Quinn Hughes Growing Into Michigan’s Unquestionable Leader Before Entering NHL

Kristen Nelson
Sports Illustrated
From learning how to cook to being more accountable for his mistakes, Quinn Hughes has been making the most of his time at Michigan to prepare for what's waiting for him at the next level.
From learning how to cook to being more accountable for his mistakes, Quinn Hughes has been making the most of his time at Michigan to prepare for what's waiting for him at the next level.

When Quinn Hughes decided to return to Michigan last summer, he knew he had a lot of developing to do.

But what’s been the most important thing he’s learned in this last season since being selected seventh overall by the Canucks in the 2018 NHL draft?

“Oh, I learned how to cook,” Hughes said.

The 19-year-old Hughes opted to extend his time with the Wolverines before heading to the NHL and decided to live on his own, forcing him to navigate his way through the kitchen. He keeps it simple, no go-to recipes quite yet, but Hughes’s newfound culinary expertise is just a small part of his growth in maturity that has become the theme of his sophomore season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan head coach Mel Pearson said Hughes is a rink rat—always working on his puck-handling and improving his shot—but it’s Hughes’s time off the ice that has impressed him the most this season, and the leadership that has stemmed from that.

“He is a leader without a doubt,” Pearson says. “He doesn’t wear a letter, but the way he performs and carries himself, there’s no doubt about that.”

Between his two seasons at Michigan and competing at the World Junior Championship for two years, Hughes said he’s always felt like a leader. But it’s perhaps the harder times that have tested him the most and have truly shown just how much he has developed.

When the Wolverines made their way to New York City for a game against Big Ten–foe Penn State, they were riding high on a 5–1 win over the Nittany Lions from two nights before and were looking to take a series sweep.

But as the teams faced off at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 26, it took only a period to show that despite being heavily outshot, Penn State was in control of the game, taking a 4­–0 lead into the first intermission thanks in part to a costly turnover from Hughes.

It’s not uncommon to see the skilled defenseman skate the puck through the neutral zone, usually gliding around opponents and creating scoring chances. But this time he found himself clashing with the stick of Nittany Lions star Evan Barratt, who poked it away from Hughes and found Liam Folkes on the breakaway to give Penn State a 2–0 lead.

Things didn’t improve in the second period. As Hughes was skating through the neutral zone once again, this time on the power play, a behind-the-back pass was intercepted by Alex Limoges, who then scored on a one-on-none chance.

Pearson said that Hughes stood up in the locker room following the 5–2 loss and took responsibility for his mistakes.

“It takes a lot to do that, especially for a young player who’s an elite player,” Pearson says. “To call yourself out in front of the team, and once you do that you have to back it up.” And Hughes decided not to waste much time to do so. The following weekend when the team went to Minnesota, Hughes scored a goal and added an assist. “He was arguably the best player on the ice.”

But even in that Penn State game, which Pearson dubbed as the worst he’d ever seen Hughes play, there were still moments highlighting why it’s so easy to be enamored with his game.

Down four goals to start the second, Hughes found himself deep in the offensive zone with two Penn State players closing in on him. He shook them off his 5-foot-10 frame with ease, skated behind the net and wrapped around the other side to get a shot on goal, the rebound going to Luke Morgan for Michigan to finally get on the board and find its first moment of relief.

“It was a great play,” Morgan said after the game. “He had great puck protection the whole time. He came around the net and I just battled for a position. It sort of just went off me and ended in the back of the net.”

Hughes’s mobility is a big part of what had him pegged so high going into the 2018 draft and fits him into the NHL’s latest trend of relying on smaller, puck-moving defensemen. He racked up 29 points as a freshman and has already matched that this year to lead the team with four games remaining in the regular season.

Pearson said he chatted with Vancouver GM Jim Benning and head coach Travis Green last summer, an “honest conversation” about what they think would benefit Hughes the most. But he mostly discussed this with Hughes himself as he was deciding between gunning for a return to the Frozen Four and signing an entry-level contract.

“We talked about how many defensemen are in the NHL at under 20 currently,” Pearson says, “and that it’s a tougher position to jump into because you’re judged by your mistakes more than anything else and you’re the last man.”

The question that faced Hughes following Vancouver’s prospect camp last summer is inching its way back. Michigan’s regular season ends on March 2 and the tight standings in the Big Ten have not ruled the Wolverines out of making some type of postseason run. Although Hughes wouldn’t reveal what his plans are when the college season concludes, he is fully aware of what’s waiting for him when he does decide to join the Canucks.

Hughes got a taste of Vancouver hockey for 29 days during the World Junior Championship, where he helped lead the U.S. to a silver medal, one-upping his bronze medal from the year before. Unlike Michigan’s legendary Yost Arena that seats around 5,800, the final at the WJC boasted an attendance about triple that.

The crowd got his attention.

“It’s like ‘Holy crap, there’s a lot of people here,’” Hughes says. “Whereas sometimes you’re playing and you don’t even realize people are watching you. But there, oh shoot.”

Vancouver hosting a tournament featuring the best young players in the world was rather fitting, especially this year. After seeing off Henrik and Daniel Sedin at the end of last season, the 2018–19 Canucks have had three young stars stealing the show, starring Elias Pettersson (20 years old), Brock Boeser (21) and Bo Horvat (23). The trio leads the team in scoring and has had it flirting with a playoff spot.

The hype surrounding the future of the Canucks has not gone unnoticed by Hughes, who said he’s been paying attention and is excited to join in on the fun when the day comes.

“I’ll just do what I’m good at and hopefully that helps all of them out. I’m sure they’ll make me a better player, too, because I know how skilled and smart they are,” he says. “Hopefully we can just complement each other.”

And it’s not just one Hughes who could see himself in an NHL uniform very soon. Quinn’s younger brother, Jack, is expected to be the top pick in the 2019 draft and is the next installment of a generation of Hughes hockey players that are preparing to take over the sport. Their dad says the youngest brother, Luke, could be the best of the three, but Quinn says it’s pretty hard to bet against Jack right now.

But before Jack or Luke, all eyes may soon find themselves on Quinn, who knows whenever he chooses to join the Canucks, it’s not going to be easy.

“I’m making sure I’m 100% ready for what’s to come at the next level,” he says. “Obviously I don’t know, I haven’t been there yet, but I think it’s as much of a mental grind as it is a physical grind.”

His coach knows that whenever Hughes does make that jump, he’s got plenty in his favor to help him succeed.

“Every time he steps out on the ice he wants to be the best player and to win. His competitive spirit, I don’t know if it’s his best attribute, but it’s such an important part of his game,” Pearson says. “He’s got some God-given skills, there’s no question. He’s worked on his game, but some of that is God-given. I haven’t seen a player like that at Michigan with just that complete package.”

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