Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010 | 2:05 a.m.
Jason Zucker is smiling. Still.
A week past his 18th birthday and just more than two weeks since being decorated with gold in Canada, the Team USA Under-20 National Team forward is having trouble finding reasons not to grin.
"I was smiling then and honestly, I don't think I've stopped," Zucker said. "It's one of the best feelings in the world."
That feeling comes from being part of the best junior hockey team in the world. Team USA claimed that title with a 6-5 overtime win against Canada on Jan. 5 in the 2010 International Ice Hockey Federation's World Junior Championship.
Zucker, a transplanted Las Vegan, watched John Carlson's tournament-winning goal from the far end of the bench and was the first to intercept Carlson before the championship celebration.
"I immediately hopped into the ice, threw my gloves up and went and tackled him," he said. "It was just crazy."
Zucker grew up in Las Vegas but traveled to California to play hockey for the Los Angeles Hockey Club when he was 10.
He would hop on a plane Friday, stay in California until Tuesday and return home for two days each week.
"We always trusted him," said Scott Zucker, Jason's dad. "The light bulb came on early, and he's always had a sense of responsibility about him."
After playing there for two years, he returned Southern Nevada to play for a local team for two years before attending Bonanza High for his freshman year.
These days, he's closing in on his high school diploma in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he trains with Team USA.
"It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do," Jason Zucker said of moving. "Of course I still miss my family at home, but I've learned to be independent and responsible."
Zucker scored two goals in the tournament, both coming in a 12-1 blowout of Latvia on Dec. 29, and did so in front of his family, who traveled north of the border to watch him play.
"Words can't even describe the feeling inside when I saw him with the jersey," Scott Zucker said. "It felt like the national anthem lasted forever."
Jason Zucker is one of the youngest players on the under-20 team.
"Every part of your game improves when you're playing against better guys that are older and stronger than you are," he said. "It makes you dig down deep inside and really let everything out, and you grow as a player."
Zucker totaled 11 shots in the tournament and called the finals showdown with Canada, at the Credit Union Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, the most exciting game he's played in.
After Team USA claimed a two-goal lead early in the third period, Canada stormed back late with Saskatchewan's own Jordan Eberle netting goals with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
"The fans were going nuts," Zucker said. "There were 15,000 fans and all they wanted was for Canada to win. It was so insane but our team showed great character and didn't let it bother us."
Scott Zucker echoed his son's thoughts about the Canadian crowd, saying, "They were extremely hostile. As parents, we could work through it but to see the kids handle it so well and tune it out, it was nice."
Heading into overtime, Canada was eyeing its sixth-straight world junior championship, but Team USA and goaltender Jack Campbell wouldn't let that happen.
Four minutes into the extra frame, Campbell made a sprawling save on a Canadian 3-on-2, which turned into a USA 3-on-1 the other way.
Carlson saw daylight on the short side of Canada goalie Jake Allen and ended the game 4:31 into overtime.
"It was a once in a lifetime thing being on that ice," Zucker said. "When we got our gold medals, it was such an accomplished feeling."
Zucker's normal day consists of waking up around 7:30 a.m. for class at Ann Arbor Pioneer High. Players live in Ann Arbor with hockey families and attend Pioneer.
From class, he goes directly to the rink to practice and lift weights and then heads home for dinner, homework and bed.
"Every day is busy," he said. "But I like it like that."
Through all of the practices, classes and games, however, one thing remains in the back of Zucker's mind: June's NHL Entry Draft.
While he said some ratings have him going in the first two rounds, they are rankings and not direct feedback from NHL teams.
"You always think about it because it's such a big thing in your career," Zucker said. "But the draft is a by-product of how hard you work. If you work hard and have a good year, then you'll have a good draft."
And chances are, come June, Jason Zucker still will be smiling.