Zucker beating the odds to reach the NHL
That's started to change as the NHL has spread its footprint to more non-traditional markets in the west and south. Players from California, Virginia and Georgia have gone through the U.S. National Team Development Program, and this year's World Junior Championship roster featured a player from Oklahoma (Matt Donovan) and two from Missouri (Philip McRae, John Ramage).
And then there's Jason Zucker, who grew up in a hockey desert -- literally. Zucker hails from Las Vegas.
"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 told reporters.
Zucker got his start in the game thanks to his older brother, Adam. He began skating when he just 2 1/2-years-old, and developed fast. He moved to California when he was 10 to play for a club team for two years. He returned to Las Vegas for two seasons, and then jumped to the famed Detroit Compuware program. He joined the USNTDP in Ann Arbor, Mich., last season. In 64 games with the U-17 and U-18 teams, he had 21 goals and 38 points. He also had 6 points in seven games to help the U.S. team win the gold at the World Under-18 Championship last spring.
In 28 games this season with the U-18 team, he has 11 goals and 20 points.
While Las Vegas often is mentioned as a destination if the NHL ever expands and began hosting the NHL Awards Show in 2009, there never has been an NHL player from the state of Nevada.
Zucker, though, is on his way to changing that. The 5-foot-10 1/2, 174-pound forward was ranked 18th by NHL Central Scouting in its preliminary ranking of USHL players (the USNTDP plays in the league). Zucker also was a surprise addition to the U.S. WJC team. He was the youngest player on the squad, but worked his way up to first-line duty, skating at left wing on a line with NHL draft picks Jordan Schroeder and Ryan Bourque, and finished with 2 goals en route to helping his team win the gold medal.
"I think I'm a fast skater, I have a good shot," Zucker told NHL.com. "Smart in the defensive zone, and offensive zone I try not to make too many mistakes. Just gritty, try going 100 percent all the time."
That crash-bang style has made quite an impression on his coaches and NHL scouts.
"If he didn't have the U.S. crest on he'd clearly look like a Canadian player," one Eastern Conference scout told NHL.com. "He goes up and down the ice, does all the little things, takes the body, if he has to block shots he blocks them. He might not be the highest-skill guy out there, but he might just get you that big goal sometime because he goes to the paint and the tough spots and he'll probably get it."
"He's just an honest kid who's in a lot of plays, plays above his size," added a scout from a Western Conference team. "He does a lot of things during a game you probably expect out of a bigger guy. He's a competitive kid."
Zucker certainly has no problem with the rough stuff. In his first game at the WJC, his first-period head-high hit on a Slovakia player earned a game-misconduct -- wrongly given to Tyler Johnson -- but he also did enough to earn a promotion the top line.
Not bad for a kid who U.S. coach Dean Blais admittedly wasn't planning on putting on the roster. Zucker wasn't invited to the Lake Placid summer evaluation camp, and was a surprise addition to the final camp in North Dakota.
"We didn't want to take him, but he made it," Blais told NHL.com. "He played with good energy, good size, good instincts. He made the team on his ability. He deserved it."
"I trained really hard all summer and tried to have the best first half of the season I could," Zucker said. "It just worked out for the best for me."
Making the team allowed him an extended audition in front of NHL scouts. The World Juniors stage already is a tough one for any 17-year-old -- Zucker was the youngest player on the U.S. team -- but knowing your NHL future is at stake can make even the strongest players wilt.
"I live for big games," said Zucker. "It's what I've always lived for. Knowing that they're there, doing everything I can to help my team win is all I want."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org