April 24, 2015. The New York Rangers were celebrating their overtime victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins, clinching the team a birth in the second round of the NHL postseason.
Missing from the dogpile of players on top of Carl Hagelin was one of his best friends on the team, Mats Zuccarello. Earlier in the game, Zuccarello took a slap shot off the stick of Ryan McDonagh to the head, causing the diminutive forward to leave the game and not return.
For the remainder of the postseason, the Rangers kept the severity of Zuccarello’s injury under wraps.
The headlines regarding Zuccarello’s injury ranged from “out indefinitely” to later on “There’s always hope.” Meanwhile, Zuccarello was trying to recover from a traumatic brain injury that left him with a skull fracture, a brain contusion, and bleeding in the brain.
Carl Hagelin said it best in an interview with Pat Leonard, describing what Zuccarello went through.
“So you walk in,” Hagelin continued, “and you see him and he can’t really move his mouth. Like he’ll laugh and then only one side of his mouth is working, because he got hit on his left side of his head, which controls the right side of the body. And then when he was trying to talk nothing really came out, he’d say something and it was like “shhzzzz.”
Zuccarello’s injury kept him out of the remainder of the 2015 postseason, placing Jesper Fast in the top six and hindering the Rangers ability to score. New York bowed out following two shutouts in their final three games of the postseason, and only then were Zuccarello’s injuries disclosed.
Questions rightfully arose about his ability to contribute to the 2015-16 Rangers team.
Luckily for both New York and Zuccarello, the Norwegian born forward scored 21 points in the first 21 games of the season, showing zero signs of the brain injury he suffered in the summer. New York went 16-3-2 during that span, a stretch they would depend upon as they eventually struggled down the road and backed into the postseason.
Despite his injury, Zuccarello continued to get to the dirty spots in front of the net, challenge the opposition physically, and maintained the same style of play that worked for him before the injury. Throughout the season the team depended on him for consistency and got what they wanted, as he finished with 61 points on the year.
Zuccarello was awarded with the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award by Rangers fans for his going above and beyond his on ice duty. The award was not only a nod to his effort throughout the season, but it was also a stick-tap to his return from the traumatic experience.
The three finalists for the Masterson Trophy were announced on Sunday, and unsurprisingly Zuccarello’s name was among the trio. Pascal Dupuis received votes for his battling blood clots, while Jaromir Jagr earned a nod for his defying aging in contributing to the playoff bound Florida Panthers.
The Masterson Trophy is awarded to the player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.”
Zuccarello’s season is the perfect example of battling through adversity and dedicating oneself to the sport of hockey, and he showed exactly why he’s deserving of the votes for the Masterson Trophy.