SASKATOON – Although the NHL has tried hard to increase its popularity in the southern United States, seeking oases in deserts, traditional hockey states remain the main source for talent in that country. Jason Zucker is a noteworthy exception.
The Team USA winger, who will celebrate his 18th birthday in a few days, was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada. The city that bills itself as the entertainment capital of the world might be in line for an NHL expansion franchise someday, and it began hosting the NHL Awards in 2009.
However, Las Vegas isn't a typical place of origin for hockey players. There hasn’t been an NHL player who was born in Vegas, or even one from Nevada.
In fact, only 1,067 male hockey players are currently registered in Nevada. That's a small number compared to 52,333 in Minnesota, 52,022 in Michigan, 45,185 in New York and 42,115 in Massachusetts.
How did Zucker beat the odds and break into this icy sport in a hot state?
“My older brother Adam started to play hockey when he was five,” Zucker explained. “I got him doing it and then he got me playing. I started to skate at the age of two-and-a-half, and played games when I was three-and-a-half. I started really young.”
There weren't many choices for ice time in the gambling mecca. There are three ice rinks in Vegas, Zucker noted. One is in a casino. But that didn’t stop him from rolling the dice (metaphorically, of course) on a hockey career.
“Knowing that there weren’t many people from Las Vegas who played hockey and were big in that sport made me determined to keep it going,” Zucker said.
Zucker summarized his junior career: “I moved away to California when I was ten years old and played for the Los Angeles Hockey Club. I played there for two years. Next, I went home for a couple of years, and then went to Detroit Compuware. I had to move out to town to develop myself. I played in Detroit for one year and then joined the national team program in Ann Arbour.”
Zucker joined USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program last year and suited up in 64 games (21 goals, 17 assists) with the U18 and U17 team, playing against college and junior teams from the NCAA and USHL respectively.
He even made the team that played in the 2009 IIHF World U18 Championship, and had six points in seven games as the Americans won the gold on home ice in Fargo.
Zucker is the youngest player on the U.S. team, and one of the few players born in 1992 at the tournament. He’s in his last year of eligibility to play in the World U18 Championship in April in Belarus, but has already enjoyed a good amount of ice time with the U20s.
Next year he plans to go the college route.
“The Seattle Thunderbirds have my WHL rights and playing there has always been in the back of my mind. It’s a great league and organization, but I’m committed to go to the Denver University, my plans are all there. I haven’t decided about my major yet, but I’m thinking about sport psychology.”
Another part of his future will be the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. Zucker was ranked 18th in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s preliminary ranking of players in the United States.
“The Detroit Red Wings were always my team when I was younger, but now as the draft is coming up, I’m open-minded for everything,” Zucker said. “Playing in the NHL is definitely my dream. I’m hoping to get drafted this summer and then see where it takes me. I’ll just go for it and bring my work ethic with me, and hopefully I can make it.”
Although he brings kind of an exotic touch to the team as a Nevada-trained player, he doesn’t feel too special. They’re all Americans on the team. “But it’s great knowing that I’m the first guy from Vegas to play in this tournament,” he added.
Right now, Zucker’s complete attention is on the World Junior gold medal game versus Canada. The American team is one game away from the title after dumping Sweden 6-2 in the semi-finals.
“We went out there and had a great game for everybody,” said Zucker, who has scored two goals in six games. “But the gold medal game is going to be a battle. They [Canada] play a great game. Nobody really expects us to win. Canada won five years in a row, so you have to take your hat off to them. They have experienced and skilled guys, but we’re going to go out there and give our best, and hopefully we can win the gold medal.”
Canada has won seven games in a row against Team USA in the World Juniors, although most games were tight, such as the 5-4 shootout win in the Preliminary Round in Saskatoon.
The last time the Americans won gold was at the 2004 World U20 Championship in Helsinki with a 4-3 victory over Canada. That was the first (and so far only) the U.S. has won the World Juniors.
With hard work and a little luck, Jason Zucker hopes to make a little more history on Tuesday.