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Zucker-Tucker Bond Lives On

Wild Winger Forged Special Relationship with Fan and Patient

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Minnesota Wild

Zucker-Tucker Bond Lives On

Zucker-Tucker Bond Lives On

Wild forward Jason Zucker and his wife Carly formed a special bond with Tucker Helstrom, a nine-year-old who battled osteosarcoma

  • 02:39 •

Moments after signing a new two-year contract extension with the Wild on June 29, Jason Zucker  and his fiancee Carly Aplin were frantically scrambling for a flight from Las Vegas back to the Twin Cities.

Among the congratulatory texts and phone calls celebrating Zucker's commitment to the Wild was one from Dana Anderson-Helstrom, letting Zucker and Aplin know that her 9-year-old son, Tucker, was in trouble.

Tucker Helstrom had been battling osteosarcoma for eight months, but a day earlier, the rare form of bone cancer had spread to his brain. Doctors gave him a few days to live.

"All I said was, 'It's not good,'" Anderson-Helstrom said of the text she sent to Aplin. "[Zucker] got on a redeye flight that night, landed in the morning, had a meeting, then came and spent two or three hours with my son that night."

What they saw will stay with them forever.

"It's hard to even talk about because we both went there expecting Jason and him to play video games with him again," Aplin said. "I don't think we realized the magnitude of his situation at that point. We got there, and he could barely open his eyes, and he could only respond in one-word answers. It was heartbreaking."

With a roller hockey game to play at home the following morning, Zucker hopped on another redeye flight and returned to Las Vegas. Less than 48 hours later, Tucker passed away.

Nothing we can't do

Before being diagnosed, Tucker Helstrom would best be described as a social butterfly. Even after his diagnosis, the fact he could no longer participate in the sports he loved didn't slow him down one bit.

No longer able to play hockey in the winter, Tucker became his team's assistant coach, even giving a couple of pep talks between the second and third periods.

Each time, his team "won the period."

Anderson-Helstrom once suggested that they skip a game, that perhaps the emotional toll of not being able to play with his friends might become overwhelming. His teammates would certainly understand that he needed to be elsewhere.

Tucker wouldn't have it.

"Mom, that's my team," he would say, according to Anderson-Helstrom. "You go where your team is."

Tucker and his mom adopted the motto "there's nothing that we can't do," one that he lived the final eight months of his life by. Anderson-Helstrom said Tucker dreamed of a day where he would be able to plant the 'State of Hockey' flag at center ice before a Wild home game.

"I hope that boy knows how lucky he is," he would say every time he watched another kid do it.

They had met with his baseball coach, making plans to someday play with a prosthetic leg. At his team's first game this spring, his teammates wanted Tucker to throw out the first pitch from his wheelchair.

So he did. Three times. Anderson-Helstrom missed the first one on camera, so she asked if he could do it again.

Strike two. Another parent missed the moment, so he did it again.

Strike three.

The boys on the team clamored for Tucker to become the team's pitcher.

"Are you sure we can't have Tucker be our pitcher?" the kids asked their coach. "He's better than the rest of us."

The man

Tucker and his mom were always tight.

From a young age, Anderson-Helstrom said Tucker was always looking out for others. Even in his final days, she said Tucker shifted the focus away from himself.

The day before he passed away, he heard one of his sisters crying. Anderson-Helstrom leaned in close and heard him tell her to go take care of his sister.

"He couldn't even see anymore," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He said, 'Go take care of her,' as he's gasping for breath. He wanted me to let go of him and take care of his little sister.

"He was the man I wanted to raise but he got there by age 9. I was blessed."

Wise beyond his years

For an extrovert like Tucker, the hardest part of the day was often the end. That's when the constant stream of family and friends would leave the hospital for the night and he was left to himself.
"They used to have to give him some Ativan because he would cry," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He said, 'Mom, this is the worst time of day. This is when I'm the baby bird.' I knew what he meant, but he would say, 'This is when I'm stuck in this nest and everybody else gets to fly and go wherever they want and I'm stuck in here.'"

