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Hockey Fights Cancer

Words will last lifetime for Jason Zucker

Wild forward has initials, message from Tucker Helstrom tattooed on wrist to remember 9-year-old, who died of cancer

by Jessi Pierce / Correspondent

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When the Minnesota Wild host their Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night against the Calgary Flames (8 p.m. ET; FS-N, FS-WI, SNW, NHL.TV) on Tuesday, Wild forward Jason Zucker will have Tucker Helstrom on his mind. 

He will also have a reminder of his friend, who died of cancer on July 2 at the age of 9, on his left wrist.

It was three days after Helstrom died of a rare bone cancer when Zucker had the boy's initials tattooed onto his wrist, along with the words "shoot more." 

The phrase is a coaching tip Helstrom gave Zucker last winter when their friendship blossomed; the initials a symbol of the impact Helstrom had on Zucker. 

The two met in December, when Zucker and his teammates were visiting the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. 

Helstrom had tweaked an orange Team Tucker Go! shirt that had Zucker's name across the back -- the Z in Zucker was crossed off and replaced with a T.

Tucker and Zucker. It was a natural pairing. 

"It's tough to put a finger on it," Zucker said. "It's just one of those things where it seemed like we connected right away. It just seemed like immediately I was laughing in the room and we were having a good time. 

"It was just another day in a great world hanging out with some Wild players … It was a lot of fun to meet him that day."

When Zucker first met Helstrom and his family in December of 2015, it didn't appear there was anything wrong.

But there was. Helstrom, a Mite hockey player from Hopkins, Minnesota, had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer, that fall. 

Meeting Helstrom had a big impact on Zucker, who made it a point to visit his new friend a month later, after the child had to have his leg amputated above the knee. 

Video: Zucker-Tucker Bond Lives On

"They had asked if we might be able to send him a stick to maybe cheer him up [after the surgery]," Zucker said. "My wife, being the woman that she is, said 'No, we're going to bring it to him, we're not just going to drop it off.' So we chose a day where we didn't have a game and went in and saw Tucker, and it was the most fun I've ever had." 

Zucker and Helstrom chatted for hours while playing NHL video games. Helstrom even offered coaching advice to Zucker, telling him to backcheck hard and shoot more; that last piece of advice will stay with Zucker forever.   

Zucker and his wife, Carly, visited Helstrom before almost every round of chemotherapy, and before they headed to their offseason home in Las Vegas this summer.

On June 29, Zucker signed a two-year contract with Minnesota. What should have been a celebratory time quickly took a turn. Helstrom's cancer had spread to his brain. He didn't have much time left. Zucker was on the next flight to Minnesota. He landed at 5 a.m. on June 30 and was with Helstrom that afternoon. 

"It was the first time I realized that something was really wrong," Zucker said. "We obviously knew that cancer was something awful, of course, but that was the first time you really tell what this disease had done to Tucker. 

"It was very hard for Carly and I to see Tucker like that because he was such a strong kid. Every time we saw him he was so strong. He was 9 years old and he was battling through it, and he was doing an incredible job, but for the first time you could see it was hard." 

Helstrom died three days later. 

In addition to the tattoo, Zucker is remembering Helstrom with Team Tucker's Locker, a section located in Kyle Rudolph's End Zone -- named for the Minnesota Vikings tight end -- at University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. The room serves as an escape for kids at the hospital, complete with games and movies. Team Tucker's Locker corner will mimic a stall in the Wild's locker room with a Team Tucker nameplate and jersey. 

"Kyle brings the football aspect and we're bringing the hockey aspect," Zucker said. "It'll be a fun way for the kids to go have fun and just be kids." 

Tweet from @Jason_Zucker16: #TeamTucker

Zucker planned to fill Twitter with the #TeamTucker hashtag Tuesday and continue to encourage donations to Team Tucker's Locker. Most importantly, he is going to continue to carry on Tucker's memory. 

"For us, it's all about creating a legacy for Tucker," Zucker said. "Everybody that knew him knows how incredible of a kid he is. Now we want to share that with those who didn't get that chance. It's pretty special and really cool to be a part of."

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