Within days of having surgery Feb. 12 to repair a broken clavicle, Jason Zucker attended every Wild home game in a spiffy suit and full beard.
He makes his way up to the press box, takes a seat next to the rest of the Wild’s injured and extra players and has the look of somebody who desperately wishes he could be playing.
At times, Zucker feels like a healthy scratch. After all, the 23-year-old winger has been shooting pucks since late February and looks as fast as ever every single morning he takes the ice.
“I feel perfect. I feel great,” said Zucker, sweating after another long, hardworking skate with a few teammates and coaches on Friday. “I don’t feel I have any restrictions shooting or passing or definitely skating. But it’s the docs. They know what’s best and what’s right and the right timeline. And whatever they say goes. Nothing else matters.”
So Zucker waits for that green light when he can start taking contact and return to the Wild’s lineup, hopefully in the playoffs.
The moment Zucker and Vancouver’s Luca Sbisa had that head-on collision chasing down a loose puck along the boards on Feb. 9, Zucker’s breakout season stopped in its tracks.
It had to be painful, and not just the excruciating injury. At the time, Zucker was second on the Wild with 18 goals, fourth with 116 shots and tied for 10th in the NHL with 17 even-strength goals.
Almost a calendar year after undergoing what turned out to be season-ending knee surgery, Zucker was given a three-month timetable. The regular season was two months from finishing.
It was disheartening for a youngster who was so good in training camp that he earned himself a job on the fourth line before slowing working his way up to a top-six role.
But Zucker was blown away by how good he felt almost immediately after surgery.
“I never envisioned I’d be shooting pucks at two weeks,” Zucker said. “The doc [Marc Swiontkowski from Tria Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington] did a great job. Like a really, really good job. Looking at the four-week X-ray, the plate in there, it really does look great.”
Zucker is patiently — or impatiently — awaiting a second X-ray to confirm that structurally everything remains on track. He will be 12 weeks removed from surgery on May 7. But Zucker badly hopes Swiontkowski and the Wild medical team determine he can return much sooner.
“They have their timelines that they’re thinking when it’s healed properly,” Zucker said. “It’s on that track, but that’s all I know. I think I’m ahead of pace, but I don’t know.
“The thing is I can feel as great as I do right now, but they have to make sure it’s strong enough to take contact. That’s what it comes down to. I might feel great, but there’s a timeline where I really am [medically] great.”
Zucker says it’s been agonizing not playing at the season’s most important juncture. What has made things easier is while many skeptics thought the Wild was toast the second Zucker got hurt, the team has continued to reel off victories and put itself in a terrific position to make the playoffs.
The Wild is an NHL-best 26-6-2 since Jan. 15 and has earned a league-best 49 points out of 60 possible since Jan. 27 (24-5-1).
“It’s tough, but you can’t feel sorry for yourself. If you do that, you’re just wasting your own time,” Zucker said. “I learned from that last year. Last year I did. I felt sorry for myself [when there were complications with what was supposed to be a minor knee procedure] and thought, ‘why me?’
“It was a bit different mind-set last year knowing that I was for sure done for the year to the point I went home [to Las Vegas], got my rehab done and started training for this season.
“Now, it’s get better with the mind-set of hoping to play. I’m staying optimistic, training hard and making sure if I can come back I’m as good as I can be.”
The good thing is that Zucker has been skating and shooting and passing for so long, once he’s allowed to start battling in practice, it shouldn’t be too long before he’s allowed to play.
That’s what he yearns for every single morning he puts in the on-ice work.
“If it was my choice I would be playing already, but that’s not how it works,” he said. “Obviously I want to be playing in the playoffs. That’s the best time of year. The guys have been playing great, so you always want to be part of that, part of the winning and hopefully we can carry it into the playoffs.
“If I can play, great. If not, I’ll be their biggest cheerleader.”