By Bob Crawford
Hartford Wolf Pack rookie defenseman Tommy Hughes had three years of Major Junior hockey experience prior to joining the Wolf Pack this season, but this year’s Wolf Pack campaign marks the first time Hughes has actually lived away from home.
A native of London, Ontario, Hughes played his entire Ontario Hockey League career with his hometown London Knights, living at home with his parents, Brian and Laurie, instead of with a “billet” family, the usual living situation for a Junior player in a locale away from his hometown.
“It was a pretty unique experience,” Hughes said this week of staying home to play Junior. “Not a lot of guys can live with their parents when they’re at home, but they obviously take good care of me, and they treated me like they were kind of billeting me, like with having meals prepared and things like that. It was different, but at the same time, it was kind of the same as a billet family, in a sense.”
Nutrition and training meals are such a huge part of the regimen at the higher levels of hockey these days, and Hughes’ mom and dad were right on board as far as making sure his diet conformed to what he was expected to be fueling himself with.
“They’d buy all the chickens and all the pastas,” Hughes said. “I gave them the input and they got the stuff I needed, so that worked out nicely.”
Seems like an enviable arrangement, considering most of his teammates saw their folks only once in a while and didn’t get to keep all their stuff in their boyhood bedrooms. There was no jealousy on the part of the rest of the team, though, Hughes is quick to assert.
“They liked coming over for home-cooked meals,” he said with a chuckle, “and the year before last year, we had four guys who were from London that lived at home. So it wasn’t popular, but there were a few guys in the same position.
Playing with the Knights also afforded Hughes the chance to fulfill a dream of sorts, as he got a chance to wear the colors of a team he cheered hard for growing up.
“I followed them a bunch, we had season tickets, and I watched [current Wolf Pack teammate, and fellow former Knight, Danny Syvret] out there, winning the Memorial Cup,” Hughes said. “It was a huge hockey town, and all the fans were really into it, so it was a great honor to actually wear the jersey when I was old enough.”
The Knights have enjoyed tremendous success under President/Head Coach Dale Hunter and his brother, Vice-President/General Manager Mark Hunter, both former NHL players. Last season, in Hughes’ last year, the team won its third OHL championship in the past nine seasons, and the 2004-05 club that Syvret played on won the Memorial Cup, the championship of all of Canadian Major Junior hockey. The Knights have not had a sub-.500 record since 2001-02, but Hughes did not feel all that success generated an inordinate amount of pressure, even on the “local boy”.
“It wasn’t unbearable or anything,” he said. “Just like any team, their fans are pretty loyal, so they want results. And if you don’t perform, then they’re not going to be too happy, but I think we gave them what they needed and made them happy.”
Playing for the Hunters, too, was a boon for Hughes and his fellow Knights, given the braintrust’s knowledge of what it takes to get to, and have a good career in, the NHL.
“They’re great guys to have leading the organization,” Hughes said. “They obviously are experienced enough to guide us in the right direction, and it’s just a first-class organization, through and through. A lot of great experiences from them.”
Now, however, the Junior days are in the rear-view mirror, and Hughes is truly on his own for the first time. Through camaraderie with his Wolf Pack teammates, though, and solid life skills he learned from his parents, he has weathered the transition with no problem.
“There’s changes, but I haven’t been overwhelmed by them at all,” Hughes said. “So I think they trained me well.
“A lot of the teammates pitch in and do meals together, so I haven’t found it too bad. I think I was well trained growing up with my parents. I was pretty active in the kitchen at some points, so I think that’s helped. I’ve kind of welcomed the experience and change.
“You’re not used to playing with guys that are in their thirties or whatnot, so that’s a bit of an adjustment, but they’ve been great.”
While the Wolf Pack roster does sport some grizzled (compared to Hughes, anyway), over-30 veterans, there is also a large cadre of youngsters, single guys just starting out in the pro game. The majority of those young guns live under the same roof in downtown Hartford, in the “Hartford 21” apartment tower right above the XL Center, and that situation has been excellent for team togetherness.
“That’s really nice, having a bunch of guys in the same building,” Hughes said. “We do meals together and go to watch movies, or just hang out basically the whole day. So that’s really nice, to have guys that you can go to and just hang out with.”
So even though Mom and Dad aren’t as close as the next room any more, Hughes is hardly alone as he faces his first venture outside the family home. Overall, he is upbeat about how it has worked out.
“I guess it’s a lot of responsibility, but I’ve welcomed the change,” he said. “And I wouldn’t say I’ve really missed home, the change has been nice. And I’ll be back there in the summer, so we’ll catch up then.”
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photo credit: chris rutsch