A week before he passed away, Anderson-Helstrom was giving Tucker a bath and looking at the scars that covered his body, including his amputated leg and two large wounds on both sides of his rib cage where incisions had been made all the way down to his lungs.

"Honey, I wish I could have gone through all this for you," Anderson-Helstrom remembered saying to him.

His response was typical Tucker.

"Mom, I wish no one had to go through this," he said.

"That's what gave me the insight into why he's never been jealous. He still went to all of his sisters' soccer games, all of his sisters' hockey games, all of his sisters' gymnastics practices. I always thought, 'How are you not sitting there jealous?' He had just that big of a heart that there is no way he would wish this on his sisters or anyone."

A chance meeting

Tucker had taken a liking to Zucker the season before because their names sounded the same.

"His eighth birthday, my favorite day with him, we found a way to get to a Wild game," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He said, 'You see that guy, you see him?' and I said, 'Oh yeah, his name sounds like yours.' He told me, 'Watch how fast he is, watch how he plays this.' So it started with the name and then he liked him."

Soon after his diagnosis, Zucker and Tucker first met for the first time when the Wild sent Zucker and Jared Spurgeon to University of Minnesota's Masonic Children's Hospital, where Tucker was getting treatment.

"That was the chance meeting," Anderson-Helstrom said.

In late January, the Helstroms believed Tucker was going to need to have part of his leg removed because of the illness. About a week before the operation, they found out the tumor had grown and Tucker needed an amputation above the knee.

That's when Zucker and Tucker met again, this time through a mutual friend of Aplin and Anderson-Helstrom.

She asked Aplin if Zucker could send a stick to Tucker.

"Absolutely not," Aplin said. "We're coming up there."

Zucker was the first non-family member to see Tucker after the operation that took his leg. When Tucker worried about covering up his stub, which he hadn't yet seen himself, Zucker did his best to put him at ease.

"[Zucker] treated him like he was the most normal kid," Anderson-Helstrom said. "They started playing Xbox and brought him stuff. After that, it was a friendship."

Aplin said the relationship was a two-way street from the very beginning.

"When we first met them, we felt like friends or family right away," Aplin said. "They embraced you right away and we left there feeling, 'We have to continue this. We have to keep reaching out to them. We have to try to be a part of their lives and their journey if we could be.'"

Zucker and Aplin made an effort to visit Tucker before every course of chemotherapy and made sure to visit before leaving for Las Vegas at the beginning of the offseason.

It's a friendship that has remained strong, even through the most difficult of circumstances.

"They're all great people," Zucker said. "Dana and Carly still talk almost every day."

'Tucker freaked'

Tucker and his mom were at the Wild's Stadium Series game against the Blackhawks in mid-February, one of the best -- and worst -- days during Tucker's battle.

At one point in the game, Anderson-Helstrom remembered Tucker clapping and cheering. She thought it was because the Wild scored.

"Mom, look," he told her.

Tucker was standing on his one leg, balancing without assistance for the first time since his surgery.

"The first time he learned to balance on one leg, it was applauding the Wild," Anderson-Helstrom said. "I thought, 'If that's not appropriate ... '"

His joy didn't last long.

In the second period, Zucker took a hit from Chicago's Michal Rozsival and landed hard on the ice. He was slow to get up and needed assistance to get off the ice, later diagnosed with a concussion.

"Oh my gosh, Tucker freaked," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He stopped cheering and he sat down. 'I need to text Carly. Is he OK? Is he OK?' he kept saying. He kept asking me if he could call him.

"Finally, I had to tell him, 'He's a famous man, he too important for us,' but Carly said to text anytime."

So he did. Tucker texted almost every day to check on Zucker as he recovered from the concussion before he finally got a visit from him in the hospital.

Zucker wondered how Tucker, at 9 years old, could be so worried about his health while he dealt with his own grueling condition.

"That's who he was," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He wanted everyone to be happy and healthy and OK."

