n June 18, 2010, exactly a week before heading to the NHL draft, I was supposed to go to the movies. My friend Nick had texted me that morning. He was going to pick me up that night to head to the theater with a few friends.
I texted him back right away. I was in.
Most of my hockey memories from growing up in Las Vegas involve Nick. He was a year older than me, but we always played on the same team. He was trouble. If there was a vase in a house, he was going to break it. If we were getting bag-skated after practice, he was probably the reason. And I don’t know exactly how to phrase this, but you usually wanted to be part of that trouble, you know? Even if it meant a bag-skate. Nick had a magnetic personality. If you knew him, you felt like his best friend.
Our hockey careers took different paths as we got older. Nick had played in juniors with the Billings Bulls that season. I was busy getting ready for the draft — I was fully committed to being in the best shape possible before being selected. So when my trainer texted me that afternoon and rescheduled a workout for early the next morning, I had to text Nick.
I told him I couldn’t make it.
That was the last thing I ever said to him.
On his way home after the movie, Nick got in a car accident. He and the two people in the car with him were killed.
My dad told me the next morning after my workout. I was stunned. I couldn’t say anything. It didn’t make any sense.
I just saw him a few days before. I just texted him.
I was supposed to be in that car.
Harrison Hill/The Players' Tribune
Seven days later, in a seat at Staples Center in Los Angeles for the draft, I tried not to think about that. I did my best to be excited for the moment. I had been told by a few people I might go in the first round. But I didn’t. I waited a day, and a round, for the Wild to take me with the 59th pick.
I was thrilled, but I couldn’t shake the thought of what had happened to Nick. The fragility of life and the importance of even the smallest moments really hit me. Like everybody else, I sometimes stop and think back to those instances when, in a second, I had a choice to do one thing or the other. And ever since that summer night in 2010, Nick, in some way, has been with me every time.
He was on my mind five years later, and I want to tell you about it. Because, now, as I approach the end of another season and another contract, I find myself thinking back to one moment in particular — a moment that led to an encounter that gave new meaning to my life, to my connection to Minnesota, and to the reason I play hockey.
In 2015, my No. 1 fans were all members of my family. But in December somebody else joined that small group. And the crazy thing is, I almost didn’t meet him at all.
The Wild had sent a few of us players, in groups of two, to different hospitals in the Twin Cities area. Jared Spurgeon and I were at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital. We were waiting for instructions on where to go when a nurse came up to us.
She said, “Do you want to go to the fifth or sixth floor?”
“Uh, five.” I said.
Because, in all honesty, it didn’t make a difference to me. I just picked a number and went with it.
I looked at Jared, he was in agreement. Fifth floor it was. The nurse nodded her head and led us to the elevator.
I didn’t know it then, but my life was about to change forever.
When I stepped out of the elevator, I met my new No. 1 fan.
His name was Tucker Helstrom. And he had a gift for me.
It was a T-shirt with my name and number on the back, but the Z had been crossed out. In its place was a T.
Sixteen was his favorite number, and because of that, I had become his favorite player.
Tucker had known that a few players from the Wild would be coming by that day, but he didn’t know who. So he had originally planned to give that shirt to somebody who would then pass it on to me. When he saw me walk out of the elevator, his face lit up — I was his guy. The nurses told me that he was eight years old and suffering from a rare form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma. But when he handed me that shirt … I forgot right away he was even sick. I think he did, too. He was full of life. He had question after question about hockey and the dressing room and our lives. He just … he pierced through the moment, you know? Despite his diagnosis and the realities of battling cancer, it was clear that Tucker lived in his world — a world above all that.
This past season my family and I were fortunate to meet and build a friendship with Tucker Helstrom and his family while Tucker was battling cancer at U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital. He fought hard, but his battle ended the morning of July 2nd. Tucker was 9 – strong, funny and full of hockey advice. We will miss him greatly. Carly and I will be hosting a fundraiser @7mpls Thursday, July 21st (6:30-9pm). Please join us in supporting his family and U of M Masonic Children’s Hospital – visit wild.com for details #teamtucker
Most visits we do as players, we usually only spend three or four minutes in a room before moving on because you want to see as many kids as possible — but I probably stayed with Tucker for 30 minutes. And when I walked out of his room I knew I’d be back. Because the connection we had was so strong, it was so tangible. I felt like I had known him forever.
When I got home that night I told my wife, Carly, about him.
I told her how kind he was — how the effect he’d had on me was greater than anything I could have had on him — and that she should come meet him. When she made it to the hospital a few weeks later, she felt the same way. Tucker’s mom, Dana, and the rest of his family welcomed us in into their lives, and we formed a great relationship. I was drawn to Tucker. The way he approached each day and all the different things he went through — it was inspiring.
It was hard for me not to think of Nick whenever I saw Tucker. Because that week of the draft, when I knew I was so close to having my life change, I didn’t really realize how much it actually would.
