It’s an integral part of almost every teen movie – the blonde haired, blue-eyed star athlete. He’s the ace pitcher and the best hitter on the baseball team, he’s the swashbuckling quarterback who dates the head cheerleader, and he’s the captain of the soccer team who scores goals by the boatload. On top of all that he effortlessly pulls down straight A’s, has a great sense of humour and is a genuinely kind person. But that’s just Hollywood nonsense. It’s just a character from a teen movie played by whichever teen heart-throb happens to be trending on Snapgram that month, right?
Tyler Hughes was born on November 7th, 1980 in Victoria, British Columbia. He was in fact the quarterback on the football team, the ace pitcher on the baseball team (when he wasn’t pitching he was chasing down fly balls in centerfield, leading off and stealing bases), and the lynchpin of the best soccer team in the city, some say the entire province. But it doesn’t end there. Unfortunately for us regular folk, he was also (and still is) handsome, charismatic and intelligent.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Tyler recently. We talked about how playing multiple sports as a youth aided in his athletic development, his pride in representing his country, his path to playing professionally in Europe and what he has his sights set on for the future.
MJ: “As a youth you played baseball, football and soccer, all at a fairly high level. Do you feel your participation in these other sports helped you as a soccer player? If so, how?”
TH: “Looking back, I would say that playing a variety of sports growing up was an asset to my soccer career for a couple of reasons; the cross training from one sport to another allowed my body to be trained on a number of different levels and training specifications that might not have happened if I was training in only a soccer environment; and it also allowed me to enjoy other sports and avoid any possible burn out from focusing on one specific sport.”
While Hughes was a jack-of-all-trades when it came to sports, his first love was definitely soccer. Coming through the ranks of Gorge Soccer Association he was quickly identified as a once in a generation player. Hughes began training with the club’s Div. 1 men’s team at the tender age of 13. He’d train three to four nights a week – twice with his own underage team and once or twice with the big boys, some of whom were over 20 years his senior. He was an integral part of the youth side, wearing the #10 shirt along with the Captain’s armband, and by the age of 14 he was beginning to see regular game time with the Div. 1’s. At an age when most kids were contemplating whether or not they were too old to continue trick-or-treating, Hughes was busy establishing himself as a regular on the top men’s soccer team in the city. The fact that he was able to hold his own in such an environment is even more impressive when you consider the level of talent Gorge had at their disposal; Gorge’s Div. 1 team finished runner-up in the Men’s Provincial Championships that year.
While he was always an eager student when working with the top team, Hughes was equally comfortable passing on the lessons he learned once he’d returned to his youth club. He and his fresh-faced cohorts continued their development and many of them would eventually establish themselves within the Div. 1 set-up. The young influx of talent appears to be just what the club needed, as they managed to win the British Columbia Men’s Provincial Championships in 2001 and 2002 (Hughes’ 21st and 22nd years). Despite Hughes being away at college during these years, the impact he had on those former teammates was obvious.
“He was just naturally good at everything… Whatever you were playing, all you could do was hope he was on your team.”
MJ: “You came through the ranks at Gorge FC, a club with a well-known history of developing top players. How was your development enhanced as a result of playing at a club with such a strong pedigree?”
TH: “Gorge FC is such a fantastic club. There is a strong sense of community within the club and I was very fortunate to grow up in that environment. They provided me with an invaluable opportunity to train with men at early age, which was extremely beneficial to my development. I am very grateful for the coaches and players on those Gorge teams that took me under their wing and provided me with the opportunity to train in such a great environment.”
“He was just naturally good at everything. Like all the kids in the neighbourhood, we used to play outside, all day, every day. Soccer, baseball, football, street hockey, basketball… any sport, any position – he was the best,” recalls one childhood friend. “We’d play pool in his basement – he’d win, we’d play random stuff like beach golf – he’d win that too. Whatever you were playing, all you could do was hope he was on your team.”
