From Las Vegas To The NHL: Minnesota Wild Winger Jason Zucker Is Turning Heads

Justin Zucker

Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker has taken an unprecedented route to the NHL. From the bright lights of Las Vegas to the roaring arenas of the NHL – it’s been an incredible journey for this special 22-year-old winger.

Due to the scarcity of ice rinks in the Sin City, Zucker grew up playing roller hockey under a hot sun in hometown. His path to the NHL sounds like something out of an improbable Hollywood script. Zucker was a Las Vegas kid who didn’t touch a sheet of ice until the age of six and began skating on the ice of local hotel casinos.

At 15, Zucker and his family moved to Plymouth, Michigan. Zucker was able to crack the roster of Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. He impressed to the point that he made the United States under-18 team and eventually starred for the University of Denver Pioneers.

“I was born in Newport Beach, but I moved to Las Vegas when I was two months old,” Zucker said. “I moved away from home to make sure I could play at a high level. I was in L.A, I was back in Vegas, I was in Michigan – I was kind of all over the place.”

Zucker made history when he became the first-ever Las Vegas native to be drafted into the NHL. Through six games this season, the 5-foot-11 winger has scored four goals in six games.

Offensive upside, athleticism and tremendous energy have always been hallmarks of Zucker’s game. The message coming from Wild head coach Mike Yeo was that Zucker needed to improve his defensive game. This season, Zucker has made large strides forward in polishing his defensive zone play. He credits a dressing room full of approachable stars and the Wild coaching staff for his improvement.

“Hockey is the three-zone sport,” Zucker said. “The coaching staff really helped me out with that. You have to be good at all three to be able to excel at this level. I’ve had a lot of guys in this room helping me out. Zach (Parise), Mikko (Koivu), (Thomas) Vanek – those three this year have been great. In years past, it’s been (Dany) Heatley and (Matt) Cullen. I’ve had a lot of help from a lot of different guys with a lot of different mindsets. It’s all good stuff and it’s all going to help me in the long run.”

Having signed for the Wild this summer, Thomas Vanek is immediately impressed with what he’s seen from the promising 22-year-old.

“I didn’t know much about him,” Vanek said. “To be honest, I think he’s been one of our strongest players from the start. His skating, his penalty killing has been great. He’s been opportunistic and burying the chances he’s getting.”

Zucker is studying Parise’s example closely, and is modeling his after the all-world winger. Zucker plays with bursting energy and endless effort personified by the Team USA captain.

“I think anybody in the world can learn something from a guy like him,” Zucker said. “That’s definitely something that I tried to follow and model after. I think you’d be foolish not to look at a guy like that and try to learn from him.”

Koivu, Minnesota’s long-serving captain is encouraged by Zucker’s start to the season and sees growth in Zucker becoming a responsible two-way player.

“It’s early, but he’s been solid,” Koivu said. “He’s a smart kid. A good start for a player like him is important. Not just the goals, he’s been playing good, two-way hockey. In the end, it’s about the player you want to become. His two-way game is another step from last year. Hopefully, he can keep it up and keep improving.”

The Wild have a good idea of what this kid is about and where he’s going. Having improved his defensive zone play to compliment his high-level skill and boundless energy, Zucker has a shot at becoming a special talent. Soon, the rest of the NHL will take notice.

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Sean Hartnett
Sean Hartnett has covered the New York Rangers and the NHL for since 2011. He has covered two Stanley Cup Finals. Sean now contributes to XNSports’ NHL and general sports coverage. He devotes far too much of his free time watching Simpsons and Seinfeld reruns. Sean can be reached via Twitter @HartnettHockey.