Unlike many of his NHL counterparts, Jason Zucker’s ice hockey career didn’t start on a frozen pond.
It started on an ice sheet tucked inside a casino.
Despite the unusual start to his hockey career, Zucker has discovered success every step of the way on his NHL journey, from the National Team Development Program, to a two-year career at the University of Denver, to a roster spot with the Minnesota Wild this season.
Zucker’s family moved to Las Vegas when he was 2 months old, and like many kids growing up in warm weather climes, his first experience with hockey was on roller blades. When he laced up a pair of ice skates, at the urging of his brothers, he would play at the Santa Fe Station or the Fiesta Rancho, two hotels in the Las Vegas area that had a sheet of ice.
“Roller hockey was the big thing [in Vegas],” Zucker reminisced. “But my brothers got into ice so I followed along.”
Knowing that, especially at the time, continuing to play in southern Nevada would not get him noticed nationally, Zucker moved to Michigan when he was 15 to play with the Compuware AAA Minor Midget Team. It was a move he called, “a family decision.”
Ultimately, the move paid off. After one season with Compuware, Zucker headed off to Ann Arbor to compete with the U.S. Under-17 Team during the 2008-09 season. That was when he had his first taste of international competition, winning his first of two gold medals at the IIHF World Under-18 Championships.
He continued the golden streak the following season when he became one of the youngest members on a U.S. squad that would strike gold at the 2010 World Junior Championship, defeating Canada in an overtime thriller.
“That was a great experience, it was unbelievable,” Zucker said. “Just playing in those games was crazy enough, and being able to win that was a huge thing for the U.S.”
His on-ice success was perhaps not even his greatest achievement of 2010. In June, he became the first Las Vegas native selected in the NHL Entry Draft, going 59th overall in the second round to Minnesota.
“It was one of those things where we’re trying to get the West Coast on the map,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not easy to do that sometimes, but for me I just wanted to play and that’s why I kept going with it.”
He played two seasons at DU, posting 91 points in 78 games, before turning pro at the end of the 2012 season.
With the lockout claiming the first half of the 2012-13 season, Zucker had the opportunity to fine-tune his game in the AHL, an experience he credits with easing his transition to the big leagues.
“I learned a ton. It was a whole different experience of hockey,” said Zucker, who had 50 points in 55 games with the Houston Aeros last season.
“You have to learn a different way to play, a different way to better your game. So it was good to be down there and learn those things to help build my game.”
Since then, he’s split time between the AHL and NHL, starting the season with the Iowa Wild before being called up in late November. He continues to work hard every day, noting that his goal is to improve his two-way game to become a more complete player.
“You have to make sure that you’re into it every night, whether your name is called or not,” Zucker said. “When your name is called, you just have to be playing at your best, and that’s definitely a tough thing to do.”
Photos courtesy of Kevin McLaughlin; Getty Images
The growth of girls’ hockey around the country has given young girls a clear path to pursue their hockey dreams.
That is the case for Kaylee Merrill, whose dream is to win a gold medal with the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team one day. While she plays for the Mat-Su Eagles Peewee B co-ed team, she also plays on the Eagles
U12 Girls Team.
She is the embodiment of the multi-sport athlete that is a huge part of the American Development Model. On addition to hockey, Kaylee is an avid biker, swimmer, golfer and competed in the “Why Not Tri” triathlon this past summer, which is a 400 meter swim, 9.25 mile bike and three mile run in her hometown of Wasilla.
Away from athletic competition, Kaylee is involved in fundraising and is a model student. She raised $500 for the Special Olympics, and was a high honor student for the second year in a row at her middle school.