Upon finishing high school he quickly went from local star to college star when he joined Coastal Carolina University on a four-year scholarship. He graduated in 2001 and was eventually elected to the Chanticleers’ hall of fame in 2011 – one of just eight recognized for men’s soccer.
MJ: “You had a very successful career at Coastal Carolina where during your time there the team went a combined 41W-26D-6L under Coach Shaun Docking, who joined in 1998. The team was Big South Regular Season Champion in both 1999 and 2000 and was Big South Tournament Champions in 2001. Prior to 2000 the team had not won the Regular Season since 1989 and hadn’t won the Big South Tournament since 1995. What contributed to such a quick turnaround once Docking arrived? What kind of culture did he and his staff instil at Coastal Carolina?”
TH: “Shaun has a knack for recruiting the right type of player to play within his system. My first year, he brought in players that had a lot of experience. We had a handful of international players that each brought their own experience of playing at a high level and were able to contribute to the team from day one. He created a very competitive training environment within the program. That allowed us to train on a daily basis at an intensity that was sometimes greater than some of the games we played.”
Shortly after graduating, Hughes turned pro and joined the Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL second division. Hughes lasted just one season with Wilmington before being snapped up by the Toronto Lynx for the 2003 and 2004 seasons. He made 47 appearances and despite the Lynx finishing 5th and 7th respectively, Hughes stood out as one of the team’s most reliable performers. He also spent extensive time with the Canadian youth set-up, showcasing his talents to a wider audience.
MJ: “After graduation you turned pro, playing for Wilmington Hammerheads, Toronto Lynx and eventually signing with Osters IF in Sweden. Describe the process of signing with Osters – How did they become aware of your talents? Did you fly to Europe for trials with multiple teams? How long did the process take from start to finish?”
TH: “During my time with the U20 Canadian National team, I met a player agent by the name of Barry McLean. I told him that getting a degree was my first priority. He said that when I was done, he wanted to get me over to Europe. I had success at Wilmington and Toronto and then Barry arranged a trial for me with Norwegian team FK Haugesund. They flew me over and took great care of me for a week’s worth of training. It was a great experience, but I didn’t end up signing with them. A few months later I got called up to the Canadian Senior Men’s National team under coach Frank Yallop. Having that pedigree on my resume opened a lot of new doors for me. I went to England and trained with Darlington and Sheffield United. Things went well there, but didn’t end up signing as I had Osters IF wanting to bring me over to Sweden for a trial. I decided to go to Sweden and see what it was like. A member of the club picked me up at the airport and drove me to the city, about three hours away. Osters was hosting a preseason tournament that weekend with a Danish Superliga team and two other Swedish Allsvenskan teams. Three hours after getting off a transatlantic flight I was putting my boots on getting ready to play a 30 minute game against a top flight team. I still remember putting my boots on and barely getting them on as my feet were still swollen from the flight! I played two, 30 minute games that night and from what I can recall, I played quite well. Well enough that the next day my agent called me saying one of the other teams there now wanted to sign me as well. Given the fact Osters took the chance and brought me over, I decided to give them the opportunity to sign me first. I ended up signing a three-year contract a few days later.”
MJ: “While you’d already been away from home during your college career and your time playing with Wilmington and Toronto, the move from North America to Europe must have exposed you to quite a few new challenges. What were the biggest challenges you had to deal with upon moving to Europe? The language barrier? Different customs? Different foods?”
TH: “The food, culture and language were all different and definitely took some getting used to, but I was focused and determined as this was the chance I had been waiting my entire life for. The biggest difference was that soccer was the biggest sport in Sweden and I was going to be playing in front of a large and knowledgeable fan base. There was also the pressure of having to perform every game and taking criticism if I or the team were not doing well. That is not something that you had to deal with as a pro in North America at the time.”
Hughes followed in the footsteps of Canadian stars Mark Watson and Atiba Hutchinson when he became the third Canuck to suit up for the Swedish side. Osters’ press release described Hughes as, “a well-trained and skilled back who will help improve our defence. He also has a very professional attitude.”
