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Wild’s Jason Zucker will always call Minnesota home

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Every so often the thought still pops into Jason Zucker’s head: What if he had chosen a different floor?

In those moments, the memories come rushing back for Zucker, who can still recall some of the most specific details from that day. He walked in the entrance of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital with teammate Jared Spurgeon, turned right in the lobby, and approached the elevator, completely unaware that his life was about to change.

“I remember someone asked, ‘You guys want to go to Floor 5 or Floor 6?'” Zucker said. “I was like, ‘I guess Floor 5 is fine. Let’s start there and if we can make our way up to Floor 6, that’s great.’ That’s all it was. It was a decision that meant nothing that changed everything.”

More specifically, an 8-year-old boy named Tucker Helstrom changed everything.

A precocious child with a larger-than-life personality, Helstrom instantly latched on to Zucker during that visit — or perhaps it was the other way around — and the pair forged an unbreakable bond in the months that followed.

Sadly, Helstrom lost his fight with osteosarcoma and died on July 2, 2016. A few days later, Zucker had the words ‘SHOOT MORE’ tattooed onto the back of his left wrist, a not-so-subtle reminder of the advice his late friend always mixed into casual conversation.

“It really put things in perspective for me,” Zucker said. “As much as this sport is a big part of my life, in a lot of ways, that showed me that it’s also a very, very small part of my life in the grand scheme of things.”

More than anything, it inspired Zucker to give back as a way to make sure Helstrom is remembered. He and his wife Carly launched the #GIVE16 campaign a couple of years ago. It has raised nearly $1.5 million since then, helping fund the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio, a state-of-the-art space designed to provide young patients with an escape.

“He inspired us to create all of this,” Zucker said, sitting in the middle of the 800-foot space located right off the lobby in the hospital. “None of this would’ve happened without him, so we try to make sure no matter what we do he’s at the forefront of it. It all goes back to him and making sure his legacy lives on.”

That project is the biggest reason Zucker has been nominated as a finalist for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which is given annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution to his community.

This is the second year in a row that Zucker has been named a finalist, and he has a very good chance of taking home the hardware this time around. He currently is in his hometown of Las Vegas in advance of the NHL Awards Show, which will be held Wednesday night at the Mandalay Bay Events Center

“We’ve been really lucky with the response we’ve gotten from around the Twin Cities community,” Zucker said. “This is going to help us reach even more people. We want to be able to share the story about how Tucker inspired us. We hope that this can inspire others to get involved and give back and help with whatever cause it might be.”

As for the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio itself, it turned out better than the Zuckers ever imagined. Originally, the idea was to pair the couple’s careers into a cohesive space where young patients could go and forget they were in the hospital, even if it was only for a couple of hours.

“We were so basic when we started,” Carly said. “We were like, ‘OK. Let’s have a space where the kids can watch Wild games and create a broadcast of themselves if they want.’ It grew into so much more.”

Indeed.

Walking into the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio, it’s almost impossible not to do a double take. Whether it’s the massive green screen on the wall, the drop-down projector screen in the corner, the comfy couches scattered about the room, or some of the more subtle details like dozens of hockey sticks lining the ceiling, it feels nothing like a hospital.

“That was so important to us,” Carly said. “If a kid is stuck in a hospital room for months, this is something that gives them an outlet to be creative for a couple of hours, and not necessarily feel like they’re in a hospital.”

It’s also more versatile than the Zuckers first imagined. While the original objective of kids being able to watch Wild games and create broadcasts of themselves was achieved, the uses of this space are nearly endless.

There will be interactive programming, like bingo or trivia, televised throughout the hospital, so children who can’t leave their hospital rooms can still be part of the action. There will be music therapy readily available to those who need it. There will be an opportunity for doctors to record videos to engage with kids about their diagnosis.

Then, of course, when the Wild play, the space will be transformed into something that resembles a private suite, equipped with a catered meal and other special touches.

“I love that we can do both,” Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio Coordinator Ashley Wunderlich said in a release. “It makes us unique among children’s hospitals.”

Perhaps the most important thing was that the space itself could be used 365 days a year.

“If we’re going to take up a substantial space in the hospital, it has to be something that can be used for more than just watching games,” Carly said. “That was the thought process when we started moving forward. We wanted to make sure this was a space we could use 365 days a year, and the way it turned out, we really can.”

As for the awkwardness that has surrounded the past couple of months, with general manager Paul Fenton dangling Zucker in trade talks at seemingly every turn, the Wild forward was quick to say this will always be home, regardless of the sweater he wears on game days.

That much was decided for Zucker when he met Helstrom on that fateful day a few years ago.

“This is bigger than the sport,” Zucker said. “I understand that it’s a business, and the Wild have to do what they feel is best. That doesn’t mean we’re going to change what we’re doing.”

And if he ends up somewhere else?

“Then we’re going to bring the #GIVE16 campaign with us and then we’re going to bring it right back right back here in the summer,” Zucker said. “We are committed this no matter what happens. It’s always going to be a big part of our lives.”

All because of a decision that meant nothing that changed everything.

“It was something that can be a bit of a life lesson,” Zucker said. “Just some of those small decisions that might seem pretty inconsequential at the time can actually end up being a really big decision in the long run. That’s exactly what that was for me.”

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