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April 19, 2014

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RON KANTOWSKI:

NHL hopes bloomed in desert

Bonanza High alum is starring on a Team USA squad, on track for a career in sport’s big league

Image

Courtesy of Tom Sorensen

Jason Zucker, who grew up in Las Vegas and attended Bonanza High School, has been a key player on the U.S. National Under-17 hockey team, and is the first Nevadan to play in the national program. At a recent tournament, Zucker was named the team’s player of the game in three of six contests, but he’s not letting his potential get the best of him: Instead of the NHL, he’s focusing on his coming college career.

HOCKEY IN THE SUN

There were 10 American-born players from warm-weather cities — or at least non-cold ones — on 2008-09 National Hockey League training camp rosters. No one from Las Vegas has ever played in the NHL.

Player, Team, Birthplace

Brian Salcido, Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles

Brett Sterling, Atlanta Thrashers, Los Angeles

Tyler Arnason, Colorado Avalanche, Oklahoma City

Scott Parker, Colorado Avalanche, Hanford, Calif.

Patrick O’Sullivan, Los Angeles Kings, Winston Salem, N.C.

Jonathan Blum, Nashville Predators, Long Beach, Calif.

Ryan Murphy, New Jersey Devils, Van Nuys, Calif.

Brooks Orpik, Pittsburgh Penguins, San Francisco

Dan Hinote, St. Louis Blues, Leesburg, Fla.

Ryan Hollweg, Toronto Maple Leafs, Downey, Calif.

Source: NHL Official Guide & Record Book

Among other things, our city has produced (or been greatly influenced by) a famous mob attorney, an all-pro quarterback, a late-night TV host, a future Baseball Hall of Famer, Hercules, a NASCAR champion, a porn starlet, two tennis aces, the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, rock and pop stars, NBA first-round draft choices and, last but not least, one of dem Sopranos.

Our city has never turned out a player good enough to skate in the National Hockey League.

Jason Zucker could be the first.

Until recently, Zucker was a student at Bonanza High School. Now, he’s centering the top line for the U.S. National Under-17 hockey team. He’s living in Michigan these days, because it snows a lot there, and where it snows a lot, you usually find guys playing hockey. (And throwing snowballs at eighteen-wheelers.)

Zucker is the first Nevadan to play in the national hockey program. Technically, he’s not a native Las Vegan, but he moved here with his parents — his dad, Scott, is a construction designer for Station Casinos; mom Natalie is a Wells Fargo Bank teller — from Newport Beach, Calif., when he was 2. So nobody is going to hand us a two-minute minor if we claim him as one of ours.

“Jason has high character, a high work ethic; he’s highly talented and is an intense competitor,” says John Hynes, the Team USA Under-17 coach. “He’s been a leader for us in every facet — during off-ice conditioning, on the ice and as an assistant captain.”

Yup, we’ll claim him all right.

Being selected to play for the national program is a big, big deal, especially for a kid from a warm-weather city. That is where Miracles on Ice formulate. That is where guys like Mike Eruzione learn how to score goals against The Russians by shooting off the wrong skate. (Actually, I think that was mostly luck. But you get the idea.)

At the 2009 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Port Alberni, B.C., over the New Year’s holiday, Zucker was named Team USA player of the game three times in six games. He’s Team USA’s leading goal scorer with 18 in 34 games and notched a three-goal hat trick in the team’s

6-4 victory over the North American Hockey League’s Alpena (Mich.) Icediggers Saturday night.

Yet, when he’s asked about his biggest thrill, he says: “Just wearing that USA sweater.”

Hockey, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet. Or something like that. If Jason Zucker keeps scoring goals and keeps saying nice things about how proud he is to wear the same sweater as Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig and Neil Broten and Ken Morrow, et al, he just might become the poster child for our national hockey program.

He has verbally committed to play college hockey (when he’s old enough in 2010) at Denver University, which has won seven NCAA championships and produced NHL stalwarts such as Glenn Anderson, Bill Masterton, Keith Magnuson, Paul Stastny, Kevin Dineen, Peter McNab and Craig Patrick.

After that, who knows? But you know what he’s thinking — the same thing that any kid who finds a hockey stick under the Christmas tree thinks:

Pass me the puck, Jaromir. I’m open in the slot.

“It would be great, but I cannot look too far ahead as of now,” Zucker said in a telephone conversation from Team USA headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Playing in the NHL would be an honor.”

Zucker may have a tough decision to make. He won’t turn 18 and become eligible for the NHL draft until next year but insiders say he’ll probably be selected in the first three rounds, where they pay bonuses to sign pro contracts.

Rob Pallin, Zucker’s conditioning coach and a former standout at the University of Minnesota Duluth who played professionally in the West Coast Hockey League, isn’t sure that would be a good idea, because of the maturity difference between kids like Zucker and grizzled pros wielding high sticks such as Oggy Ogilthorpe.

“It would be a big jump,” says Pallin, who believes a couple of years of college hockey would be a good transition for his star pupil. “I think you’ll see him playing in the NHL by the time he’s 21 or 22.”

Pallin was introduced to Zucker when the latter was 12. Zucker’s older brother, Evan, played for the Las Vegas Icecats, the touring team that Pallin coached, and he said you could tell right away from the way he skated with the big kids that Jason was going to be special.

A lot of kids have raw talent, Pallin says. Both Evan and Jason have it, and are fierce competitors on the ice. But he said Jason’s willingness to improve his game when the crowd’s not cheering and hats and octopuses aren’t being throw onto the ice — “an unbelievable desire to get better,” is what the coach calls it — is what sets Jason apart.

Zucker was home recently and Pallin put him through a rigorous two-hour workout. Then the next day, Zucker called Pallin and asked if he would meet him at the rink. So they went for another two hours.

The first day was Christmas Eve. The next day was Christmas.

“Those are the kids that make it to the next level,” Pallin says.

At the next level, they have a New Year’s Day hockey game called the Winter Classic that is played outdoors. They’re talking about playing one here, right on the Las Vegas Strip, in the not-too-distant future.

It’s possible that when they drop the puck and it is shot into the corner, the guy dumping the slick-skating French Canadian or the big Swede with the soft hands on the seat of his pants might even be a local kid.

Stranger things have happened. Although not in a while.

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