“North American players tended to be more athletic than Europeans, but the European players are much more tactically aware…”
MJ: “Take us through a typical day at a professional soccer club like Osters – your daily schedule, on pitch training, gym/weights, other training such as swimming, etc.”
TH: “A day in the life differed depending on the time of year. Preseason was very different from the regular season. In preseason we would be training upwards of eight or nine times a week – two or three days with double sessions. One of those days would be going to the club for a 10am strength and fitness session, then eat lunch as a team in the restaurant, then home for a nap or to relax. Back to the field for a 3pm training session, usually a ‘soccer’ session. We were fortunate enough to have a full size indoor field turf pitch, which allowed to train indoors in the cold winter months. Preseason was a very difficult time because of the training, but very necessary for the long Swedish season. As we got closer to the start of the season, the training started to become lighter and less physical, and continued that way throughout most of the season. During the season, you would have a lot more downtime. Training was at 3pm because most of our games were at 3pm. You would get there about 45 minutes early; maybe earlier depending on if you needed treatment or anything else.”
MJ: “Take us through a typical game day – pre-match routine, superstitions, team talk etc.”
TH: “A typical home game would be at 3pm. I’d wake up and eat breakfast at the apartment, go for a walk or hangout with some guys from the team. Team lunch at a restaurant at 11 or so, maybe a short walk and back home for a short nap. Then, head to the stadium about an hour and 15 minutes before kick-off, not being late so as to avoid a team fine. I didn’t have any crazy superstitions, but I did like to have the same routine leading up to the game – nothing out of the ordinary or any surprises on game day. We would have the team talk then out for warm up about 30 minutes before kick-off, back into the change room about 10 or 15 mins before kick-off for a final team talk and last-minute preparations. Then line-up in the tunnel as we prepare to walk onto the field.”
MJ: “Your first season with Osters saw the club finish 2nd in the Superettan (2nd tier) and gain promotion to the Allsvenskan (top tier). What was it that new manager Lars Jacobsson brought to the club which allowed it to gain promotion which might have been missing in previous seasons?”
TH: “We played exhibition games versus some very good teams in the preseason and did quite well, so I thought we had a good team. The club is very rich in tradition and has been one of the most successful clubs in Sweden. The club had very high ambitions and expectations. We had some high quality, experienced players. This was not a young team that was looking to develop. I knew from the start the goal of the club was to get back to Allsvenskan right away.”
MJ: “How big was the jump in skill when Osters moved from the Superettan to the Allsvenskan?”
TH: “Allsvenskan was definitely a better league, but we had players with a lot of experience at the highest level. There was definitely the added pressure to perform as this was a much higher profile than the 2nd tier. Allsvenskan had more international players and teams were much better coached.”
MJ: “What were the biggest differences with regard to the style of play in Europe as compared to North America? One could make the case that North American players are a little more ‘robust’ in the tackle compared to their European brethren. As a defender, did you have to adjust your level of aggression in order to avoid giving away free kicks and penalties?”
TH: “I don’t think North American players are more aggressive when going into tackles. North American players tended to be more athletic than Europeans, but the European players are much more tactically aware than the North American players. Europeans understand the game better and are tactically smarter than North Americans.”
MJ: “We’ve all seen and heard stories about diving or ‘simulation’ – did you ever experience anything like this during your time in Europe? Describe the European players’ & coaches’ views on diving.”
TH: “It wasn’t a huge problem in Sweden. It is something that I don’t like. If it happened, it tended to be the foreign players doing it more than the Swedes. They [the Swedes] are a very strong and honest group of players. The players and coaches there really don’t like it either. It was frowned upon, but wasn’t as big an issue in Sweden as it is in other countries. It has gotten better in the last few years. Referees are doing a better job of clamping down on it. It takes referees clamping down on it as well as a respect for the game from the players to not do it. If it [deterring simulation] is instilled at a younger age, we won’t have a problem.”
