Jason Zucker walked onto the stage, wrapped his fingers around the King Clancy Memorial Trophy and rattled off a list of thank yous.
He also mentioned Tucker Helstrom, acknowledging the bond that sparked a fundraiser to create the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. The two met at the hospital while Helstrom was battling brain cancer before he died in 2016.
Since its inception, the campaign has raised more than $1.2 million.
“Obviously, this is all about Tucker and him inspiring us,” Zucker said.
Zucker spearheaded this effort and accepted the recognition for it Wednesday evening in Las Vegas at the NHL Awards as a member of the Wild.
But his affiliation could be changing soon.
A fixture in the rumor mill in recent years who was nearly moved out twice in the past four months, the winger still looks like the Wild’s top trade candidate when the hockey world descends on Vancouver this weekend for the draft — an opportunity to reshape the team’s roster instead of just stockpiling its pipeline.
“It’s just something for us that is part of the business,” Zucker said. “It’s just the way it goes.”
Last year’s draft in Dallas had a similar vibe for the Wild; Paul Fenton had been named general manager the previous month, and huddling with every team’s brass in the same arena for back-to-back days seemed like the perfect backdrop for him to start remaking the team he inherited.
Those changes, however, never materialized.
Instead, the draft was the start of a patient retooling undertaken by Fenton that lasted into the second half of last season. But different circumstances could make this weekend a more active one for the Wild.
Already, the team has tried to trade Zucker at least twice. A deal with the Flames at the trade deadline was broached but never executed, and just last month the Wild and Penguins were in talks to send Zucker and center Victor Rask to Pittsburgh in exchange for right winger Phil Kessel and defenseman Jack Johnson, a source confirmed.
That transaction fizzled when Kessel, a Wisconsin native and former Gopher, nixed it; he has a modified no-trade clause.
“I’m just focusing on my training and [getting] better and making sure that all the things I felt I didn’t do very well this year I’m getting better at and continuing to grow my game every year,” said Zucker, whose goal production dropped to 21 last season after he scored a career-high 33 in 2017-18.
After these botched trades, it not only seems clear the Wild is willing to cut ties with Zucker not even a year after he signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract, but that a divorce is inevitable. And there could be urgency to reach that resolution.
On July 1, Zucker has a modified no-trade clause that activates that prohibits him from being traded to 10 teams of his choosing — limiting Fenton’s maneuverability.
Fenton could also be motivated to work out a deal at the draft if he’s coveting picks in return, a haul that would give the Wild more flexibility this summer. That might come in handy when exploring other deals since trades could be the more desirable tool this offseason for teams looking to reshuffle their look.
In the week since the Stanley Cup was handed out, five swaps were made — highlighting the greater depth in the trade market than the free-agent pool.
“If I can improve this team by talking to other teams and we see a fit,” Fenton said, “then I’m going to go ahead and do something like that.”
In the meantime, the spotlight will remain on Zucker.
He received a $40,000 donation for winning the King Clancy, which honors the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.
The Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio opened March 25, featuring a theater and state-of-the-art broadcast equipment, and it hosted children and staff Wednesday to watch Zucker at the awards show.
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist were the other finalists.
And it’s Zucker’s work with the hospital that has helped put the sport in perspective for him while so much uncertainty lingers.
“This is stuff that makes a huge difference in people’s lives, and we hope we’re enriching the kids’ lives in the hospital and the community,” said Zucker, who’s spent his entire NHL career with the Wild. “This means a whole heck of a lot to me and my family and everybody involved. It’s been fun to share it with everybody, but it does — it puts hockey in a really small category.”