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Old Soul: Zucker's growth produces a player mature beyond his years

Wild forward's germination showing on, off playing surface

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

This story appears in the December 2017 issue of Wild Magazine.

Last month, Wild forward Jason Zucker was analyzing the fortunes of a couple of his teammates following a 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Zucker's streak of six consecutive goals scored for the Wild, a franchise record, had been snapped a couple of hours prior, but he scored a late empty-net goal to run his streak of games with a goal to four. In talking about forward Tyler Ennis, who himself was held off the scoresheet but had a bushel of quality chances, Zucker calmly predicted things were going to turn around quickly.

"[He] had nine scoring chances, -- it seemed like -- tonight so those are going to go in for him. The kid is very, very talented," Zucker said.

The kid?

Never mind the fact that Ennis, 28, is more than two full years older than Zucker.

But if you knew Zucker -- if you heard him speak, and listened to him proudly boast about his life at home, his wife and his children, and gained his perspective on life and on hockey -- you'd believe Zucker was 25 going on 40.

Video: MIN@PHI: Zucker pots opening tally early in the 3rd

In an era where so many millennials have the reputation of being "me-first," Zucker couldn't be any more opposite.

Take his scoring streak.

Had Zucker scored the first goal of the game for the Wild that night against the Flyers, he would have tied an NHL record; something that's been done just twice in the 100-year history of the National Hockey League.

Instead, it was his line mate, Nino Niederreiter, who dashed his chance at history with Zucker standing just feet away watching, a goal scored 12 seconds into the game.

As the nearly 19,000 fans in the building roared to their feet, it was hard not to feel a little disappointed to miss a chance at real, rare NHL immortality.

"I'm glad it's over," Zucker said.

Glad? Who wouldn't want their name in the record books?

"I'm really glad. I mean, I knew it was only a matter of time," Zucker insisted. "I knew we have too many good players for that to last even as long as it did, to be honest. But yeah, I'm really glad that that's over now."

Zucker has experienced enough away from the rink through two months of the regular season to fill 10 offseasons.

A few days before the season opener, his hometown of Las Vegas was ravaged by the largest mass shooting in United States history; 58 people died and 546 were left injured, some critically.

One of those was Zucker's good friend, Nick Robone. Shot in the chest, Robone clung to life in a Las Vegas hospital, saved by a couple of Zucker's friends, including Nick's brother Anthony.

Zucker grew up playing hockey with the Robones, especially Anthony.

"It was a really crazy time for me," Zucker said a few days after the incident. "I got to the rink that morning not thinking anybody I knew was involved. I got a call from my wife, and it was a whirlwind. That was a bit of an odd practice for me, and I was thinking more about Nick and the tragedy than anything else."

In addition to his usual tributes to his parents; he writes "Mom and Dad" on the tape of each of his sticks before every game, Zucker honored Robone and Las Vegas by writing 'RoboneStrong' and 'VegasStrong' on wrist tape he wore under his gloves for games against Detroit and Carolina to open the season.

He scored the game's first goal against the Hurricanes and assisted on another one later in the game.

"I was thinking about Nick and everybody else in Vegas," Zucker said after the game. "But for me, ultimately, it was great for the team. That's what matters most."

While much less traumatic, it was tough seeing good buddy Charlie Coyle go down with a fractured leg about a week after that.

While age (and marriage and kids for Zucker) has normalized the relationship between the two, Zucker and Coyle have one of the closest friendships on the team.

The former roommates and two of the very best characters in the Wild dressing room remain tight, so it was hard for Zucker to see Coyle leave a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 12.

He provided Coyle with the best tribute he could, however, scoring the game-winning goal in a 5-2 win over the Blackhawks where the Wild was down three forwards in the third period because of injury.

With Coyle being one of the most durable players in the League since joining the Wild, it was weird for Zucker not having his pal in the lineup with him every night.

"You never want to see anyone get hurt, and the way he got hurt, it was so fluky and bizarre," Zucker said. "And for it to be such a major injury, it was tough, especially for a guy who's such a big part of our team."

So where does Zucker get his go-with-the-flow-type attitude? 

Mostly from life at home, where wife Carly, stepdaughter Sophia and newborn son Hendrix have provided him with a stability and a perspective few his age have. 

Growing up in hockey, and growing up playing in Las Vegas, Zucker was seemingly always on the move; a tournament in one place one weekend, somewhere else the next. Then to Ann Arbor, Michigan for a couple of seasons with the U.S. national junior teams, then two years at Denver University before embarking on a pro career that's brought him from Houston to Des Moines and St. Paul. 

"They've played a huge role in that," Zucker said. "Because guys move away from home at such a young age, you're on your own and those things, you mature a bit younger. But I think I've taken another big step since getting together with Carly and Sophia. They've been my base of home and that family for me. It's been amazing."

Zucker walked into Sophia's life when she was three -- no easy task for anyone, much less a guy in his early-20s. 

But not only has Zucker helped play the role of dad, he's embraced that role with open arms.

"I take a lot of pride in that. She's such a great little girl and she's got such a great energy," Zucker said. "Everything about her is just fantastic. I've made sure to let her know that as much as I can.

"A lot of people are giving Hendrix a ton of attention, but she deserves just as much as him, of not more, because of how great of a kid she is. It's been a lot of fun to have her in my life and be a part of that home foundation that we have."

Helping to raise Sophia has provided Zucker with a blueprint in how to approach fatherhood with Hendrix. Seeing the process all the way through has given Zucker a new perspective on being a dad.

"It's a different experience," Zucker said. "When I met Sophia, she was already starting to become pretty independent; she was able to brush her teeth on her own, she could get dressed for school and pick out her own clothes and she was in preschool or daycare, so there were a lot of things I missed that I'm starting to see with Hendrix. That makes it a lot of fun."

Tweet from @Jason_Zucker16: Welcome to the world, Hendrix Scott! We are so excited to have you. We love you very much! Everybody is happy and healthy ���� pic.twitter.com/IjuLpwXnDm

Back at the rink, Zucker has been a major reason the Wild has been able to weather a number of serious injuries and stay afloat in the rough and tumble Central Division.

After posting a career-high 22 goals in 2016-17, Zucker's team-leading 13 goals have him in position to shatter that previous mark and approach the elusive 30-goal plateau.

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said he shouldn't limit himself to that number, however.

"I always tell him three words: 'Never be satisfied,'" Boudreau said. "If you can get 30, why not go for 40?"

Zucker said he chooses not to look too much at season-long individual goals, a lesson he learned after a disappointing 2013-14 season in which he had high hopes for himself entering his third year as a pro.

After playing six games in his first partial season, Zucker played in 20 games in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, a year he'd hoped to use as a springboard to a full season as an NHLer.

Instead, Zucker played more games that season in Iowa (22) than he did in Minnesota (21).

"If you break a season down into smaller stretches, I think you're able to manage it better mentally," Zucker said. "And you're also able to look at things where you can see what was working and what wasn't during a particular stretch, and if you look at a full season, sometimes I think it can get a little overwhelming."

This season, like he was during that disappointing year three years ago, Zucker is a pending free agent at the end of the campaign.

"I've been able to pull from that year I had a few years ago. I don't want to focus on it because I don't care [about the contract right now]," Zucker said. "Obviously I have a care when it comes time to get a deal done, but I want to stay here in Minnesota and I want to help this team win a Stanley Cup.

"But as far as today, I have no desire to worry about that. I want to stay inside of my game and try to get better every day."

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