When people think of Jewish athletes, they tend to think of baseball players like Sandy Koufax or Hank Greenberg, or in the more recent era, Ryan Braun, Shawn Green or Ian Kinsler. Sure there may be the occasional football player as well. But one sport that has been recently underrepresented by Members of the Tribe at the professional level is hockey.
One of the Jewish players to grace the National Hockey League calls the Xcel Energy Center home. Jason Zucker is in his third season with the Minnesota Wild, where he played 71 games this season, amassing 13 goals and 10 assists. Before the Wild got their playoff run into full swing, Zucker sat down with TC Jewfolk to discuss the life of a pro hockey player, growing up away from his family, and growing up in Las Vegas.
You don’t think of Vegas as a hotbed of hockey talent, do you?
No. I started playing roller hockey when I was young, all the way up until college (at Denver University). In college I had to pick between the two. But I would come home and play roller hockey all summer and ice in the winter. It was great. But I didn’t start to play ice hockey until I was 8 or 9 years old.
Does that sort of dispel the myth that people have that if you’re going to make it to the level you have that you have to start when you were 3 or 4 years old?
I was on skates at 2 ½ and was playing hockey at 3, it’s just that it was roller hockey. I think that’s a myth for sure. It’s completely false.
Given your background, what do you tell kids who aspire to get to your level?
It’s very cliche, but it’s work. For me, I was on the side yard of my parents house. I had a little piece of roller hockey sport court where I wouldn’t ruin my sticks, and I would shoot pucks for hours and hours and hours a day. I remember we had a little wall on the side and I would do jump squats onto the wall and I would run sprints around the backyard. It was a terrible setup for working out but I would find myself out there all the time, because it was fun.
There’s not a lot of Jewish hockey players at this level. Was that something you aspired to?
Not really. Religion isn’t a huge part of my life. I have my beliefs, I enjoy those beliefs. They have helped me along the way, but at the same time, I don’t live by them. That was never something for me where religion came first. I never had a Bar Mitzvah because I didn’t want to miss hockey. I didn’t want to go to school and learn Hebrew or have to study on game days. I wanted to play hockey. That was my choice. We celebrate Hannukah and that’s about it.
Did that disappoint your parents?
They understood. I think at first they may have wanted it a certain way, but I don’t think they cared enough to feel hurt about what we wanted to do. They made sure that we could do what we wanted to and they would make it happen.
What’s your favorite Jewish food?
My grandmother used to make lokshen kugel. Any holiday, my grandma makes it. My mother makes it now too, which is great. Whenever I go home [to Las Vegas] for All-Star break or any of those things, I have her make one or two so we have some lying around the house.
You moved to Michigan to play for Compuware and then the USA Under-18 National Development Team. Was the sacrifice worth it, not being around your family as much growing up?
It was 100 percent worth it. I would do it 5 times again. But I will say I don’t know if I would let my kids do it if they didn’t want to. I chose to do it. If I wanted to quit hockey today, my parents would say ‘Alright, sounds good. You can do whatever you want.’ I would tell my kids the exact same thing.
I don’t regret it, and I wouldn’t change it, but looking back I can’t tell you one person that I’m good friends with right now that I didn’t play hockey with.
My daughter is in kindergarten now and has made great friends. My fiancee, she has friends that she went to kindergarten with. I didn’t have that. Looking back as a parent, that was probably tough for my parents to see. But I don’t think I was a miserable kid. I have no regrets at all.
How do you balance the demands of what you do with being a parent also?
For me, summer is huge. I’m still pretty busy, but it’s a couple hours for a workout and then it’s family time. Here, we had two days off which is pretty rare, and I wanted to be with my family. I didn’t want to do anything. You spend time with them whenever you can. My fiancee works and she’s on the road traveling for work as well. You get through it and work it out. It makes our relationship stronger.
So in other words, hockey players are regular people too?
One-hundred percent. Everyone looks at it as something different. Having a kid and getting married, you realize there’s a lot more to life than hockey and that’s a great thing. A few years ago when I was single and just hanging out everyday it was a much bigger deal because that’s all you have to think about. Now I go home, see my daughter smile and it grounds me.Click here to nominate your favorite TC Jew to be featured on our weekly Who the Folk?! series!