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Mom's battle fuels Zucker's continued crusade against cancer

Wild forward is a finalist for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for a second straight summer

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe /

LAS VEGAS -- The news hit Jason Zucker like a train coming a hundred miles an hour down the tracks. Nothing could have prepared him for the call he received from his dad, Scott, in September of 2017.

With his wife, Carly, eight months pregnant with his first son and the dawn of a new hockey season in his midst, it was exciting times in the Zucker household. But a supper-time call from across the country changed that in a blink.

His mom, Natalie, had been diagnosed with Stage II colon cancer. She'd need surgery to have the tumor removed and her prognosis, at that moment, was unknown. 

"You know you can always tell when something is wrong, and I knew right away just because of the way he sounded on the phone," Jason said.

With his family nearly 1,600 miles away, Jason Zucker was left to stew with a flood of emotion washing over him.

Should he go home? Would his mom be there for the birth of his son? 

Jason doesn't remember how long that first phone call lasted, but he knows it wasn't very long. His usually stoic and unflappable dad struggled to remain so. 

A million questions ran through Jason's mind, but the hardest part was the immediate connection he made with his friend, Tucker Helstrom, who had passed away just a year earlier after an eight-month battle with osteosarcoma. 

By now, the story of Jason Zucker and Tucker Helstrom has become the stuff of legend. A chance meeting one day between the two at Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis turned into a blossoming friendship between an eight-year-old boy and a 25-year-old man, hitting his stride as an NHLer. 

The two became practically inseparable, and when Helstrom died in July of 2016, his spirit lived on through Zucker and his #GIVE16 campaign, which to date, has raised more than $1.2 million for the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio at Masonic. 

Video: Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio unveiling

Helstrom's battle against cancer was the first time Zucker had seen the awful disease cut down a close friend or family member, the young boy's life cut down just eight months after his initial diagnosis.

That was the first thing to cross Zucker's mind when he got the call from his dad: Will my mom meet a similar fate?

"It was heavy. It hit me hard. I mean, that's your mom," Zucker said. "I didn't know what to do. But you hear the word 'cancer,' and it's just so big, you don't know what that means. Is it something you're gonna die from? Is it something where you're proactive, you got it and you're good? Who knows, but all that went through my head."

Natalie Zucker was fortunate. She sensed something was amiss with her body, went against her own thoughts of cancelling her doctor's appointment that day, and got things checked out.

After having a baseball-sized tumor removed from her body, she's in remission, and the hope is that her cancer battle is behind her.

But the same thoughts that haunted Jason have run through the heads of thousands of families in the Upper Midwest each year: Awful, unimaginable, unconscionable questions that parents ask about their children. 

It's one of the reasons why the Zuckers, specifically Jason and his wife, Carly, have taken the fight to the disease itself since Helstrom's passing nearly three years ago. 

Video: Zuckers host #Give16 Suite Night

In addition to money, the Zuckers are relentless volunteers of their time and energy in doing whatever they can to help families deal with the same emotions that Jason went through in the moments after the call from his own dad. 

"I think we've seen him and Carly for a total of about two weeks last summer, because they were doing so many charity events," Natalie said on Tuesday. "They do this 24/7 and that's just what their life is. It's amazing and I really applaud them."

That effort was honored again this season, as for the second consecutive season, Zucker was named a finalist for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.

New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson are the other two finalists this season. 

The winner of the award will be revealed at the 2019 NHL Awards™ presented by Bridgestone on Wednesday at Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas at 7 p.m. CT on NBCSN.

Should Zucker win, he will take home the award and a $40,000 check that will go straight to Masonic Children's Hospital.

"That kid ... he just cares about everybody and he would do anything for anybody if he could," Natalie said about Jason. "It's crazy, he's just the sweetest thing ever."

Natalie says she thinks it's Jason's humble nature that fuels his desire to give back and serve the community. 

Video: Zucker arrives in Vegas for NHL Awards

The first Nevada-raised player to reach the NHL, Zucker was a tireless worker as a kid. While other kids were just getting out of bed, Jason would be dressed and ready to go. While others would struggle to eat their vegetables, he was cognizant of what he was putting in his body, even as a youngster.

It's easy for Minnesota-born hockey players to dream of one day playing in the NHL, but for Zucker, who grew up shooting 200 pucks every morning on his backyard skating rink in 100-degree heat, the journey looks a little different. 

But he never relented, leaving home at age 11 to play hockey every weekend in California, before eventually moving cross country to Michigan to continue his development.

Zucker would eventually wind up at the University of Denver before being drafted by the Wild in the second round of the 2010 NHL Draft, shuffling between Des Moines and St. Paul on a seemingly endless cycle before sticking with the NHL club for good in 2015.

Hard work has never scared Zucker, and neither has giving back. No matter how long his hockey career lasts, Zucker said he knows he has the ability to make a positive change away from the rink as well.

"For me, I want to make sure that I'm not just a good hockey player, I want to make sure I'm a good person ... and that's for my kids, for my family, being a great husband ... those are things kids are going to look up to as well," Zucker said. "They may see a hockey player first, but they also see some of the negative things that athletes or celebrities, people in the world do. I want to make sure that I'm a positive influence on them in any way I can."


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