I thought I was going to be selected in the first round because an advisor close to me had told me that the Blackhawks were going to pick me. As it got closer and closer to Chicago’s pick, I could see my name on a Hawks jersey. They had just won the Stanley Cup — I was getting excited. But then they traded the pick and I didn’t get selected until the second round.
What if Chicago hadn’t traded that pick?
Well, for starters I wouldn’t have met my wife. I wouldn’t have met my stepdaughter. I wouldn’t have my son.
And I wouldn’t have met Tucker.
All of those people make me who I am.
But Tucker, you see, he’s a symbol of every choice I’ve ever made. All those moments where I fear the unknown — Tucker is the result.
The year I met him, I was struggling. I had scored 21 goals the season before. But in 2015–16, I was only on pace for around 10. Tucker didn’t tiptoe around it. He let me know about it. He didn’t care what I thought. We were playing the NHL video game one day in his hospital room when he suddenly pressed pause.
He said, “Jason, I’ve been watching you a lot this year. I need to give you some advice, O.K?”
I kind of laughed him off.
“No, I’m serious, Jason. First, you need to backcheck harder. It will make things easier on the other end. And secondly, shoot more!”
You hear that stuff from coaches all the time. But hearing it from him … it stuck. There wasn’t enough time left in the season to really put his advice into action, but I kept it in mind going into the summer. I just didn’t know where I’d be playing when the next season began.
Patrick McDermott/NHLI/Getty Images
My entry-level contract was up and, like I said, I had struggled that year. But while I was home in Vegas training, on June 29, 2016, I signed a two-year deal to stay in Minnesota. I was on top of the world.
My phone rang 30 minutes later. It was Carly.
You know that tone someone gets when something isn’t right but they don’t want you to know? I could hear it in Carly’s voice as soon as she said, “Hi.”
Tucker’s mom had just sent Carly a text: “If you want to say goodbye to Tucker, you should come soon.”
Tucker had been sent home from the hospital. He only had hours to live, maybe a day or two. So I got on a red-eye flight that night, landed in Minnesota and went to see Tucker.
He was lying on his mom’s chest while she sat on the sofa. He couldn’t speak. He gave me a fist bump when I walked in, collapsed back on top of his mom and closed his eyes. For the first time since I’d known him, he looked sick. He looked defeated. Carly and I had come into his hospital room so many times and seen his smile brighten the room. He never seemed sick until that day.
We stayed with him for an hour. As we went to leave, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a hockey card. It was a Tucker Helstrom card, number 16. His autograph was on the back.
Carly and I sat in the car and cried for 30 minutes. We knew we’d never see Tucker again.
It’s been over a year and a half since Tucker passed. There aren’t many days that go by when Carly and I don’t think about him. Every time I look at my wrist, I see the tattoo I got with his autograph and his advice: SHOOT MORE! He’s with me everywhere I go. And he’s why Carly and I have started the #Give16 campaign.
Carly was really the brains behind the whole idea, so I can’t take too much credit. It’s a season-long campaign to raise funds for a Wild suite and replica broadcast studio in the Masonic Children’s Hospital. Ideally, the Zucker Family Suite and Broadcast Studio will become a place where families and kids can go to watch games, record TV shows or radio segments, and escape – if only for a couple hours – from their hospital rooms.
In addition to letting people know about #Give16 and encouraging them to support the hospital, Carly and I want to put our money where our mouths are. We’re donating $160,000 to the project. As of today, #Give16 has raised over $700,000. It makes me so happy to know that it will help support these strong kids. Kids like Tucker.
The season after Tucker passed, 2016–17, I scored a career-high 22 goals. And this year I’ve scored even more. When I got on a hot streak earlier in the season, people kept asking me how I was doing it.
Easy: I’ve just been shooting more.
Good advice, Tucker. Good advice.
Francois Lacasse/NHLI/Getty Images
Kids like him — and all the wonderful people Carly and I have met through the #Give16 campaign — make me so proud to call Minnesota home. An NHL career can be unpredictable, but wherever hockey takes me I’m proud to know I’ve established roots in the Twin Cities. Because when I think of Minnesota, I think of the moments that brought me here.
I’m thankful to the Wild, who have been incredibly supportive of #Give16, and the entire charitable community across Minnesota. And for other athletes I’ve met, like Kyle Rudolph of the Vikings, who helped me and Carly immensely in our efforts to honor Tucker’s legacy. There are so many genuine, generous people in Minnesota, and they really make up the fabric of this state.
I know Minnesota is known for being a great hockey state. And it is. But … this place, these people — they’ve shown me what’s possible beyond hockey.
There are so many little moments in everybody’s lives, when things could go either way, when you could either go to the fifth floor or the sixth. And every one of those choices matter, even when you don’t know how. And in the end, it’s really what you do with the results of seemingly arbitrary decision that can make all the difference — in your life and in the world.