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Zucker comes full circle in latest return to Vegas

Nevada native's journey includes stop at Wednesday's NHL Awards ceremony in his hometown

by Dan Myers @DanMyers / Wild.com

LAS VEGAS -- Jason Zucker wouldn't be here this week if not for a snap decision he made one night three years ago.

That night, he and teammate Jared Spurgeon made a visit to Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis. It was no different than the countless other visits the two have made over the years. 

Asked whether they wanted to go to floor five or six, Zucker blurted out the first number that came to him.

"Five," he said.

Up the elevator they went, and while making the rounds, Zucker met someone who changed his life forever; someone who would put him on his current journey, back home, where he's up for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy at Wednesday's NHL Awards presented by Hulu.

The King Clancy is awarded to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.

But had Zucker and Spurgeon walked into the elevator that night three years ago and pushed six, it's safe to say he probably wouldn't be where he is tonight.

"I would never have thought it would happen that way," said Zucker, who made the trip home this week along with his wife Carly and son Hendrix. "It's not something that you plan, or something where you think, 'I'm gonna become friends with the kid at the hospital today.' You go there with the best intentions of putting a smile on their face and get their mind off what they're going through.

"For me, the second I walked in that room, I could tell there was something special."

The room belonged to Tucker Helstrom, an eight-year old boy who was battling osteosarcoma. 

Upon entering the room, Tucker's eyes lit up. His favorite number was 16, Zucker's jersey number. In fact, Tucker had a present ready for whomever walked through the door. It was a t-shirt, with the number 16 on the back and 'Zucker' written across the top... only the 'Z' was crossed out in black Sharpie and replaced with a 'T.'

Tucker was prepared to hand it over to whichever Wild player walked in that night with the request that it make its way to Zucker.

No such messenger was needed.

Normally, hospital visits last about five minutes per room. Zucker spent more than a half hour with Tucker that first night and returned, along with his wife Carly, countless more times over the eight months Tucker battled the diseased until he passed away on July 2, 2016.

It was Zucker's friendship with Helstrom, a bond that grew remarkably strong in just a few short months, that helped spawn "Team Tucker's Locker" at Masonic in the following months. 

And it was that project that helped create the #Give16 campaign, which in one year, raised $1 million for the Locker inside "Kyle Rudolph's End Zone" -- created in partnership with the Vikings tight end -- at Masonic.

"To know that that chance meeting is what caused all of this to evolve is special," Zucker said. "We're also grateful to the Rudolphs for allowing us to be a part of their space and have 'Team Tucker's Locker' in there."

It's been nearly two years since Tucker passed away. But with a Locker that bears his name being built inside Masonic Children's Hospital, his legacy will survive for decades to come.

Tweet from @mnwild: �� Lights, camera, action! @Jason_Zucker16 looking sharp on the #NHLAwards red carpet. pic.twitter.com/sdlpWgtnNn


Where it all began

So much of Wednesday's award ceremony is still surreal for Zucker, the first Nevada-raised player to ever reach the NHL.

Born in Newport Beach, California, Zucker moved to Las Vegas when he was only a few months old. Following in the footsteps of his two older brothers, Zucker's hockey career actually began on rollerblades.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, ice was at a premium in town, but lots of kids played roller hockey. While kids in Minnesota are put in ice skates and set free on frozen neighborhood ponds not long after they can walk, Zucker said he was put into his first pair of rollerblades when he was two or three.

"I had the old three-wheelers. Nice tape job and everything," Zucker says, looking back.

Zucker's first competitive sport was actually speedskating on roller blades at a place in town called Crystal Palace. The building was one of several with the same name, all owned by the same family. 

Zucker said the place where he got his start is no longer a roller rink at all.

"I'm pretty sure it's a hardware store now," he said with a laugh.

One of the other Crystal Palaces in town eventually was renamed the Las Vegas Ice Center, which is where Zucker made his transition to the ice around the age of 7.

For years, the Ice Center, which was built with the help of Zucker's father, Scott, has served as the hockey home for the city. With two sheets, including a figure skating rink, kids of all ages interested in the sport got their start there.

That all changed when the NHL came to town and the Vegas Golden Knights built City National Arena in the Las Vegas suburb of Summerlin. City National, one of the nicest practice facilities in the League, has become a hub for hockey of all ages in town.

And with the sudden success of the Golden Knights, whose season just ended two weeks ago in the Stanley Cup Finals, interest in hockey in Las Vegas has skyrocketed. 

The hope is that both City National and the Ice Center will be packed with kids playing the sport in the future. 


On a roll

Zucker looks back fondly on his roller hockey days.

While there was an obvious adjustment once things transitioned to the ice, Zucker said the skills he first learned on the hard floor translated easily.

The roller hockey leagues he played in as a kid were 4-on-4. No checking was allowed, so the game is very fast and very skilled. 

Zucker plays a fast, skilled game, so the connection was obvious. 

"There's no checking , no offsides, no icing," Zucker said. "You have to learn how to control the game a little bit. It's not just up-and-down hockey like it is on ice. When you're skating back and you have nothing, you throw it to your goalie. It's sort of like 3-on-3 [in the NHL] in that way."

With the Golden Knights in town and the availability of ice, roller hockey has seen its popularity in town dwindle. There are few competitive roller leagues in town, as most have transitioned to the ice. A few adult leagues remain. 

But the game still has a soft spot in Jason's heart. It even brought a Zucker to Xcel Energy Center, once upon a time.

Zucker and his brothers played in a North American Roller Hockey Championship qualifier almost every year. Jason played traveled all over, including stops in Estero, Florida, Fort Lauderdale and San Jose. 

One was in St. Paul, although Jason didn't play in it. His older brother Evan did, however, marking the first time a Zucker would play at Xcel Energy Center.

"It was great for me," Zucker said. "I think it taught me a lot."


Man on the move

Zucker wasn't in Las Vegas long before he outgrew the game here.

When he was 11, he traveled on weekends to Los Angeles to play with a team there. He and his family still lived in town, but for two years, Zucker spent so much time on Southwest Airlines flights to LAX that he learned the names of nearly every flight attendant.

The schedule was like a routine.

Thursdays, he'd fly to LA, where he'd play in games with his teams on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He'd stick around Monday and practice with the team before flying home Tuesday morning.

He'd spend Tuesday, Wednesday and part of Thursday at home before repeating the routine again the following weekend. He did it for two years.

When in Los Angeles, he'd stay with a teammate.

"It forces you to grow up fast," Zucker said. 

After two years commuting to play hockey, Zucker returned to Las Vegas to play bantams for two years before he was traveling again, this time to Michigan.

 

Zucker played one year of Midget AAA hockey for Compuware before moving on to the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor. 

After two years with the national team, Zucker went to Denver University, where he played two seasons before signing with the Wild in the spring of 2011.

Days after playing his final collegiate game, Zucker made his NHL debut against the Florida Panthers on March 29. He earned two assists -- hist first points in the NHL -- two nights later against the Los Angeles Kings.

The rest is history.

It's a remarkable story, both on and off the ice for Zucker, who hopes the spotlight from Wednesday's awards show will provide more awareness of Tucker's journey.

It's a journey that includes Zucker, whose own story has come full circle back in Las Vegas.

"It's pretty cool to be here and, obviously, it's an honor to be up for the award," Zucker said. "We've put a lot of work into it and it's our passion now. We've enjoyed every minute of it."


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