When Jason Zucker was growing up in Las Vegas, his entire life was roller hockey. His dad, a general contractor at the time, built what’s now the Las Vegas Ice Center — but the facility then was only roller rinks.
The Wild’s speedy winger would skate for hours to mold himself into a star roller hockey player.
“I honestly thought the best thing in the world for hockey was playing roller hockey,” said Zucker, who played from age 3 to his freshman year in college, when University of Denver coach George Gwozdecky made him stop. “I didn’t even know what the NHL was.”
Zucker would shoot for hours in a sport court at his house. He arranged a tent and netting so pucks would fall back down.
He played roller hockey for the Tour Rebels. On weekends he not only played with his age group, he’d play for the two age groups above. Each team had three or four games a day, so Zucker would go from rink to rink to rink, playing nine or 10 times.
His father, Scott, would hold different colored jerseys and pants. When one game ended, sometimes with his son playing every second, Scott would throw Jason the jersey and pants for his next team’s game. He’d scarf down some food, then sprint into the next game.
“I’d hop onto the floor sometimes five minutes into a game, finish that game, then be late for another,” Zucker said.
It was a blast.
“Roller played to his strengths even better — there’s no checking,” said Evan Zucker, 29, the oldest of five children, four of whom are or were hockey-playing boys. “In roller, you’re not even allowed to get in someone’s way, so if you’re fast in roller hockey, you’re like untouchable.”
That’s why Jason, now 25, was a defenseman. He’d get the puck in the D-zone, could skate the whole length of the floor like a forward and have the speed to get back and defend … if his team didn’t score.
Usually, it did, and that’s where Zucker dreamed of becoming a pro … roller hockey player.
“I was the first one to play ice, and that wasn’t until peewees,” said Evan Zucker, who played on Team USA’s roller hockey team with Bobby Ryan. “We never really knew what ice was. It was all roller hockey. There was nothing else here. No one cared about anything else.
“And they had a couple roller hockey leagues floating around, so we all figured, ‘Hey, we could all go play pro roller hockey.’ ”
Jason Zucker, who leads the NHL with a plus/minus of +32, finally got introduced to the International Hockey League’s Las Vegas Thunder. He would sometimes be their stick boy and eventually tried on a pair of ice skates.
Slowly, he went from playing roller hockey year-round to playing roller in the summer and ice in the winter. His dad, the director of construction for Station Casinos, built a roller rink in their backyard. Today, 16-year-old brother Cameron uses it.
One major problem with ice hockey though — and this is hard to imagine considering Jason’s skating is his biggest strength — is that he would toe pick on ice, and kept falling. And falling.
“Roller hockey’s weird,” he explained. “When you stride in roller hockey, when you come back, you dig your toe into the floor and that’s what moves you. It just rolls. Ice, you do that, you fall.
“So I was a terrible skater on ice. My stride was bad when I first started, and even when I’d get back on ice after playing summer roller hockey, I couldn’t skate again.”
At age 15, playing for Compuware in Michigan, Zucker was billeting with Jared Knight, the former Wild minor-leaguer. He was introduced to Knight’s skating coach, Ron Gay, and 10 years later, Gay is still Zucker’s skating coach.
Each August, Zucker flies Gay, who has other NHL clients, to Las Vegas to work with him for a week.
“He was pretty good when I got him. He’s not being too fair to himself,” Gay, 48, said. “He’s always been an explosive skater. So that was there. Jason has very good hips. They’re very open, so he gets a lot of power out of that.
“So with him, we just kind of tweaked a couple things from his roller blading.”
It’s no secret that Zucker, who signed a two-year, $4 million “prove-it-to-me” contract last summer, was unhappy with his season (13 goals, 10 assists in 71 games) last year.
“He knew,” Gay said. “When I got out on the ice with him last August, his mind-set ... was a little different. Not that he doesn’t work. But he was more determined this year to come back and make a big difference.
“And from the middle of November on, he’s earned it. He got with the right guys, and life is good.”
Gay isn’t kidding. Zucker patiently bided his time on the fourth line until he got placed on the left side of Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund. The trio has been Minnesota’s only unbreakable line for two-plus months, and Zucker has 16 goals and has already established career highs with 22 assists and 38 points.
“Instead of just being a bit player in the whole scheme of things, he’s now turned into a really integral part of our team,” coach Bruce Boudreau said. “He wants the leadership roles, and he’s getting it.”
Zucker says candidly, “For me, this was a big year. I was really mad at myself for what happened last year. It wasn’t good enough. I was really excited and ready for this year, and I was going to do whatever it took to make sure I played well this year and had a good year.”
And back in Vegas, Zucker’s family is proud.
“There are 700 players in the entire world in the NHL,” Evan Zucker said. “You don’t ever think your brother, one who grew up in Vegas, is going to be in that league. And, to see him doing as well as he is — I mean, that line’s insane.”
Zucker has come a long way from his roller hockey days.