|(above) Jason Zucker scores against Minnesota State|
by Todd Dewey
It's known as the "freshman 15" -- the 15 pounds many students unwittingly gain during their first year of college.
But for Denver University sophomore Jason Zucker, bulking up was a crucial step in his quest to become the first player from Nevada to make it to the NHL.
A 2010 second-round draft pick of the Minnesota Wild who emerged as one of the top freshmen in college hockey last season, Zucker gained 14 pounds last summer through an intensive training regimen in Las Vegas.
While increasing his weight from 173 to 187 pounds, the 5-foot-11-inch left wing also increased his chances to make his NHL debut should he sign a contract with the Wild after the college season ends.
"It's possible, but it's up to him and how he progresses in the second half," Wild assistant general manager Brent Flahr said. "For him, it's a strength thing. He's not a big guy, but he's working hard.
"He's a young guy, and it takes a little time of getting stronger and getting ready for the pro game. It's one thing he needs to work on, and he's doing everything he can right now."
The 19-year-old former Bonanza High student tied for the team lead in goals (23) and scored 45 points in 40 games last season for Denver en route to being named the Western Collegiate Hockey Association's Rookie of the Year.
This season, he's tied for the team lead in goals (4) and points (10) for the eighth-ranked Pioneers (3-3-2), and coach George Gwozdecky said Zucker's increased size has paid dividends.
"He's always been tough to knock off the puck and, with his speed, he's always been a difficult guy to defend. But his weight has increased his strength and power," Gwozdecky said. "He's certainly a tougher guy to defend and to shield away from the net, and he has the ability to win more puck battles now.
"At some point in his career, he will play in the NHL. I have no question about that."
Working with local personal trainer and nutritionist Richard Vadnais, Zucker -- who has lived in Las Vegas since he was 2 months old -- bulked up by lifting weights two hours a day, four or five days a week, and eating close to 6,000 calories daily. He also sharpened his hockey skills by training with Wranglers assistant Rob Pallin.
"It was just, overall, a huge summer for me," Zucker said. "We all knew, including myself, I needed to develop more as a player and gain strength and size, and that's what we really worked on in the summer."
Despite carrying more weight this season, Zucker said he hasn't lost a step of his speed, which Flahr said is one of his strengths.
"He shoots the puck very well, he's a very determined player and his speed is dynamic, especially at the college level," Flahr said. "He's a real driven kid, very mature and focused on his career. It shows in his preparation and the way he plays every night.
"He likes to play with a lot of energy, and our coaches here are attracted to that. We have high, high hopes for him."
Zucker has high hopes for this season, in which he'll represent the U.S. for the third and final time at the World Junior Championships, which will take place Dec. 26 to Jan. 5 in Calgary and Edmonton, Alberta.
Zucker, who turns 20 on Jan. 16, helped the Americans earn a bronze medal at last year's under-20 tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., and was the youngest member of the U.S. team that won the gold over host Canada in 2010.
"It's an incredible tournament, a ton of fun to play in, and I think we have a great chance of going far," he said.
Aside from the upcoming WJC, Zucker said he's only focused on one goal this season, and it's not ascending to the NHL.
"I'm worried more about this year and what I need to do to get better as a player than when I'm going to make that jump," he said. "Right now, I'm looking at Denver and hopefully winning a national championship."