PLYMOUTH, Mich. — Elder statesmen is a term rarely reserved for two players competing at the IIHF World Junior Championship. But for Michigan’s rising sophomore defenseman Luke Hughes and forward Dylan Duke, their gray hair is beginning to show.
The old guard of the Wolverines’ representation at the 2023 National Junior Evaluation Camp, the two standouts already have a year of experience at the NCAA level. With 58 points between them in a combined 82 games, the two gained intangible wisdom as integral pieces in Michigan’s trip to a Big Ten Championship and the Frozen Four.
Wisdom they look to leverage as leaders for their future Wolverine teammates.
“Having a leadership role (means) bringing the team together,” Hughes said. “Whether that’s playing cards, or going out to lunch or whatever. Just bringing guys together and making them comfortable, that will bring the chemistry up.”
Leadership and chemistry rest squarely on the mind for Hughes and Duke. This week’s camp will provide another opportunity for the Michigan veterans to build relationships with incoming freshmen after the team lost a multitude of key players to the pro ranks. With so much roster turnover, both Duke and Hughes must familiarize themselves with a variety of fresh faces.
Faces they have already run into. Attending the NJEC this week are incoming freshmen forwards Rutger McGroarty, Frank Nazar III and defenseman Seamus Casey. The American trio, just three of the incoming freshmen for the Wolverines, are coming off a blistering NTDP year and a silver medal at the Under-18 World Juniors back in May.
And while Hughes and Duke are well aware of the importance of on-ice chemistry, they understand that great teams are built off the ice too.
“That’s something I learned last year,” Hughes said. “We had such a great senior core that they brought us together so quickly. Anything they were doing — whether it was going to lunch or doing anything — they brought us along.”
Together, Hughes and Duke’s leadership has evolved into an organized grassroots campaign to build relationships outside the rink.
From Dylan Duke’s infamous paint presence in pick-up basketball scrums that often go chaotic, to Hughes’ attempt to organize a softball tournament — until his plans were interrupted by playing in the IIHF Men’s World Championship (go figure) — the Wolverines’ old guard have wasted no time in replicating the chemistry that their standout predecessors were known for.
“I’ve been hanging around with Luke too,” Casey said. “Sometimes at the gym, or wherever it is — on the ice. (He’s a) good leader for sure, good to have around.”
And that leadership will certainly pay dividends for this young group. Entering freshman year of college is a tall task for any person, but adding a high-level Division I athletic commitment could be borderline overwhelming. By creating a welcoming environment, Hughes and Duke hope to smooth the transition for their future teammates.
“We got a great, great group of guys,” Hughes said. “Really good people. So just bringing those guys in and making sure they’re comfortable and making sure they’re part of the team (is important).”
Nevertheless, the two understand that while the work to create a competitive hockey team can begin with getting up extra jump shots on the basketball court, it ends with pucks in the back of the net. For all the fun the group is having now, they are transfixed on the end product too.
“Those guys are coming to Michigan for a reason,” Duke said. “They’re great hockey players and great kids. … And when it all comes together, we can find some chemistry and be productive on the ice.”
And although the season has far from begun and the tireless Hughes and Duke continue to hone their games in an offseason that seems anything but relaxing, they are ready to take on the leadership role.
To Dylan Duke, it equates to a simple calculation:
“I think it’s going to be a really good year for us.”