A huge impact

The friendship forged by Zucker and Tucker was unique. One was a 24-year old professional athlete and the other a nine-year old cancer patient. But Aplin said it was just like any other normal friendship a child may have.
"Watching that was really special," Aplin said. "Jason was like, 'This is the only time I get to play video games is when I get to come see you.'"

Besides the games of NHL15 played on Xbox, Zucker and Tucker would also talk a lot about hockey.

"He had so much hockey advice for me," Zucker said. "So many things, things that most 9-year-old kids don't say to a lot of people. He was just that kind of kid, and he had a huge impact on our lives."

At Zucker's final visit with Tucker the Thursday before he died, Tucker handed him a photo of himself playing hockey before the cancer. On the back, he tried to sign the picture, like Zucker, with the number 16.

"That was a pretty special moment," Aplin said.

Days later, Zucker had it tattooed on himself as a way to remember his friend.

Making a difference

Over his final weeks, Tucker made known some changes he would like to see made in how cancer treatment for kids could be improved.

It was that positive attitude and outlook for others than Anderson-Helstrom said she will miss most about her son.

"I just know that he and I would have visited the Masonic and Children's [hospitals] and he would have cheered people up," Anderson-Helstrom said. "He would have shown them his prosthetic and told them not to be afraid. With his natural charisma and those blue eyes, I told him, 'We will meet Al Franken and we will make changes.' He would have done a lot of good here and he would have cheered up all of the cancer kids, cheered up amputees."

Improving the process is one of Tucker's legacies, and it's something that will keep Anderson-Helstrom going in the tough weeks, months and years ahead.

"He could have made a lot of changes in children's cancer and recovery," she said. "As much as I want to roll over and never see a hospital again and never see a needle again, I feel like Tucker would have done it. I already know some things he wanted to change and I want to change. We can't let other kids keep suffering like this."

A lasting legacy

Two days after their final meeting, Tucker passed away.

"We are so glad we got to say goodbye, because I don't think either one of us would have forgiven ourselves if we weren't there," Aplin said.

Right away, Zucker knew he wanted to do something to help build a legacy for Tucker. That's when the idea for Team Tucker's Locker came to fruition.

In conjunction with Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and his wife Jordan, Zucker and Aplin will give kids and families a chance to keep Tucker's legacy alive long into the future.

"You can't make friends [at the hospital]," Anderson-Helstrom said. "You don't know everyone's chemo schedule. You never overlap with the same people. But those poor kids that don't have family around? With HIPAA, you can't just walk in and say 'Do you have cancer too? Do you want to do this?' I just hope his locker represents socializing and playing and staying a kid. And laughing, because the mental health of attitude... he never knew he was dying. It was all of the sudden, it spread to his brain."

The Rudolphs have been part of the U of M's Masonic Children's Hospital since he was drafted by the Vikings in 2011. He committed to building a new, state-of-the-art, 2,500 square-foot patient- and family-centered space at the hospital, aptly named 'Kyle Rudolph's End Zone.'

The effort raised nearly $25,000 for the cause.

The 'End Zone' will be a place for kids facing health challenges to laugh, play and be a kid while allowing their families a place to socialize and engage others who are facing the same challenges. In addition, Zucker and Aplin hosted a fundraiser for Anderson-Helstrom and her family in July.

"My son was an extrovert. He liked to laugh and he liked to smile and that's how Jason and he fell for each other," Anderson-Helstrom said. "They're both just funny guys. You're stuck in that room by yourself playing Xbox with your mom. If there could be a way for other kids that are also stuck in those hospitals to go to a locker, to go to a room."

The area will be staffed by Child Family Life specialists, trained in helping patients and their families navigate the emotional, mental and physical demands during their stay.

"Kyle's doing a great thing in creating an opportunity for the kids and their families that are in the hospital to have some time to relax and get away and their siblings to do the same thing," Zucker said. "For us, we wanted to create a legacy for Tucker there and for everybody to get to know him the way that we did."

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