Jason Zucker has a few tattoos that mean everything to him. They’re reminders of where he’s been and where he’s going.
On Zucker’s back, “USA,” because in the mind of the Wild forward and Las Vegas native, the genesis of this budding hockey career, the true beginning of everything, was the honor of playing for the national team.
On Zucker’s chest, “Game Time,” an ode to his best friend, Nick Scheafer, who died in 2010 at the age of 19 in a car accident on an on-ramp to a Las Vegas highway. It was a funny saying Scheafer used in virtually every situation, a quote that still makes Zucker crack up despite the obvious sadness that’s still so fresh.
On Zucker’s left arm, “In pursuit of perfection.” Written in Hebrew as an ode to his Jewish heritage, it’s a line that Zucker heard once and it embedded into his brain.
For Zucker, that quote has double meaning.
“Everyone always wants to strive to be the best,” Zucker said. “I’m no different. I want to be better than everybody in that locker room and they all want to be better than me. That’s just the way it goes. That’s the way our business runs. I’m always striving to be perfect and I may never reach there. Nobody ever will. But I’m always striving to get to that.”
The other meaning? Zucker says he has “a little OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder].”
“A little?” teammate Charlie Coyle, who lives with Zucker in Minneapolis, says with a chuckle. “Go in his room. He’s a big guy with watches and he’s got this whole case of probably 50 watches perfectly lined up, every one just perfect. Go in his closet and all his shirts are hung up, almost color coded. They’re all perfect. Same with his shoes, not one out of place.
“Just everything. Like everything. We go grocery shopping, and you open the cabinets, and everything is all perfect, labels facing out and spaced apart so evenly. I’m telling you, everything. I’m a neat person, so it’s fine, but it’s a little over the top.
“Heck, just watch him take off his equipment. He takes his laces and folds them perfectly down so it just sits there.”
Of course, there are few things Coyle enjoys more than messing with Zucker … by messing up his perfect stuff.
A welcome return
As the Wild opens the postseason Thursday in St. Louis, Zucker is preparing for his second.
In 2013, as a rookie, Zucker scored the only game-winning goal of the playoffs for the Wild, burying the Game 3 winner in overtime against Chicago.
Unfortunately, Zucker never got to take part in last year’s playoffs because of season-ending knee surgery.
But this year, one of the big reasons the Wild feels so confident heading into the first round is because Zucker, after having his breakout season stopped in its tracks in February because of a broken collarbone, is back and has already made an immediate impact.
Playing on a line with Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart, the Wild’s fastest player scored three goals in three games at the end of the regular season to top the 20-goal mark for the first time.
Not bad for a 23-year-old whom the Wild expected to start the season in Iowa.
“I remember telling him in August that he could come in and have a great camp and ‘if your ice time isn’t where I want it, you’re going down,’ ” General Manager Chuck Fletcher said. “He looked at me with this interesting look and goes, ‘I’ll be fine.’
“He’s a very confident kid. He’s got great talent, drive and speed. He has a chance to be a heck of a hockey player.”
That’s pretty amazing for a player who grew up in the non-hockey hotbed of Las Vegas.
Born in Southern California, Zucker moved to Las Vegas at 2 months old. At 2 years old, Zucker put on skates for the first time. His mom, Natalie, used to be a figure skater, so he was a natural. But mostly Zucker wanted to follow around his brothers, Evan, now 28, and Adam, now 24.
Evan Zucker randomly tried hockey at 5 years old, loved it and excelled. He left home as a teenager to pursue his hockey dream (Jason followed in Evan’s footsteps, too, leaving for California at age 10, then Michigan at age 14). Today, Evan Zucker coaches several youth teams in Las Vegas and is assistant coach of the Las Vegas Storm, a Tier-3 junior team that plays in the Western States Hockey League.
When Jason Zucker was 5, his dad, Scott, was the general contractor that built what’s now the Las Vegas Ice Center. Back then, it was all roller rinks.
“He’d pick me up every day from kindergarten at noon and would take me to work with him,” Zucker said. “I would skate alone for five, six hours while my dad was working.”
A few years back, Scott Zucker, a director of construction for Station Casinos, built a roller rink in his back yard so Jason could train during the scorching Vegas summers.
“Hours a day I’d spend back there skating and shooting,” Zucker said.
Friend always present
Zucker is proud of being the first Nevada-produced NHLer in history.
Growing up in Sin City, Zucker says he has never gambled. He was taught early that Las Vegas wasn’t built on winners.
So Zucker grew up playing sports, dirt biking and off-road racing. These days, Zucker has taken up golf and even trains and spars with UFC and mixed martial arts athletes such as Forrest Griffin, Frank Mir, Dan Hardy, Mike Pyle and Jerry Nelson.
Family and friends mean everything to Zucker. He also has a younger sister (Kimmie, 16) and brother (Cameron, 14).
He writes “mom” and “dad” on every stick — just under the initials of his friend. That car accident also killed two other friends and devastated Zucker, who was supposed to go out with Nick that night.
“They always had this thing as a little joke: ‘If you make it to the NHL, you’re going to take me with you,’ ” Evan Zucker said. “Jason writes his name on all of his sticks. He took Nick with him.”
As you can imagine, the Zuckers are beyond proud of Jason. There’s not an article or feature about his younger brother that Evan Zucker hasn’t seen and saved.
Scott and Evan Zucker watch every game, either together or by texting each other constantly. They plan to attend Games 3 and 4 in Minnesota.
“I don’t know about you, but I filled out my NHL bracket and I got Minnesota going all the way,” Evan Zucker said.
They’re also proud how Jason stayed positive through all those trips back and forth to Iowa the past three years.
“It was really tough in the beginning and all of us were kind of shaking our heads trying to figure out, ‘Is this how it’s supposed to work?’ ” Evan Zucker said. “But [Calgary’s] Deryk Engelland lives here in Vegas. He had a really, really up-and-down career before he was up all the time with the Penguins.
“Jason and Deryk had a lot of conversations and Jason realized this was part of paying your dues.”
Coach Mike Yeo pushes the Wild’s young players hard, the reason being he says is that NHL teams only get one chance to do things right with youngsters.
Zucker, after some tough times, bought in to being a complete player. He has always had the speed and skill and work ethic, but now he’s tenacious on the puck, solid along the wall, is aware in his own zone and competes consistently.
On the knob of each one of his game sticks, Zucker writes an anagram: “STS.”
It means, “Shoot to score.”
“Trust me,” Fletcher said. “We still want him to do that. But he’s really embraced the willingness to play a two-way game and he’s been rewarded with ice time and opportunity.”
As Zucker says, he’s in pursuit of perfection.