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The NHL can thank women’s hockey for molding its top prospect into Barry Sanders on skates

Jack Hughes is the presumptive No. 1 pick in this week's NHL draft. (Christian Bruna/EPA)

His former coach calls it a “force field.” When Jack Hughes skates with the puck, the potential top pick in this week’s NHL draft has a way of darting in and out, feinting side to side to keep defenders just out of stick’s reach, as if they’re blocked by some imaginary bubble.

“If fans remember Barry Sanders,” says John Wroblewski, coach of the U.S. National Team Development Program, “he could move laterally, and then he’s at full speed again. Or in basketball, the way Michael Jordan could get guys to stop on a dime. The quickness and slashing and deception — Jack is truly turning on the ice as well as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

This ability to shift and shoot at full speed is part of what has made the hockey world anticipate Hughes’s draft-night moment for years. The 5-foot-10, 18-year-old forward seems destined to be a cornerstone for the New Jersey Devils or New York Rangers, depending on whether he goes first or second when the draft begins Friday, but either way he will be front and center in a major media market. Hughes is hockey’s Zion Williamson, with confidence to match.

“I don’t think I’ve ever felt overwhelmed on an ice rink,” he says.

So then the question for Hughes is: Who taught you to skate?

His answer is as quick as his wrist shot: “It was my mom.”

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Hughes has a first-round draft pick in older brother Quinn (now with Vancouver), a potential NHLer in little brother Luke and a title-winning coach in father Jim, so his story is truly a family affair. But his mom’s influence is central to the tale.

Ellen Hughes played with the U.S. women’s national hockey team in the early 1990s, and she played soccer against some of the members of the 1999 World Cup champions. (She once roomed with Brandi Chastain at a youth camp.) Jack’s success is as much of a tribute to his mother as to anyone in the men’s game. He is hardly the first hockey star to be influenced by a decorated mom — Alex Ovechkin’s mother, for example, is a two-time gold medalist in basketball — but Hughes is a men’s player who has benefited from the Title IX generation. In that sense, he is part of an emerging chapter in American sports.

Jack was born in Orlando in May 2001, and 10 days later Ellen was on a plane to Oklahoma to work as a reporter for ESPN at the Women’s College World Series. Broadcasting was the capstone to a fabled athletic career that earned her a spot in the University of New Hampshire Hall of Fame and took her to the sidelines to report on the U.S. team during its 1999 Women’s World Cup run to the Rose Bowl. She was pregnant with Quinn at the time.

Jim Hughes won an International Hockey League championship as an assistant with the Orlando Solar Bears — 12 days after Jack was born — and the family relocated as Jim got coaching gigs in Boston and then Ontario when he was hired by the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies. Ellen scaled back on broadcasting with three little boys in the house. She loved parenting but never stopped loving sports. That led to Mommy and Me skating days in Massachusetts. Childhood photos and videos show Quinn, Jack and Luke in NHL jerseys and dressing rooms, but the boys also followed the women’s game.

“My kids have grown up watching that,” Ellen says. “They’ve watched the women as much as the men.”

There was never a grand plan to create a family of hockey stars. Jim and Ellen were hopeful of landing college scholarships and nothing more. They kept the game fun and light, encouraging hard work but not drudgery. Ellen was once pulled aside by Quinn’s grade school teacher, who told her that her oldest boy was often looking out the window at his mom skating with little Jack at lunchtime.

But genetics and the perfect hockey environment — including a childhood in ice rink-heavy Ontario — conspired to make Jack both heady and speedy.

“Quinn was a worker, very competitive,” Jim says. “Jack was . . . well, you could see there was something else going on.”

Jim remembers when Jack was put out onto the rink with some older kids, at defense, and he promptly took the puck and wove in and out of larger players as if they were orange cones. It was an early glimpse of the force field. Jack was 5 years old.

As the boys grew into their teens, Ellen became an uber-planner for games and practices. But she was far more than a driver of minivans and provider of Gatorade, especially when Jim was on the road. She was a hockey resource.

“They could ask, ‘What do you think of this?’ ” Ellen says. “They would want my opinion. Or, ‘Come watch the game with me.’ Or they’d throw me in net. That to them is normal; they don’t know differently.”

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Ellen insists that Jim had the primary role in the boys’ development, but Jim insists Ellen’s hockey knowledge “meant everything.”

“She would tell the boys the truth,” he says. “She could talk to the kids. She knew what to say and what not to say. She could connect.”

This may be avant-garde in a historical sense but not to the Hughes boys. Quinn had a girl on his team as a youth player. NBD, as the kids say. “Women’s hockey is pretty cool, too,” Jack says. “Hockey is hockey.”

The family eventually moved to Michigan (where Quinn went to college), and Hughes obliterated the points record for the national team’s development program. Last month he had three assists in seven games with Team USA at the world championships even though he only turned 18 in late May and was facing NHL-caliber opponents.

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“That’s kind of uncharted water,” Wroblewski says. “That’s a man’s tournament.”

Hughes’s precision is to the point where he has been known to attempt to shoot the puck off the goalie’s mask and into the net. He says to expect some of the unexpected at the next level.

“You could see a lot of things,” he laughs.

That includes something very rare: a first overall NHL pick born in the United States. Hughes would be only the eighth player to earn that honor. And he is not shy about admitting it’s “really important to him” to go No. 1 to the Devils (even though he’s also happy to land with the Rangers at No. 2).

“You dream of going first overall,” he says. “You don’t dream of going later than that.”

No members of the Hughes family assign any special status to what they have done. “We’re just another American hockey family,” Jim insists. “That’s all we are. There have been pioneers before us. We are just another American hockey family.”

Yes and no. Having two children as star athletes could happen more often in the United States.

“Fathers are still more likely to socialize boys into sport than mothers,” says Cheryl Cooky, an associate professor of gender studies at Purdue. “But that’s shifting.”

“Shifting” is an apt word to describe Hughes and what he will bring to the NHL.

“He has really cut a path for himself,” Wroblewski says. “There’s an entire generation trying to grow up and play like Jack Hughes. He’s that unique.”

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