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Top 2019 draft prospect Jack Hughes idolized Crosby growing up

Hughes will be in Pittsburgh this weekend for the USHL Fall Classic

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Jack Hughes, the consensus No. 1 overall prospect for the 2019 NHL Draft, moved around a decent amount as a kid.

With his father Jim working in hockey, the Hughes family lived in Orlando (where Jack was born), Boston, Manchester, and Toronto. Jim spent 10 years there working for the Maple Leafs organization as both a coach and director of player development, and that's where Jack feels most at home.

But despite all the different stops, and despite being a self-identified "die-hard" Maple Leafs fan, Jack admitted that the first player he idolized was Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

"You can say this for probably every kid growing up in Canada, but Sidney Crosby," Hughes said when asked what NHL player he looked up to. "Crosby was the first guy I kind of fell in love with watching."

As Hughes got older, he began watching Connor McDavid, since the 2015 first-overall pick played his midget and junior hockey close by, for the Toronto Marlboroughs and Erie Otters, respectively. He also loves watching fellow American and 2007 first-overall pick Patrick Kane. But Hughes can't say enough about the example Crosby has set for younger players like him and the incredible career he's crafted.

"I think everyone can look up to how humble he is and how he's a generational player and a kid that changed the way hockey is now," Hughes said. "He's handled everything so well. He's been such a good ambassador for the sport. That's really something you can look at, how he carries himself off the ice. 

"Then when it comes to on the ice, I mean, he's been the best player in the world for so long now. It's so fun to watch him play."

Hughes estimates he's watched Crosby play about five times in person, when the Leafs hosted the Penguins at the Air Canada Centre and during the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Hughes has even gotten to meet Crosby twice, saying with a laugh, "I don't think he remembers, but for sure I will. I was a young kid, so it was really cool."

Hughes will likely get the chance to see Crosby again this weekend, as he will be at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry for the DICK's Sporting Goods USHL Fall Classic. 

Hughes plays for the U.S. National Team Development Program, which competes in the USHL regular season. Team USA will play the Sioux Falls Stampede at 2 p.m. on Saturday before facing the Omaha Lancers at 4 p.m. on Sunday.

There will be more than 350 NHL, collegiate and amateur scouts in attendance this weekend, with Hughes - widely expected to be the first-overall pick in 2019 and whose style of play has garnered comparisons to Kane and McDavid - being one of the main attractions. But he's trying not to think about that too much, instead choosing to focus on helping Team USA's season get off to a strong start.

"I'm just worried about playing two good games and having fun with them, because we've only played two games this year," he said. "So it'll be good to get the games going and have some fun."

Hughes, 17, is entering his second season with the USNTDP after an incredible first season. At 16, going up against teams made up mostly of 18- to 20-year-olds, Hughes put up 116 points (40G-76A) in 60 games. That was just one point shy of Auston Matthews' program record, which the Maple Leafs star did when he was a year older than Hughes.

There was a lot of talk about where Hughes would play this year, with many speculating he would leave the USNTDP to join his brother Quinn - taken seventh overall by Vancouver at the 2018 NHL Draft - at the University of Michigan, or head to the Canadian Hockey League. But Hughes was happy where he was, saying he loves his teammates, coaches and the facilities at the USNTDP.

"I just felt like it was the best spot for my development, and it was just a really good opportunity to come back with such a really good team and play another year with my friends," Hughes said. 

"That was the appeal, and then just talking over it with friends and family, they were just saying, if it's not broke, don't fix it. Just keep it going, it's a great place for you. Another year of getting stronger and practicing hard every day, so it's a really good opportunity to stay there."

It was also a really good opportunity to spend another season competing in the USHL, which is gaining recognition as a source of high-end talent. In the 2016 NHL Draft, the first round featured 10 USHL alumni players selected, including Matthews - who was taken first overall. 

In the 2017 NHL Draft, the USHL had seven players selected in the first round. And this year, Hughes is joined by seven other projected first-round picks.

"It's such a good league," Hughes said. "People have the stereotypes that the CHL is so good, but in my eyes, the USHL is just as good. A lot of good players going to college, so it's older, stronger kids, and of course the NTDP, the best players in the country play for the NTDP. So it's a hard league. It's a good league with a lot of good players."

Hughes is looking forward to getting this season started, as it's a special one for him. He doesn't know where he'll end up once his name is called on June 21 in Vancouver, so he plans on just staying in the moment until that moment comes.

"There's only one draft year, so I'm going to have fun with it and have fun with my teammates I've been playing with for the last year," he said. "I won't take it for granted, for sure. I'll have fun, it's not just about playing well. It's about having a good year and enjoying it."

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