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Family Man...Er...Kid

by Glen Andresen / Minnesota Wild

Wild GameDay

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Feature: A Young Veteran
On Father's Day last month, Minnesota Wild 2010 second round draft pick Jason Zucker had four phone calls to make.

No, his biological parents are not divorced and remarried a bunch of times. No, he isn't the result of a scientific experiment a la Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny Devito in the movie, Twins. And no, he wasn't a problem child shipped from home to home.

But a youngster with big hockey dreams from a city where there is little ice other than in fruity cocktails was forced at an early age to fly the coup. In the process, he had to acclimate to a wide array of new cities and new families.

"I have many families now," says Zucker with a laugh.

Zucker was born to Scott and Natalie Zucker in Newport Beach, California, but his family moved to Las Vegas when he was two months old. Growing up in the desert in a family of five kids, Zucker started playing roller hockey at the age of three under the tutelage of his older brothers.

Within a few years, Jason took to the ice on one of the rare rinks in Vegas, where he discovered two things: 1. he loved the game, and 2. he was very good at it.

As a 10-year-old, Zucker traveled to Edmonton, Alberta to play in the annual Brick Invitational summer tournament, where he was noticed by Sandy Gasseau, the head coach of the Los Angeles club team. Gasseau wanted Zucker to play a full season in California, but that would mean the 11-year-old Zucker would have to leave his family behind and live with complete strangers in a billet situation.

After talking with his family, they decided it was an opportunity to find out if hockey was really the path Zucker wanted to take with his life.

"Being that young, it was tough not to see my family," he admitted. "I had never been away from my family for more than a couple days. You're used to seeing your mom every day when you wake up. I don't want to say it was a shock for me, but it was a really, really big change."

Jason acclimated to his new surroundings and spent two years in Los Angeles. His game flourished, and the answer to the initial family question was found.

"It really made me realize whether I wanted to play hockey for the rest of my life or not," he said. "That's when I decided that I do."

Zucker's family traveled from Vegas to L.A. as often as possible, but probably not as often as they would have liked.

"They still had to work so it wasn't an every weekend thing," said Zucker.

Jason got to see much more of them when he moved back home to Las Vegas two years after leaving. The team he played for in L.A. decided to play at the Bantam AA level, rather than Bantam AAA. Las Vegas had a AA team, and he decided if he was going to play at that level, he would do it at home with a team of Las Vegas natives.

Ironically, Las Vegas faced Los Angeles in the regional finals to get to nationals. Zucker's team fell in that game, 2-1.

"The level of hockey between L.A. and Vegas wasn't a huge difference," explained Zucker, who was 14 at the time. "At least, not a big enough difference that I felt I needed to move away at that time."

But his moving wasn't over. Moving from Nevada to a neighboring state is one thing. But when he was 15, Zucker again left his family to move across the country.

He found himself in Plymouth, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, playing for the Compuware Midget Minor AAA team, alongside other eventual 2010 draftees like first rounder, Austin Watson and fellow second rounder, Jared Knight.

Zucker had been away from home once, but that doesn't mean it was easy to move across the country.

"It was still a shock," he admitted. "Being 2,000 miles away is a long way away. I didn't get to see my family all but twice that whole year. That was when I realized that this is what life is going to be like from now on."

Once again, Zucker was able to thrive on the ice and feel comfortable off of it, despite the new surroundings. He gave full credit to his billet family in Plymouth, Duane and Kim Knight, the parents of Jared.

"They brought me in like a son," he gushed. "I think that helped a lot - having such a great family to live with there. I still talk to them and I couldn't be more grateful for what they did for me."

The Zucker Show headed back West, but not far. His next two years were spent in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a member of the United States Development Program. Once again, that meant a new family in Bill and Carolyn Van Cleve, who also hosted Stephen Johns, another second rounder in the 2010 Draft.

"They also helped me a lot," he said. "I was getting used to [being away from home] year by year and month by month. At the same time, it was really tough. Having such good families with me helped me a lot along the way."

In his final year in Ann Arbor, Zucker finished second on the Under-18 team in goals (24) and fifth in points (43) in 51 games. He was also the youngest player on the United States World Junior team that shocked Canada in the gold medal game with a 6-5 victory. It was the third gold medal in his short career, having won two others at the 2009 and 2010 World Under-18 championships.

Next year, the Wild prospect will take his game to Denver University, which beat out Michigan and Miami-Ohio, the other two schools that were finalists in the Zucker sweepstakes.

"It's the closest school I could get to home," he joked.

For the first time, he'll be on his own, and not living in the home of a welcoming family. Of course, he'll be in the same situation as all of his other teammates, and now, the laid back kid is old enough to take care of himself. He's sure he wouldn't be able to make an easy adjustment to college if it wasn't for the support of his many families along the way.

"I've been away for five years now, and my parents just keep helping me out through everything," he said. "I've been really fortunate to have the families I've had, and the roommates I've had. There's nothing you can do that can express what they really did for you. They put so much time and effort into just letting you stay in their home."

Zucker hopes to one day be playing in the State of Hockey, where there are players that sometimes skirt the prestige of Minnesota high school hockey to try and further their game in Ann Arbor or with a junior team. Most won't be 11 years old at the time, but Zucker knows it can be tough at any age. He does have some advice for those living with new families.

"Just be open to everything," he advises. "When I first went away, I was a little shy. If I wanted to do something, it was a little hard to ask them, 'Can I go do this?' Be open, and listen to what they say. Make it easy on them, and they'll make it easy on you."

"No billet family is out to get you. They're there to welcome you. You've just got to be thankful for what they've given you and you'll be perfectly fine."

Here's a bit more advice. Make sure you have plenty of cell phone minutes. You could have a lot of future calls to make on the holidays.

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