The NHL is full of interesting tales of discovery, development and player arrivals. The journey of Mats Zuccarello to this point in time is one of many interesting stories.
The 28-year-old New York Rangers’ forward is perhaps one of the more underrated players in the Eastern Conference. Zuccarello is an adept goal scorer and skilled playmaker. He possesses great vision and hands, while playing with truculence and pugnacity. Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf knows how tough Zuccarello is firsthand.
Every passing day is another blessing for Zuccarello, a player whose hockey career has featured a number of trials and tribulations. The diminutive forward currently leads the Rangers in scoring with 14 goals, 14 assists and 28 points through 35 games. That alone is an amazing feat when you consider that his life could have ended a few months ago.
On April 24, 2015, during a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ryan McDonagh fired a shot on goal that struck Zuccarello in the helmet. The impact of the blueliner’s shot resulted in Zuccarello suffering a brain contusion, bleeding in the brain and a hairline skull fracture. Zuccarello also temporarily lost the ability to speak, and his speech could be forever altered.
The traumatic injury is now in the rear view mirror, and Zuccarello has blossomed offensively this season. Initially it would appear strange that the Rangers’ forward is surging after such a severe incident, but this isn’t the first time Zuccarello has had to overcome the odds. While the April 24 incident was a major one, there have been others that may explain why the “Hobbit” is on pace to shatter personal bests.
Zuccarello leads the Rangers in scoring and is on pace to finish with 33 goals, 33 assists and 66 points, which would be fantastic for the right winger. His production is appreciated more than usual due to the fact that Zuccarello has flown under the radar for the majority of his life, perhaps because he comes in at a diminutive 5’7″ and weighs 179 pounds.
He was born in Norway, which hasn’t been known for being a factory for professional hockey players. Passion for the game motivated Zuccarello during his youth, and he was eventually recruited to play for Frisk Asker of the GET-Ligaen, Norway’s top hockey league. He made his debut for the Tigers in 2005, and in 21 games scored five goals and tallied three assists. The following season he exploded with 34 goals and 59 points in 43 games, finishing third in league scoring.
Zuccarello’s final season with the Tigers put him on the map, with his 64 points in 33 games drawing the attention of Modo (Swedish Hockey League), one of the most well-regarded hockey clubs in Europe. Modo has churned out players such as Peter Forsberg, Markus Naslund, Anders Hedburg, Victor Hedman and the Sedin brothers, Daniel and Henrik.
The move to Sweden helped Zuccarello gain more exposure, while his production in a more competitive league gave legitimacy to his status as an up-and-coming player. He would spend the next two years in Sweden, posting 35 goals, 69 assists and 104 points in 90 games, including a 64-point MVP season that helped earn him the nickname “Frodo from Modo.”
Internationally, Zuccarello had accomplished much. But, he wasn’t on the radar of any NHL teams due to the fact that he wasn’t drafted or hadn’t played in any major international competitions. Had Zuccarello been born in another country, there’s a chance that he would have drawn attention as an undrafted player representing his country in any number of the international hockey tournaments that are held each year.
As luck would have it, Norway secured one of the three Olympic spots available by winning a qualification tournament held in February 2009 by sweeping their group. Norway’s appearance at the 2010 Olympics was their first since 1994, and the fact that the games were held in Vancouver helped Zuccarello showcase his skills.
The tournament was not kind to Norway but Zuccarello put up a good showing with a goal and three points in four games. He turned heads with his performance against Slovakia, making it clear that he was good enough for a shot in North America. On December 18, 2010 the Rangers inked a deal with Zuccarello, with his performance at the Olympics cited as a reason for the deal.
Zuccarello had worked very hard to get to North America. His long journey that should have resulted in triumph, took a turn in an unexpected direction. His first season started with him playing in the AHL, in order to get him acclimated to the smaller North American ice surface.
The reduction in space wasn’t a challenge, as he tallied 13 goals and 29 points in his first 36 games. An injury to Marian Gaborik provided an opening, and Zuccarello ran with it. In 42 games with the Rangers, he tallied six goals and 23 points. It appeared that New York had a viable and cost effective secondary scorer.
Rangers’ head coach John Tortorella wasn’t impressed enough with Zuccarello, banishing him to the AHL after three games to start the 2011-12 season. During that time, Zuccarello was nearly a point per game player, with 36 points in 37 games. He eagerly awaited his chance to return to the NHL. He was recalled for seven games, then once again assigned to the Hartford Wolf Pack.
At this point Zuccarello was frustrated, as he wanted to play NHL games. He told the New York Daily News, “This is where I want to be, don’t get me wrong, but at the same time I have to think about myself and what’s best for me. I need to play. I can’t play 10 games. Ten games — that’s not enough for me.”
Zuccarello went on to sign a deal to join Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the KHL. Although the Rangers retained his NHL rights, there was no guarantee he would come back with Tortorella behind the bench. Zuccarello scored 11 goals with 17 assists in 44 games with Metallurg, before rejoining the Rangers at the tail-end of the 2012-13 lockout shortened season. It couldn’t have came at a better time, as the team had the third fewest goals in the league prior to his return.
Zuccarello’s impact was felt immediately, as he not only tallied eight points in 15 regular season games, but also garnered seven points in 12 playoff games. At the conclusion of the season, Tortorella was fired and Zuccarello was signed to a one-year contract worth $1.15 million. He was in a situation where he now had a new coach, a clean slate and the linemates and playing time to show the world the player that dominated in Scandinavia.
The 2013-14 season started off sleepily for Zuccarello, and new head coach Alain Vigneault made him a healthy scratch in an attempt to wake him up. Being scratched clearly lit a fire under Zuccarello.
The “fresh start” under Vigneault accurately represents the Oslo, Norway native. This is not to say that his previous stints don’t matter, but they were so disjointed that they held back his productivity.
Zuccarello’s journey has been interesting, but is not over. He came from humble beginnings playing youth hockey in Norway and was lucky enough to land a hockey scholarship. He developed and thrived in a nurturing hockey-oriented environment, ultimately playing in one of the biggest hotbeds for hockey in Europe. With some luck, he earned a chance to represent his country in the Olympics, parlaying that into an NHL contract and survived a bumpy ride that sent him to the KHL and back.
Zuccarello’s freak injury last season was scary, and could have severely altered his life. It is only natural for fans to cherish his breakout year coming on the heels of that moment. But, Zuccarello has been battling his entire career.
A quote from “Rocky Balboa” essentially describes Zuccarello; who he is and why he’s so successful.
“The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place, and I don’t care how tough you are, it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!”
He may not have a conventional story or traveled a traditonal road of development to the NHL, but after an immeasurable amount of hard work and display of fortitude, no one should be surprised that Zuccarello is having the best season of his career.
Stats via Hockey-Reference and Elite Prospects unless otherwise noted.