MJ: “Let’s back up for a moment. You spent a considerable amount of time with various Canadian youth teams during your late teens and early 20’s, as well as some time with the Senior Men’s Team. Looking back, what experiences during these camps and games were the most memorable and/or stuck with you throughout the rest of your career?”
TH: “Getting called into camp the very first time for the Men’s U20 National team, under Paul James. Paul was one of the most influential coaches in my career. I have a ton of respect for him and learned so much from him as a player and a person. He gave me my first opportunity and changed my life – I owe a lot to Paul. World Cup Qualifying in Trinidad was a memorable time. Even though we didn’t qualify, it was a great experience and gave me my first taste of International soccer. I will always remember my first Senior Men’s World Cup qualifying game. Frank Yallop gave me the opportunity and I am very grateful for the belief Frank had in me. I got called up to a World Cup 2006 qualifying game in Guatemala. I remember getting to the stadium over an hour before kick-off and there already being 25,000 people inside the stadium! The atmosphere was insane and was something I will never forget. We won the game 1-0 and had police shield us off the field from flying objects getting thrown at us.”
MJ: “Shortly afterward, you suffered a broken leg while at Osters. Take us through the injury, the surgery and the subsequent rehab.”
TH: “Half-way into my first year, we played a mid-week friendly against IF Elfsborg. They were one of the bigger clubs in Allsvenskan. I ended up going into an awkward tackle with one of their players and broke my tibia. Everyone in the stadium said that they could hear the break. I was in a cast for about three months, which took us to the end of my first
season. We ended up winning promotion to Allsvenskan that year. Rehab started and I started slowly getting into training as preseason began for the next season. I had a few setbacks and had to continue working on strengthening certain areas of the leg. After all was said and done, I played in a league game just under a year after I broke my leg. It was a very difficult time as I was over there to play soccer and was not able to do so for a lengthy period of time. Not having family or friends was also a little tough to deal with when going through something like that. The club was great though and made things as easy for me as they could. I ended up making a full recovery and playing the next three years, but some will say that I never got back to the same form I showed in my first six months playing for the club.”
The injury came at the worst possible time for Hughes. He had only recently worked his way into the Canadian Senior Men’s Team and was now side-lined with a bad leg break. During the year he spent waiting for the leg to heal, and the time he spent getting himself back into game shape, other players had established themselves within the national side’s defence. Hughes continued to give a strong account of himself week in, week out with Osters, but the players who had stepped up when Hughes went down also continued to perform. To add insult to Hughes’ injury, Frank Yallop resigned from his position as Canadian National Team Head Coach in June 2006 in order to join the LA Galaxy. Yallop, one of Hughes’ biggest supporters, was replaced by Canada U-20 Head Coach Stephen Hart, someone Hughes had never played for and had no previous relationship with.
Hughes finished his tenure with Osters after the 2009 season at which point he returned home. Never one to rest on his laurels, he joined the Div. 1 Men’s team at Cowichan FC and promptly won the League MVP trophy as Cowichan took home the League Title. He was also one of the original members of the local semi-pro side, The Victoria Highlanders. Hughes was signed, along with his younger brother Jordan, to captain the side in the Premier Development League, the fourth tier of the Canadian soccer pyramid. Jordie, also a graduate of Gorge’s fabled youth set-up, was no slouch himself. He had also played his college soccer at Coastal Carolina, and had led the team in goals as both a sophomore and a junior, netting 19 and 16 goals respectively. In 2005 the younger Hughes led the Chanticleers to the Big South Championship before being named an All-American. Upon graduating, Jordie also turned pro, joining the Charleston Battery. Known as ‘Bug’ during his younger days (as in, to annoy someone) due to his innate ability to irritate and frustrate opposing defenders, Jordie spent three years with the Battery before returning to Victoria to anchor the expansion Highlanders’ attack.
