The New York Rangers’ 2017-18 season could defined by moves that should’ve been made a long time ago. For example, they’d like to add their first Stanley Cup since 1994, one they feel should already in their trophy case. This winter, the team will also retire Jean Ratelle’s number 19, another move long overdue.
But perhaps the most egregious example of all for the Rangers, who kick off their new year tonight at Madison Square Garden (7:00, MSG), is the fact that now, and only now, is Mats Zuccarello an assistant captain.
At 5 feet, 7 inches and 179 pounds, Zuccarello’s stature suggests he should be partaking in the “games” between periods at Madison Square Garden, the famous “Mites on Ice” showcases of children that keep fans entertained during the intermissions. But, with his back against the wall from the second he entered professional hockey, small size has never been a problem for the Oslo, Norway native.
Affectionately referred to as “The Hobbit” by fans and teammates, Zucarello’s professional career began in the GET-league, signed after a lengthy scouting process by Frisk Asker. Ironically, Zuccarello’s coach in his first full year in Asker was Esa Tikkanen, one of the few and proud who helped the Rangers to their famous Stanley Cup victory in 1994. Though Tikkanen last just one year with the team, Zuccarello made in impact. At just 19 years old, Zuccarello put up 59 points in 46 games, good for 3rd in the league. He inflated those number to 64 points in 33 games the next season, before spending two further hears with MODO, a historic team in the second-tier Swedish league HockeyAllsvenskan.
The commotion caused the New York Rangers to take a look at Zuccarello, and the young Norwegian signed a two-year entry level contract in 2010. Though the Rangers planned to develop him with their Hartford AHL affiliate, Zuccarello was called up when Marian Gaborik went down with an injury. Suiting up with the big club, Zuccarello was just the seventh Norwegian to appear in an NHL game. Perhaps foreshadowing the impact he was about to have on New York, Zuccarello’s first career goal was an overtime winner against Carolina on January 5.
Zuccarello’s time in New York almost didn’t work out. He could’ve become a Russian superstar in the KHL, having signed a two-year deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk before returning to the Rangers in 2013. He almost had to end his career entirely during the 2015 playoffs, when an errant Ryan McDonagh shot hit him in the head.
Instead, not only did Zuccarello return to the city, but he instantly put any lingering doubts to rest in the early stages of the 2015-16 season. Getting off to a hot start, Zuccarello gave the Toronto Maple Leafs an early Halloween scare in October 2015, tallying the first hat trick of his career
Zuccarello’s progress has earned him much respect in the Ranger community, and his play has earned him a trio of Steven McDonald Extra Effort awards, one of just seven players, including Mark Messier and Adam Graves, to win the award multiple times.
Some say the Rangers’ treatment of Zuccarello has been shoddy at best, giving away his buddies, like Carl Hagelin and Derek Brassard to the highest bidder. Some will continue to hold this late honor against him. But this symbol of New York perseverance is only just beginning for the 30-year-old Zuccarello, who is ready to lead this hopeful team into the future.
Against all odds, Zuccarello has made a list of memories and has earned himself several trophies. Here’s hoping the biggest one of all, Lord Stanley’s Cup, won’t be…overdue.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490