ST. LOUIS -- Jack Hughes stood in the aisle, three rows from the glass, rapt as the St. Louis Blues went through their morning skate.
The center is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft in Vancouver on June 21-22. He played with NHL players for the United States at the 2019 IIHF World Championship in May, sitting next to Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane in the locker room. His brother Quinn was the No. 7 pick of the 2018 draft and finished this season with the Vancouver Canucks.
Still, even to him, this was surreal, special.
[RELATED: Complete 2019 NHL Draft coverage]
"You watch them play so many times, and, like, now I'm standing two feet from the glass and they're in the Stanley Cup Final," the 18-year-old said without taking his eyes off the ice. "You see them up close. It's pretty cool. You hope you're in a situation like this one day."
Before the Blues and Boston Bruins played Game 4 of the Cup Final at Enterprise Center on Monday, the NHL gave a backstage tour to Central Scouting's top five North American skaters: Hughes from USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, defenseman Bowen Byram from Vancouver of the Western Hockey League, center Kirby Dach from Saskatoon of the WHL, center Alex Turcotte from the NTDP and center Dylan Cozens from Lethbridge of the WHL.
The League has been bringing top prospects to the Cup Final for 27 years to expose them to the media and the big stage, teaching them what it's all about, inspiring them.
Follow the top prospects, and two things stand out: how executives, coaches and players will take time before one of the biggest games of their lives to say hello or offer advice; and how elite, accomplished 18-year-olds are still 18-year-olds. They're seeing things for the first time and having a blast.
Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo rapped his stick against the glass at Dave Keon, the NHL senior manager of event communications and player development who organizes this each year. Before the Blues selected him No. 4 in the 2008 draft, Pietrangelo visited the Cup Final between the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It was a big deal back then, going to see Detroit, going to see the players and all that," he said. "Me and David still talk about that. I think it's a cool thing they do. It's more nerve-wracking than anything. I think in that sense it's good preparation for the kids."
The prospects boarded a bus at the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and headed to the arena. First stop after breakfast: the interview room. They had it to themselves, so Byram and Turcotte stepped up onto the podium. Someone played reporter and asked Byram how confident he was that the New Jersey Devils would select him No. 1.
"Yeah, um, there's a couple guys that are higher in the rankings," Byram said, referring to Hughes and forward Kaapo Kakko of Finland, Central Scouting's top European skater. "But if you ask me, that's a bit of [garbage] for sure. I'm obviously the best player in the draft. I think I've proven that throughout the years. Jack and Kakko are pretty average."
Video: Top prospects visit St. Louis for Game 4 of Cup Final
Everyone had a good laugh.
"Pumping the brakes on the Jack train," Hughes said, smiling.
The top prospects are competitors, but they're building a bond by going through a shared experience and know they always will be linked as members of the same draft class. The chirping is constant. So is the support. After Byram worried about stumbling in an interview, Turcotte patted him on the back and said, "You did good."
"At the end of the day, we're all good buddies now," Dach said. "We're going to be happy to see where each other go. It's a friendship you're going to have for a long time."
They watched the Blues and Bruins morning skates through players' eyes, studying the gear, the skills, the routines. When they entered the Blues locker room, they stayed for only a few minutes. They were more interested in the stick rack, particularly center Ryan O'Reilly's stick. O'Reilly's shaft has a 115 flex to help with face-offs, and his blade is long with an abrupt bend at the toe to help him control the puck.
"That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen," Hughes said. "It's like an 'L.' "
Defenseman Colton Parayko walked past, 6-foot-6 and more on skates. Even Dach, 6-4, had to look up at him.
"It's kind of eye-opening, just how big and strong those guys are," Dach said. "We're still boys. We've got to grow into our bodies a little bit more to be able to play at that level. You kinda know what you're going to up against before you're starting."
Of all the interactions the top prospects had, perhaps the most powerful was this: Bruins forward Patrice Bergeron introduced himself as if they wouldn't know who he was.
"Hi," he said. "I'm Patrice."
He congratulated them and told them they were in a great position, without reminding them he wasn't quite in theirs at their age. The Bruins selected him in the second round (No. 45) in the 2003 draft. Then he left them with these wise words:
"It goes fast," he said. "I can't believe it's been 16 years for me. So enjoy."
Listen: New episode of NHL Draft Class presented by adidas