Jason Zucker fell into a booth last week at the Encore Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
"I never come here," Zucker said, wiped out by the 13-mile drive from Summerlin, a beautiful community nestled up to the Red Rock Canyon.
Raised in Sin City, the Wild winger is the only Nevada-produced NHLer in history. Yet Zucker does everything he can to avoid the madness of hotels, casinos, restaurants and stores stretching 4 ½ miles from the Stratosphere to Mandalay Bay.
"I golfed at a course just down the road the other day and I realized quickly on my way down why I never come here," Zucker said. "It took me 15 minutes to get off the freeway and it took me 15 minutes to drive a mile past Las Vegas Boulevard."
Zucker was born in Southern California but is Nevada-bred. There are two types of people from Vegas: those who never drop a penny in a slot machine, cozy up to a poker table or spend their nights frequenting Vegas nightclubs, and those who "take it to the other extreme," Zucker said.
"The way I figure, I'd pay my dad's salary if I go to a 'Station' and lose all my money," Zucker said, referring to his father, Scott, the longtime Director of Design & Construction of Station Casinos. "For me, I don't really find a lot of joy in it. I'm the guy that if I'm going to spend $100 on clothes, at least I walked away with something. If I lost 100 bucks gambling, I'd be angry at myself. And the winning part of gambling doesn't really faze me as much as the losing does, so I've never done it."
As much as Zucker tries to dodge the Vegas strip, he will have no choice next March 16 when the Wild is scheduled to play its first game against the expansion Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena, which is situated between the Monte Carlo and New York-New York.
"I never thought I'd have that opportunity, ever," said Zucker, a former IHL Las Vegas Thunder stick boy and roller hockey star. "It never once crossed my mind. Even when the Vegas thing started to be talked about, I was skeptical."
Zucker comes from a hockey-loving family that already has gobbled up a couple of Golden Knights season tickets. He's one of five children. His older brothers, Evan and Adam, played hockey competitively and will coach the Bantam A team in the new Junior Knights program. His 16-year-old brother, Cameron, is moving to Lansing, Mich., to play for the North American Tier III Hockey League (NA3HL) Wolves. His dad just became President of the Nevada Amateur Hockey Association.
There are three sheets of ice at two facilities in Vegas, including the Las Vegas Ice Center, which Scott Zucker so happened to originally build years ago as a roller hockey facility. The Golden Knights' practice facility is nearing completion, so Zucker's hope is the community begins to fall in love with the sport from a grass roots level like so many other expansion markets helped create.
According to USA Hockey's 2016-17 participation report, Nevada has 1,382 people registered, including 539 ages 18 and younger. Border-state California has 29,849 registered, 13,031 ages 18 and younger.
"Much bigger state," Zucker said, "but that's a massive difference. We're trying to grow it."
When Zucker was 15, he moved to Michigan to play for Compuware so he would have a chance to someday reach his dreams of playing college hockey and turning pro. His brother, Cameron, also has to leave because there's not even a 16-year-old team in Las Vegas for which he could play.
He hopes the Golden Knights' arrival will pay big dividends down the road so there are other Jason Zuckers having a chance to play in the NHL.
Zucker spent the past few days in Minnesota playing host to the ninth annual Champions for Children Celebrity Golf Classic with Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph. Zucker's wife, Carly, has a daughter, Sophia, and is due with the couple's first child in October.
Selfishly, that's a big reason he was relieved the Wild protected him in the recent expansion draft. Plus, feeling 100 percent after offseason abdominal surgery, Zucker will enter a contract year coming off a career-high 22-goal, 47-point season.
He calls this upcoming season "huge."
"It's the biggest year that I've had to date," said Zucker, 25, entering his fourth full season and seventh overall. "Last year was big coming off a down year for me the year before. I think being able to prove that I can follow it up and be better is an even harder task and a bigger task. I'm excited for it. I know I'll be more ready.
"In my eyes, I'm expecting a lot more this year than I ever have."