In 2009 the Hughes brothers led the Highlanders to a record of 6 wins, 4 draws and 6 losses. Elder brother Tyler, used his extensive experience and tactical nous to organize an almost impenetrable rear-guard while still regularly marauding up the flank to assist in attack. Jordie, a fox in the box style forward known for his natural poacher’s instincts, would buzz around the middle of the field, pulling defenders out of position to create room for his strike partners. On many occasions, and seemingly at will, he’d simply shake them altogether in order to create his own scoring opportunities. The team steadily improved, registering a 7W-3D-6L record in 2010 and a 9W-3D-5L record in 2011. The franchise had now been firmly established within the PDL, thanks in large part to the Hughes boys.
Tyler decided to call time on his professional career at the end of the 2014 season. But like a kid whose favourite uncle has just filled him full of sugary treats, Hughes couldn’t sit still for long. He dove deeper into his club football and led Cowichan to multiple League Championships, winning numerous individual awards along the way. Whilst still captaining the side week in – week out, Hughes also joined the club’s executive committee, which allows him to help the club instil a more professional approach from top to bottom.
MJ: “Now that your professional career has finished, I know you are still playing at an elite local/provincial level. What experiences from your days as a full-time pro have you been able to pass on to your current club and teammates, and how has this helped them improve?”
TH: “I have tried to help my current team in the tactical part of the game; the shape they should be playing and [by] trying to instil a competitive training environment that will help breed success in games.”
MJ: “Throughout your time at Gorge, Coastal Carolina, Wilmington, Toronto, Osters and Canada, who would you say had the biggest impact on you and your game? Why?”
TH: “Growing up there were a handful of coaches at Gorge FC that gave me the opportunity to play with the men’s team and gave me the confidence that I could play against the men, despite being just a boy. Randy ‘Cutty’ Cuthbert had a huge impact on my youth development as he was my youth coach and put in countless hours in making sure we had the opportunity to reach our dreams, whatever they would be. Paul James gave me my first big break and changed my life bringing me into the Canadian Youth team set-up. Shaun Docking for taking a chance on me without even seeing me play and giving me a scholarship to play NCAA Div. 1 soccer, Frank Yallop for believing in my ability to play at the highest level and Osters IF for helping me live my dream.”
Although he’d never admit it, primarily due to his ‘aw shucks’ demeanour, but Hughes is in better shape at 36 than most men 10 years his junior. He’s now an avid cross-fitter and when he’s not playing, coaching or teaching soccer, he tends to spend his time participating in a wide variety of outdoor pursuits. Unlike the years he spent in Europe however, Hughes is no longer flying solo in his adventures; his partner Kayla is never far from his side. The pair seems to have endless energy, regularly participating in adventure-style mud runs, half-marathons, even something called a wine run – which really just sounds like an excuse to drink wine. Anyway, you name it, they’ve done it.
MJ: “Although you show no signs of slowing down at present, will we one day see you pacing along the touch-line in an overcoat, helping to develop the next generation of Canadian soccer players?”
TH: “Coaching is starting to become a larger part of life now. I have started my own soccer academy, TIDE Soccer, with a good friend of mine. I have also recently started as the Technical Director for the Cowichan Soccer Association. Coaching is something that I have really come to love and am really starting to do a lot more of as my competitive playing career is starting to wind down. I have been very fortunate to be able to play soccer at a high level and owe a lot to many different people. I look forward to being able to give back to as many kids as I can in the years to come.”
Despite everything he’s achieved; the college success and Hall of Fame induction, representing his country at both youth and senior level, a decade-long professional career which spanned two continents and three countries, and numerous amateur successes, Hughes’ feet remain firmly planted on the ground. He’s still that friendly, amiable guy who’s as comfortable talking to a complete stranger as he is an old friend. He’s still intelligent, good looking and funny. And he’s more than likely still the best athlete in the room, regardless of which room he may be standing in.
You know, on second thought, maybe that old Hollywood cliché isn’t so farfetched after all.