AP Photo/John Locher
Friday, March 16, 2018 | 11:30 p.m.
Friday night at T-Mobile Arena, Minnesota Wild forward Jason Zucker created a memory in his hometown that he never dreamed of.
Zucker lifted the puck over Golden Knights’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s shoulder and into the net, dropped to a knee and pumped his fist in celebration before being mobbed by teammates against the glass.
He added an assist later in the game as Minnesota topped Vegas 4-2.
The 26-year-old star learned the game of hockey playing in Las Vegas roller rinks.
Born in Newport Beach, California, Zucker’s family moved to Las Vegas when he was very young, and he is the only Nevada-raised player in the NHL's 100-year history.
Hockey is sparse in Las Vegas now, but when Zucker began playing in the mid 1990s it was nearly nonexistent. He would often travel to California for the weekend to play in roller hockey tournaments. When he did play at home it was at the Crystal Palace Skate Rink on Rancho Boulevard or on Flamingo Road (a facility that has since been transformed into the Las Vegas Ice Center).
At age 11, after transitioning to ice hockey, he often played in California for the L.A. Hockey Club, so most of his hockey memories have come outside of Las Vegas.
That changed Friday night, as he scored for the Wild only minutes into the contest in his first professional game in the state he grew up in. When Zucker left home to play his college hockey at the University of Denver, and when he was drafted by the Wild in 2010, professional hockey in Las Vegas was never even a thought.
“It wasn’t even a dream so I can’t even say (scoring a goal in my hometown) was a dream come true,” Zucker. “I just never thought it was going to happen, so it’s really cool to do it, and then on top of it have my family and friends here. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
In attendance were 30 to 40 of Zucker’s closest family and friends. His parents, who are both Golden Knights season ticket holders, his wife, Carly, and his infant son, Hendrix, were all in the building to celebrate Zucker’s triumphant return to Las Vegas.
“I mean, that always makes it a little better,” Zucker said. “If you can play well, get the win and go out of here happy, that’s what matters.”
Among Zucker’s teammates who mobbed him after his first-period goal was Minnesota veteran defenseman Eric Staal.
“That was fun,” Staal said. “The first year ever here for Vegas and he’s from here. He’s got family members and friends watching, so we wanted to get him one. For him to get us the first one to get us on the board, you can’t ask for anything better than that.”
The Wild rode the emotion from the goal to a relatively easy 4-2 victory despite a last-minute comeback attempt by Vegas.
“We carried some pretty good momentum,” Staal said. “In the first and second periods, we were very assertive and aggressive on the forecheck.”
Minnesota raced out to a 3-0 lead through two periods, and the Golden Knights were able to cut the deficit to one with goals from Erik Haula and Ryan Carpenter before the Wild iced the game with an empty-net goal in the final minute.
“I thought (Minnesota) played great tonight,” Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant said. “I thought they competed harder. They were the better team, they deserved to win and that’s what they got.”
It was the third-straight win over the Golden Knights for Minnesota, which completed the regular-season sweep over Vegas.
The goal, and the win, were special for Zucker. He’s having a career year with highs in goals (29), assists (26) and points (55), and now he’s created his best hockey memory in his home state, albeit at the expense of the Golden Knights.