MINNEAPOLIS – Dana Helstrom has shared plenty of stories with Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker about her son, Tucker, but had (at least) one more Zucker had not heard.
Standing in front of a packed room of local celebrities and event-goers on Thursday night - some of whom had met Dana's son and all of whom had fallen in love with him, Dana recalled the first day Zucker and Tucker met.
That night, Dana was putting Tucker to bed. He had finally met his idol, his interest in Zucker ignited by the five letters that separated them in name.
So as Dana tucked in Tucker, who was battling osteosarcoma, an aggressive and rare form of bone cancer, he had something to tell her before she pulled the sheets tight, and turned off the lights.
"I guess there's one good thing about cancer," Tucker told Dana. "I got to meet my hero."
Dana shared this memory and other stories of her son's journey at a charity benefit for her family and for the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital, hosted by Zucker and his fiancée, Carly Aplin, Thursday night in Downtown Minneapolis.
In December, Zucker and Tucker met at Masonic Children's when the Wild players visited the hospital and, by chance, Zucker ended up stopping in Tucker's room.
Over the next eight months, the two would cultivate a relationship, along with Aplin, and the rest of Tucker's family that no one could have envisioned.
On July 2, Tucker lost his battle with osteosarcoma. He was nine years old.
"It's a blessing for me to be able to have this relationship with Tucker and his family," Zucker said. "Obviously it was terrible that he passed away, and we'll miss him dearly, but I'll never forget him. We're always going to be friends with that family — they're great — and it's been a true friendship. It was no longer a hospital visit."
Team Tucker's Locker
Those close to Tucker were always amazed by the demeanor and perspective shown by a nine-year-old as he faced the kind of adversity he was dealt.
"Dana said that if Tucker would have lived he would have gone back to Masonic, and he would have given back to other kids there," Aplin said.
In creating a legacy in Tucker's name, Zucker, Aplin, and Tucker's family have tried to stay as true as possible to that sentiment. With the help of Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, an area, 'Team Tucker's Locker' will be added to the 2,500 square foot patient family centered space Rudolph is helping to build at Masonic.
"This whole thing is about Tucker's legacy, and to leave his legacy at the hospital, and make sure that he has the ability, like he wanted, to give back to the hospital, and give back to the community, and be able to give kids like him the opportunity to have fun in the hospital, any chance they get," Zucker said. "Whether it's five minutes or five hours, to give them that opportunity is the opportunity he wanted to leave, and his family wanted to leave."
Dana was constantly surprised and in awe by the maturity her son showed.
"The last time I gave him a bath, and I scrubbed on all of his scars, lightly, I said, 'Tucker, I wish mommy could have gone through this for you,'" she said. "And instantly he responded, 'Mom, I wish no one had to go through this.'"
There was another time when Tucker wanted to give his new best friend a gift.
"And not just a 'thank you' card," Dana said, "so he made a mug for him."
Zucker would come to visit Tucker, and always bring some sort of beverage, so, Tucker wanted him to have something a bit more personal.
"And I said, 'Tucker, there's a spot for text, what message do you want to give Jason?'" Dana said. "And I will be completely honest: I was going to doctor it. I'm an English teacher, I was going to make it really powerful, but I just wanted his essence.
"And he said, 'Well, just put on there, 'Thank you for being the best role model that I can look up to for the rest of my life, and being one of my best friends.' And I thought, 'Oh my god. How does my nine-year-old know that Jason is a role model?'
"He just saw the big picture, and he saw deeper than a nine-year-old thinks."
Zucker and Aplin opened the gift and cried. It wasn't the first, and wasn't the last time Tucker moved them to tears.
"I never thought that I would have this type of relationship with Tucker, or any kid in his situation because that's not something you seek out," Zucker said. "You don't plan to make friends with a kid in the hospital. It just kind of happened, and we got drawn to him very quickly, and it was something that we'll definitely never forget."
Likewise, Tucker provided perspective for Zucker. This past season was, perhaps, the toughest on-ice for Zucker of his career. His numbers dipped: twice he was a healthy scratch. But visiting Tucker illuminated the bigger picture for Zucker and Aplin.
"He could say, 'Hockey is a game,'" Aplin said. "It's his career, but it's still just a game when there's a boy battling cancer at a hospital, and a family battling cancer.
"It puts that tough year in perspective, and Tucker reminded him of that."
There was another surprise on Thursday, in the form of one of Tucker's friends, Cole Jerspeth. A few weeks prior to his diagnosis, Tucker attended his first Wild game, on his ninth birthday, with Cole.
In about a month, Cole will be competing in a kid's triathlon in Chanhassen in honor of Tucker. He had a goal of fundraising $500.
But in the middle of Zucker and Aplin introducing the night, they called Cole up to the front of the crowd. Zucker told Cole's story, and then surprised him with a $500 check.
As Zucker handed Cole a white envelope, his emotions overflowed, as he buried his face under the lapel of his jacket. Zucker embraced him, and then Aplin.
"That's a special child," Carly said into the microphone, as Cole retreated into the crowd, back to his father.
