Maybe it was fate.
Jason Zucker and Jared Spurgeon had the option to pick the fifth floor or the sixth floor during a visit to University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital last December. They chose the fifth floor, and because of that seemingly insignificant decision, Zucker ended up meeting his biggest fan with the biggest heart.
Weeks before, on his eighth birthday, Tucker Helstrom attended a Wild game and immediately took to the fast Wild winger because their names sounded alike and were spelled almost identical. Weeks later, Tucker was hospitalized after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma -- a rare form of bone cancer.
Tucker was excited because he knew a Wild player would be coming to visit. He had no clue who. Hanging over his bed was a “Team Tucker Go!” t-shirt that Tucker planned to give to whichever player came. On the back was Zucker’s name, only with the “Z” crossed out and replaced by a “T.” So imagine Tucker’s glee when Zucker himself walked into his room.
“That made the connection pretty easy,” Zucker, 24, said. “He was just a great kid. He was very energetic and happy. Very talkative. And he just had this peace to him that drew you to him all the time. And so for me it was something that I got drawn to him right away.”
From that day, a special friendship grew. Zucker went home and told his fiancée, Carly Aplin, about the little boy, and soon they would both be making frequent visits to Tucker and his family, especially before and after chemotherapy sessions to lift his spirits.
Last January, Tucker had to have a leg amputated. Mom, Dana Anderson-Helstrom, asked Aplin if Zucker would send over a stick. Aplin said, “No way,” that the two would head to the hospital soon after surgery.
Zucker and Aplin were the first non-family members to visit.
“We played XBOX and just hung out for, I think it was two or three hours that first night,” Zucker said. “Played XBOX and just kind of relaxed a little bit. It really felt like a friendship right away, and not necessarily a hospital visit. It felt like we were all friends and we were one good-sized family.”
It was then that Zucker and Aplin said to each other that they had to make certain Tucker, his parents Dana and Judd, and sisters, Kayci and Siera, remained a big part of their life.
“It felt like we knew them forever,” Aplin said.
Each time Zucker visited, he’d ask Tucker, a gigantic hockey and Wild fan, his opinion on the previous game. “He was pretty honest, which was hilarious,” Aplin said. “He just kept saying, ‘You need to shoot more. And not be a puck hog,’ and he was so sweet, and you know kids – they have no filters – he was just being dead honest, which was hilarious.”
Zucker recalled one stretch when he was struggling to score.
“He just said, ‘I have some advice for you,’” Zucker said, laughing. “And I said, ‘Alright Tuck, what have you got?’ And he said, ‘Back check hard and shoot more.’”
Over time, Tucker “forgot the back checking part. He just wanted me to shoot more and he told me that about 30 times.”
Aplin said that’s what was so special about the relationship between Zuck and Tuck.
“It was no secret that Jason had a tough year,” Aplin said. “I think it was an opportunity to keep everything in perspective for Jason as well. You know a bad year playing hockey is very different than a little boy in a hospital bed battling cancer.
“And so I think it was a way for us to remember that that’s just a game, and while it’s Jason’s job, it’s not a family sitting in a hospital. And so I think it was a blessing for us, to be able to share that journey with them, and remember that there’s so much more to life.”
On June 29, Zucker re-signed with the Wild for two seasons. Less than an hour later, Aplin got a text from Tucker’s mom, Dana, asking if she and Zucker were in town. Aplin was, Zucker was home in Las Vegas. Unaware that Zucker had just signed, Dana let them know that Tucker’s cancer had spread to the brain and he was given a few days to live.
Zucker booked a red-eye that night to return to Minnesota. He arrived at Tucker’s home the morning of June 30 and still didn’t really understand the magnitude of the situation. He thought it would be a normal hangout where he’d play NHL 15 with Tucker for hours and lift his spirits and energy.
Sadly, Tucker was having trouble breathing, seeing and talking.
“He could barely open his eyes,” Zucker said. “Leaving his house that day was probably one of the hardest moments of my life. Having to give him a hug. And having him give you knuckles. And give the family a hug, and at that moment it was something that I never thought I would have to go through.
“What do you say to this family and to Tucker? You know, saying bye. How do you say bye knowing that it’s the last time you’re going to see him, possibly? It was really, really hard for us. We thought everything was going to be great, and …
Interrupted Aplin, “We kept thinking that he was going to be fine. You keep thinking he’ll be fine. Like next year we’ll be at games together and he’ll be fine. And I think we both kept thinking that. And to be quite honest, we left there and we sat in the car and cried.”
But before Zucker left the house that day, there was an incredibly heartwarming moment that makes Zucker thankful that he rushed to Tucker’s side. In the days preceding, Tucker was practicing his autograph to make it look like Zucker’s. When he finally felt he got it right, Tucker took one of his old hockey cards, a picture of a smiling, healthy child on the ice posing in a blue Hopkins uniform. He looks so happy as he holds his hockey stick.
On the back of the card, Tucker wrote his name, the No. 16 and signed the card like Zucker signs his name. As Zucker was saying goodbye, Dana took the card and put it in Tucker’s hand. He gave it to Jason just as he was leaving.
Two days later, on July 2, Tucker died only nine months after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 9.
Three days after that, on July 5, Zucker got a tattoo on the back of his left wrist. He had the tattoo artist capture Tucker’s exact signature.
Underneath, the inscription, “SHOOT MORE!”
Jason Zucker is playing host to a fundraiser on Thursday night to help the family with its medical bills and funeral expenses. For more information, click here. In addition, Zucker is heading an effort to create a hockey-themed memorial to Tucker at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. You can learn more about that here.