If you’re watching Minnesota Duluth play, it won’t be very long until you notice Gabbie Hughes on the ice. It might be when she muscles her way through a double team to keep possession of the puck. It might be when she rushes end to end, slicing through three defenders and beating the goalie to the top corner. Or it might be when she slips a puck through a defender’s legs, calmly collects it at the edge of the crease, and buries a goal.
Watching those highlights will probably stick with you for a while. For Hughes, it’s the opposite. She doesn’t dwell on anything when she’s on the ice; she just plays.
“Hockey has been, ever since I was younger, no matter what was going on in my day or my life, whatever was stressing me out, hockey was my one thing that was my passion,” she said. “When I step on the ice, it’s my time to just be who I really am and not even think twice about anything, and I think that’s where that kind of comes from, is not thinking too much about it. It just happens. I’m just free on the ice.”
Hughes burst onto the college hockey scene last season with one of the best freshmen performances in the country and in UMD program history. She became just the third rookie ever to lead the team in scoring. She’s only outperforming herself as a sophomore, with 11 goals and 16 assists for 27 points so far in 19 games. And even beyond that, Minnesota Duluth head coach Maura Crowell feels she has limitless potential.
“I think it’s rare to find such an offensively gifted player nowadays,” Crowell said of Hughes. “It’s a rare breed.”
Crowell says Hughes’ physical tools have always helped her stand out, from her prep days when she was racking up accolades with Centennial (Minn.) High School. That translated immediately when she made the jump to the WCHA.
“Her size and strength on the ice allows her to keep up with kids that are a lot older than her,” Crowell said. “Once she has that puck and she locks her edges in, forget it. She’s one of the hardest players to move off the puck.”
Hughes is also a natural goal-scorer, and while she’s comfortable making more routine plays to generate chances, she isn’t afraid to step out of the box, either.
“I can be structured but when I’m in the offensive zone, I just think I’m a very creative, anticipation type of player, instead of a defensive-minded, ‘one answer is the right answer’ type of player,” she said.
Her journey to Minnesota Duluth from Centennial had some curves in the road. Hughes was originally committed to North Dakota, but had to recommit late in her junior year when the program there folded. At the time, her high school coach helped a lot with emailing college programs to try and find another fit. The UMD coaching staff responded with patience and understanding, which really struck her.
“Duluth was one of the teams that replied just in the most kindhearted way, and they just stated that they’re here for me in this tough situation, it must be stressful, and if I needed help, they’d help me along the way,” Hughes said. “I think just having them being so understanding and there for me and saying they’d help out in any way they could, instead of just saying, ‘Come here, pick our school, we can do this for you,’ I think that was something that was very helpful.”
It wasn’t a hard decision to commit after that.
Hughes stood out almost immediately once she did join the Bulldogs, so from the very beginning of her college career, she had to adjust to being double-teamed by opposing defenses. Crowell says that those experiences only helped mold her into a more confident player who is more than capable of handling that level of play.
“She’s such a competitor. And I think she has confidence in her game, which is great to see, because sometimes our female athletes struggle in that area,” Crowell said. “If you’re not confident, and you’re not having fun out there, there’s no way you’re trying some of the things that she does.”
Hughes is quick to credit her classmates at UMD for helping her adjust so smoothly to the pace of college hockey, and WCHA play in particular. She was part of a nine-member freshman class last season in Duluth, and it helped her a lot to have such a big group to share in that experience. Their coaches also helped inspire confidence early on.
“Our coaching staff just basically told us to not even think of ourselves as freshmen anymore, and that was something we talked about all season long but especially at the beginning of the season,” Hughes said. “I think that was a big aspect to it, just having the people around you give you the mental state that it doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or not.”
Building on her successes as a rookie, Hughes is scoring at a torrid clip this year. She’s been held off the scoresheet in just two games, and she’s clearly become a go-to player for the team. At last weekend’s Minnesota Cup, she scored the overtime winner to send the Bulldogs to the championship game, and then assisted on the game-winning goal as they captured the title. She came away with Most Outstanding Player honors.
While sharpening her offensive skills at UMD, Hughes has also made some impressive improvements to her 200-foot game. She’s a well-rounded center who’s strong in the faceoff circle, ranking in the top five in the WCHA with 224 draws won (52.8%). And she’s putting a big emphasis on her play away from the opposing team’s net.
“I think something that has gotten a lot better going from high school to college is my defensive zone,” she said. “In high school in Minnesota, [the D zone] wasn’t too talked about; it was very important but you get to college hockey and that’s basically where you win and lose hockey games. It’s not just about who can score more goals.”
Crowell has been especially impressed with her dedication to improving all aspects of her game, particularly coming from a player who is such a natural offensive talent.
“Everything starts there; you start in the D zone and you work your way up ice,” Crowell said. “When you have your best player buy into that D zone toughness and that D zone importance, I think you have a good recipe for everybody else.”
Hughes came to Minnesota Duluth unsure of her major, but she decided last semester that she wants to go into teaching. She’s now studying elementary special education. Her grandmother used to teach seventh grade, so she’s drawn some inspiration there.
“She was kind of pushing me like, ‘Oh, you’d be such a great teacher,'” Hughes said. “I did help coaching some youth teams back home and I just absolutely loved it.”
Like her play on the ice, teaching might be something that just comes naturally to her. Even at the rink, Crowell’s already noticed her knack for building up those around her, and helping to show them how they can improve.
“She is a good teacher; she’ll come up to me in drills and say, ‘Hey, Coach, I think if we tried this here, it’ll help the drill go better,'” she said of Hughes. “She sees things and she’s got those natural leadership abilities and so I can see her being a great teacher. I would like to take a class with her.”
As a group, the Bulldogs are having a successful season so far. Along with their Minnesota Cup victory, they also won the IceBreaker tournament in the fall and they’re now ranked No. 10 in the USCHO, USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine, and SB Nation polls.
They have a tight-knight group this year, according to Hughes, and she loves everything about being a Bulldog.
“I think that what separates us a lot from some other teams is we just love each other unconditionally and it’s not just that we’re teammates; we hang out all the time outside of the rink,” Hughes said. “I love that. I love that they’re my family and they make Duluth even more homey than it already is.”