By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — When Eli Zuck goes back to his hometown of Anchorage, Alaska, it’s not just a special time for him. He and his family make sure it’s special for the entire Minnesota State men’s hockey team.
Zuck is now a senior, so for the fourth and final time, the Mavericks were scheduled to have dinner at his parents’ home on Thursday evening.
“We’ll try to get the pasta and the chicken and salad, the typical Thursday-night deal,” Zuck said earlier this week, before he and the team left Mankato for this weekend’s WCHA series against Alaska Anchorage. “But my dad will be grilling up some halibut and some salmon, try to give a little of that Alaskan spice to the team. I always look forward to that. I miss the good Alaskan seafood.”
Zuck said the meal is special for his parents, Jon and Stephanie, too. They were unable to make it to Mankato two weeks ago when the parents of MSU’s seniors were introduced on the ice.
“But this is their real highlight, having us over, getting a good meal in,” Zuck said. “It’s always nice to have the guys over to my house where I grew up.”
For Zuck the hockey player, no meal will overmatch winning a pair of games against the Seawolves. Coming off a pair of overtime losses at home to Wisconsin, he said getting four points for the WCHA standings and remaining in the hunt for an upper-half league finish is crucial.
“It’s a huge weekend for us,” he said.
The Mavericks have lost just once in Anchorage in Zuck’s career. Zuck has scored just one goal and assisted on one other in Sullivan Arena, the rink where he first started watching college hockey. But, even this year, scoring is not necessarily a priority for the center.
“I think Eli has stepped into a senior role,” MSU coach Mike Hastings said. “For Eriah Hayes, that role is scoring power-play goals and leading off the ice. For Tyler Elbrecht, it’s being a shut-down defenseman and leading off the ice. For Eli Zuck, it’s about being on the No. 1 penalty-killing unit and leading off the rink and in the locker room. It’s about supporting his teamamtes, doing the right thing and saying the right thing.”
Zuck has played in 108 college games. Of the current players, only Hayes and Elbrecht have played more for the Mavericks. Zuck has 12 goals and 30 assists for his career (two and seven this year). But since becoming a key penalty killer this year along with freshman Bryce Gervais, the Mavericks have been nothing short of stifling against opponents’ power plays.
“I really feel like we’ve been a real sparkplug for this team,” Zuck said. “I love killing penalties. I think it’s a real important part. The little things I appreciate like blocking shots and playing good defense. We have a lot of skill on this team; it’s ridiculous, especially up front.”
With Zuck centering the fourth line, the Mavericks have more depth down the middle of their lineup than in any of his first three seasons. Hastings said that gives him the peace of mind to have any line on the ice at anytime — home or away and against any other line in the league.
Zuck moved up to the third line for four games around Christmas when freshman Teddy Blueger played in in the World Junior Championships in Russia, but returned to his role last week.
“Whatever I can do for the team to help us win,” he said. “That’s what it really comes down to, is winning. It sure is refreshing having a lot more wins this year, and hopefully we can continue that.”