Contrary to a popular ad campaign, not everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
In Jason Zucker’s case, the Las Vegas-raised Minnesota Wild forward accomplished so much at an early age on the rinks in Nevada that he simply could not stay in the desert city of neon. So at his first chance, Zucker hit the road out of Sin City to showcase his talents elsewhere, leading to a journey like no other in the National Hockey League.
Unlike most beginnings in hockey, Zucker didn’t start off with ice, the freezing cold or even pucks. He was introduced to the sport in the oppressive heat of rollerblade hockey games in the Nevada desert.
“We played non-stop roller hockey at this place named the Crystal Palace,” Zucker said.
A few years later, Zucker eventually began skating indoors at the Swensen Ice Rink in Vegas and became a full on rink rat. As his skills quickly evolved, his family started looking for better competition.
At age 11, Zucker began commuting by himself to Los Angeles every week to play Peewee hockey. He’d fly from Vegas on a Friday and come home on a Tuesday. All of his schooling was done online. Settled next to the beaches of Southern California, the Los Angeles hockey scene, while being far from traditional, was growing rapidly thanks to the NHL’s early ‘90s boom in the Sun Belt after Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings. With youngsters patterning their games after The Great One, the area began producing some talented players.
“My L.A. teams placed second in Nationals two years in a row,” Zucker said proudly.
Zucker then moved back to Vegas to play one year of Bantams. He then moved up a division to play with his older brother on the Midget U-16 team. However, even playing against older players, his talents continued to flourish and once again he needed to leave his desert hometown to face stiffer competition and move up the hockey ladder.
Move to Michigan and Rocky Mountain High
At age 15, Zucker left home on his own for Battle Creek Michigan where he played for the legendary Compuware AAA hockey team, whose notable alumni include several ex-and current-NHL players.
In Michigan, Zucker lived and breathed ice hockey in a classic wintry landscape. He lived with Jared Knight (now in the Boston Bruins organization) and his family.
“They had that fake plastic ice in their basement,” Zucker remembered fondly. “After high school all we did was shoot pucks down there. Then we’d go to the gym and then go to hockey practice. We did that practically every single day.”
Zucker also got his first taste of a real winter.
“It was so awesome at first,” Zucker laughed. “Then it got real old and real long.”
From Compuware, Zucker made yet another step away from his Las Vegas home. He was accepted into the United States National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his hunger for hockey only grew. Not being from one of the big M’s (Minnesota, Michigan and Massachusetts) made him work even harder than before. After two years in with the NTDP he earned a hockey scholarship to the University of Denver.
“I realized in Michigan that hockey could be a reality for me,” Zucker said. “Growing up in Vegas it was always just a dream. But at that point, the college offers started to come. And I went to DU and the NHL became a goal not just a possibility.”
Heading into his freshman season at Denver, Zucker's dreams started to become a reality as he became the first Nevada-developed player to be drafted into the NHL when the Wild selected him in the second round (59th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.
After two productive seasons at DU, Zucker signed with the Wild and played in six regular season games at the end of the 2011-12, registering two assists.
With the lockout delaying the start of the NHL season last year, Zucker began the season in Houston, playing for the Wild’s AHL affiliate. After consistently scoring in Houston and skating in the AHL’s All-Star Game, he was recalled to Minnesota, playing in 20 regular season games and recording four goals and an assist.
Zucker showed his nose for the net and a flair for the dramatic, scoring the Wild’s overtime winner against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A Special Tribute
None of his accomplishments could’ve been done without the untold sacrifices of his parents. His parents worked Monday through Friday and used their allotted vacation time and sick days to drive the kids to roller and ice hockey tournaments all over the western United States.
“On Fridays my dad would go one way and drive some of us to Phoenix and my mom would drive the other way and take some to California,” Zucker said.
Their sacrifice does not go unrecognized by Zucker. He remembers all the time and money his parents spent helping him chase his dream. At one point, he estimates they were spending around $20,000 a year when he commuted to Los Angeles to play Peewee hockey. This is why he writes the words “Mom and Dad” on the backside of every stick he uses in the NHL.
“I don’t know how they did it,” Zucker said. “But they did.”
Zucker’s hockey journey has taken him from the desert to the beach to the wintry Midwest to the Rocky Mountains to Houston. After training camp, he was assigned to the Iowa Wild, as Minnesota’s AHL affiliate moved to Des Moines this year. After a short stint in Iowa, he was recalled to the Wild on Oct. 6.
If Zucker can stay land a permanent spot in the State of Hockey with the Wild, he’ll have his relentless work ethic and extremely dedicated parents to thank. Not to mention, a particular beat up SUV that shuttled him away, weekend after weekend, from his Las Vegas home to countless hockey tournaments across the country.
“My mom drove this one car into the ground taking us to tournaments,” Zucker said. He paused as a wide appreciative smile creased his face. “I’ll never stop writing her name on the back of my sticks.”