says. “He’s got his own goals and aspirations on his mind.”

By all accounts, Luke has gotten off to a spectacular start to the season, having posted nine points in nine games. A smooth-skating blueliner like Quinn, Luke is unlike his brothers in one interesting way: He’s the first of the boys to crack the 6-foot mark, which might shield him from some of the additional size-related scrutiny the other two faced (both are 5-10) and overcame while coming up. Luke will be draft-eligible in 2021.

Despite not being able to attend in person as much as they’d hope, Jim and Ellen haven’t missed a game yet this season, sometimes needing three screens to track each of their sons wherever they might be in the hockey world. It makes for some long nights.

“When we have the doubleheader, we’ve got Jack playing at 7, Quinn at 10 and then Luke’s up for school at 6:05 in the morning, so you wake up and you feel like a zombie,” Jim says, noting the youngest Hughes boy often isn’t staying up for the nightcap games. “That’s how we’ve been juggling it so far.”

Jim and Ellen know the hockey landscape pretty well themselves. Ellen was a star player at the University of New Hampshire and skated for the U.S. women’s national team in the second women’s World Championship. Jim, meanwhile, played at Providence College and had a long coaching career that included a stint as an assistant with the Boston Bruins in the early 2000s and the director of player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs from 2009 to 2015. The experience of watching their sons learn the ropes of playing the game at its highest level has been a rewarding experience.

“It’s a whole new lens that I’m seeing it from now,” says Jim, who now works in player development with CAA Sports. “When I was with the Leafs or now at CAA, you’re always trying to give the proper advice or thoughts, and steer these kids in the right direction so they can navigate their careers. I’m dealing with two teenagers here, and that’s interesting what it brings.

“It’s a very difficult league. As I’ve always said in the past years, it’s a humbling sport, so you’ve got to roll with the good and the bad, and you’ve got to keep pushing up the mountain and you have no other choice. You’ve got to keep working at your trade every single day.”

The Hughes’ family patriarch is offering advice only when asked, though, and has largely been pleased with the way his son are performing.

Jack has never had much trouble producing. He shattered records at the NTDP and torched the most recent men’s World Under-18 Championship as the U.S. won a bronze medal. He’s also the first player to go directly from the NTDP, where the team plays a mixed schedule among college, USHL and international opponents, to the NHL. It’s a pretty big jump, and few know that better than Jim, who has watched players navigate those transitions to the NHL for years.

“It’s a journey,” he says. “It’s not a track race. It’s learning to play the game the right way. This is a bigger picture. It’s not just one night, or two nights or three nights. We’re really happy where the boys are at right now and we’ll support them any way we can.”

On Saturday in the Prudential Center, the cheers will be loudest for No. 43 in white and No. 86 in red in what could be the first of many meetings between the two brothers who used to fill their basement walls with puck-shaped scars, building toward their dream together.

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