VANCOUVER — Friday could be an historic day for USA Hockey, and Jack Hughes will likely get the party started.
The projected No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN; livestream) will be only the eighth American to be taken with the first selection in what could be a record-setting Round 1 for the U.S. program.
No more than three players from the USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program have been first round selections in previous drafts. There could be as many as seven this year, with Hughes leading the pack. While five NTDP players have been chosen first overall, if Hughes plays in the NHL next season he’ll be the first player to go directly from the program to playing in the NHL.
That achievement is something on the mind of Hughes.
“Yeah, that’s my goal,” Hughes said during Thursday’s top prospects media availability. “I want to be the first player, kind of break a barrier there, that you can go from the program to play in the NHL the following year.”
There were 19 NTDP skaters and goalies on NHL Central Scouting’s final draft rankings this year and there is the potential of a record-setting five U.S.-born players being picked in the top 10. The 22-year-old program has pumped out top players for years, but this U18 class might be its deepest ever, headlined by Hughes.
“The training we do there is second-to-none,” Hughes said. “Our practices, our games, we lift two, three times a week. It’s so competitive. The players you go up against, you’re playing against the best players in the country in your age group on daily basis. When I go into the corner for a puck battle, I have to go against [Matthew] Boldy one time, then I’m going against [Alex] Turcotte the next time, I’m going against [Trevor] Zegras. I think that makes you a better player.
“It’s a really competitive environment with great people. The coaches treat us unbelievable. Coach [John Wroblewski], he couldn’t have coached us better, [he] treated us really well. Credit to the people that work at the program because they really helped us out.”
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Hughes had an historic NTDP career finishing with a record 228 points in 110 games, surpassing Clayton Keller’s 189 points. Internationally, he repped the U.S. at two U18 World Championships, winning silver and bronze, and led the tournament in scoring both times while earning MVP honors in 2018. He also helped the Americans to silver at 2019 World Junior Championship and played seven games at the World Championship this spring.
That World Championship experience allowed Hughes to play with and against current NHL players, including future New Jersey Devils teammate Cory Schneider and Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane, who gave the 18-year-old forward high praise by saying, “I think he does a lot of things better than me, to be honest with you.”
“It was unreal for me on the ice, kind of learned some things that I’ll get better at this summer,” Hughes said of his time at the World Championship. “But I think the most important thing was being in a room with guys, learning how to be a pro on a daily basis. Taking things from certain players. I think that was an invaluable experience for me.”
Hockey has been Hughes’ life. His dad Jim was an assistant coach for the Boston Bruins and served as Director of Player Development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. His mom Ellen played at the University of New Hampshire and was on the 1992 U.S. World Championship team that claimed silver. Older brother Quinn plays defense for the Vancouver Canucks and younger brother Luke will play for the U17 NTDP next season and is draft eligible in 2021.
Along with his immediate family, Hughes said there will be about 65 people in attendance Friday night at Rogers Arena to support him. They won’t have to wait long to hear his name called, which will signal the official beginning of his NHL career.
“It’s awesome. It’s right here,” Hughes said. “You look forward to it for so many years. This year it’s kind of in the back of your mind every day. When you close your eyes that’s what you’re thinking about. Now that it’s finally here I’m going to enjoy it and it should be awesome for all my family members and me, too.”
NBC Sports presents live, exclusive coverage of first round of the 2019 NHL Draft this Friday, June 21, at 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET with NHL Live.
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.