At 17 years old, Jason Zucker wasn’t expected to contend for a spot on the U.S. National Under-20 hockey team.
But the former Bonanza High School student not only made the team as its youngest player, he earned a spot on its top line and helped lead the Americans to the gold medal at the World Junior Championships at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The first player from Nevada to play for the U.S. National team, Zucker tallied two goals in seven games for the U.S. squad (6-1), which outlasted host Canada 6-5 in a dramatic overtime victory in the Jan. 5 title game in front of a crowd of more than 15,000.
“That was the most exciting game I’ve ever played,” said the 5-foot-11-inch, 180-pound Zucker, a left wing. “I’ve never played in front of a crowd that big. It was something else.”
Zucker impressed U.S. U-20 assistant coach Joe Exter.
“He’s a very good skater, but his best quality is his ability to play under pressure at his highest level,” Exter said. “That’s a quality few have.”
That quality, along with a tireless work ethic, enabled Zucker to earn a promotion last year from the U.S. U-17 team to the U.S. U-18 team, which he also helped lead to a gold medal.
“There’s usually one or two a year that move up. But that’s an accomplishment,” Exter said. “It’s a tough battle taking a spot from the best kids in the country that are a year older than you.”
It was more impressive for Zucker to earn a spot on the U-20 team, which featured 16 NHL Draft picks.
“We didn’t want to take him, but he made it,” U.S. coach Dean Blais told NHL.com. “He played with good energy, good size, good instincts. He made the team on his ability.”
Zucker, who turns 18 on Saturday, describes himself as “a skilled, hard-working offensive player who’s going to go in the corners to get the puck, block shots and be a complete defensive player.”
“All game, I’ll do anything for my team to help them win,” he said. “I have a very large hate for losing, for failing. To me, losing is like dying. Losing is something that I despise.
“It’s always driven me to always go my hardest.”
Raised in Las Vegas, Zucker was introduced to hockey by older brothers Evan and Adam. He started skating at age 2 and competed in roller hockey and speed skating before taking up hockey at age 8.
After playing youth hockey in Los Angeles and for the Las Vegas Outlaws, Zucker was recruited by Detroit Compuware, a top U-16 team for which he scored 102 points during the 2007-08 season.
He tried out for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program last year, securing a spot on the U-17 squad.
Zucker compiled 38 points in 64 games for the U-17 and U-18 teams, and scored six points in seven games at the U-18 world championships.
He has 20 points this season in 30 games for the U-18 team, which will compete in April at the world championships in Belarus.
Zucker is slated to graduate from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., this summer, when he’s expected to be the first player from Nevada drafted by the NHL. He plans to play hockey in the fall for the University of Denver.
“If I have the opportunity to go (pro), then I definitely would, but I’m set on Denver University otherwise,” he said.
Exter said Zucker is “a complete player” who’s “in the right environment to reach all his potential.”
“It’s a journey and a long process (to reach the NHL),” Exter said.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or at 702-383-0354.