It was one of the themes on the night.
Enough Time To Help
On Friday, July 29, Zucker and Aplin are getting married on the West Coast. Zucker heaped praise on Aplin all throughout Tucker's benefit, from planning the event, to planning their wedding.
Before the two say 'I do,' it was of the utmost importance to them to make sure to do something for Tucker.
"In his last couple of days, we got that call from his mom Dana, and I flew back here, and in that process Carly and I were already thinking of things that we could do," Zucker said.
There were similar stories from Thursday, of those who dropped whatever they were doing to make sure they were in attendance. Zucker's best friend and fellow Wild forward, Charlie Coyle, came in from Boston. Defenseman Jared Spurgeon, who was with Zucker at Masonic and visited Tucker's room, flew from Western Canada.
"He's a special kid," Coyle said. "He touched so many people. I only met him once or twice. You could just tell; he has an effect on you."
The day Zucker signed a two-year contract with the Wild in early July was the same that Aplin received a text from Dana. Tucker was dying, though all Dana wrote in her text was, "Things aren't good."
The events that followed showed Dana how special her family's bond with Zucker and Aplin had become.
"I thought maybe as a mom she might have caught the vibe that my son was dying, and then to find out later in the newspaper article, they thought they were just coming to visit, and he just needed some cheering up," she said. "They didn't come just because he was on his deathbed."
Zucker booked a redeye flight, not to come to Minnesota to sign his contract, but to spend some time with a kid who had become his best pal.
In short order, Zucker and Aplin ended up saying goodbye to Tucker that night.
"That was probably the toughest moment for both of us," Aplin said. "We never experienced anything like that. We left the house, and we sat in the car, and we cried. We had to say goodbye to a nine-year-old, and how do you do that?"
Tucker's story and his family will forever be a part of their lives. On a day that was so important to Zucker professionally, Tucker was there. Eight days before Zucker and Aplin exchange vows, they were in Minneapolis making sure Tucker's legacy lives on.
"[The wedding] will come together, and that will be great, and Jason's career, whatever happens, it will be fine," Aplin said. "They'll forever be a part of our story. Their family will, their little girls will; they'll forever be a part of it.
"That's what we'll look back on in this time and remember."
A Special Bond
Dana spoke for over seven minutes at the event, none of it prepared. She said she wasn't sure if she had told that story about the first night after Tucker and Zucker met, but it just came to her.
"There are so many amazing things that Tucker told me over the eight months that I forgot about that one," Dana said. "Maybe Tucker sent it back to me and reminded me."
Later in the night, Dana wondered out loud how it looked that she didn't cry while she spoke, or at any point during the night.
What it did show was, the conviction of a mother who loved her son who was taken from her soon. Instead, with incredible passion and poise, she captivated the room full of guests who were so focused on listening that, when she paused during her speech, the only sounds to be heard was street traffic from the humid summer night.
"I already told my family of 24: We're done. Nobody else is going to die from our family," Dana said as she spoke. "This is too much."
She said one of Tucker's favorite moments came at the 2016 Stadium Series game. On February 5, Tucker had his leg amputated. Sixteen days later, he was at TCF Bank Stadium, cheering on his favorite team and favorite player.
"He stood for the first time on his one leg, and he was like, 'Look mom, I'm clapping,'" Dana said. "I'm like, 'Of course, they scored, and they're killing the Blackhawks. Who isn't clapping?'
"And he goes, 'No look; with both hands.' And it was the first time he ever balanced on his one remaining leg, and the motivation was the Wild."
Later in the game, Tucker's mood plummeted when Zucker was hit hard, knocking him to the ice, and concussing him.
"All that joy was erased when Jason got hit, and he sat down, and he couldn’t cheer the rest of the game, and he made me text Carly 100 times," Dana said. "He couldn't enjoy anything. Here's a boy, cancer, one leg, he just learned to stand, and all he worried about was his friend. That's what you guys have all seen in Tucker, and that's what makes him amazing, is no matter how bad things were for him, he was always worried about other people."
Sports have a strange way of galvanizing people in ways much more profound than a game.
In her son's passing, Dana and her family have vowed to continue to fight; to create a lasting memory of Tucker that he would have been comfortable with.
"My last words to his oncologist were, 'You better have kept that tumor, and you better study it like crazy,'" Dana said. "I was only given eight months with my son. I never had one clear scan. I was given two days of notice that he was about to die. There cannot be more mothers going through that."
The crowd-funding page for Team Tucker was over 93 percent toward its goal of $25,000 as this article was written. In total, between ticket sales from the event, an auction hosted on KFAN, a live auction at the event, a $10,000 donation from Northwestern Mutual Minneapolis, and a donation from Love Your Melon, $54,540 has been raised.
"I'd love to just roll over and go to bed, but that's not what Tucker would have wanted," Dana said. "We said there's nothing we can't do. I thought it meant Tucker and I together, there's nothing we can't do, but I guess that means there's something we couldn't do. We couldn't beat osteosarcoma as of today, but maybe that's what's next. We have to try to beat it for other people."