This appears to be an appropriate time to give what insight I have to the fans that have inspired and cheered for Mats Zuccarello for more than eight years.
You all know what a great playmaker Mats Zuccarello is, how hard he works on the ice and that devious smile of his whenever he is messing around with his teammates. I have been fortunate enough to watch him up close, as a sports writer who first interviewed him when he was a teenager with Frisk Asker twelve years ago and have followed him closely ever since.
Let us first set a couple of parameters. Norway is a small country with 5,3 million citizens, where the capital Oslo has a population of less than 700,000. This is where Mats Zuccarello grew up. Our entire country is smaller than New York City. Hockey is not a big deal here. Soccer and cross-country skiing are. I was a sports writer at a national newspaper when I first met Zuccarello, and later a New York-based US correspondent covering politics and current affairs, while still covering Zuccarello closely.
One year ago, I left my job as a US correspondent. I left New York, where I for three years had covered every New York Rangers home game from the press bridge in Madison Square Garden (and interviewed Mats Zuccarello to get quotes for articles afterwards) to move back home to Oslo and start a hockey magazine.
You see, even though hockey is a small sport in Norway, the players and fans in hockey are every bit as nice here as they are in North America. Hockey people are the best people. That is why I wanted to use my knowledge of the sport and my experience from working in the media for 18 years, to contribute to the growth of the game here in Norway.
This is where Mats Zuccarello is central.
He is not only our biggest hockey star, but his position as a prominent player with the New York Rangers in the NHL, and the love that you Rangers fans gave him, made him one of the biggest celebrities in Norwegian society overall.
I will not pretend to know what Zuccarello is thinking or feeling, but my impression is that the last few months have been very stressful for him. I truly believe that he wanted to stay a Ranger for life.
I’ve been lucky to see a lot of cool hockey stuff in person but this Zuccarello pass was the most disgusting pass I’ve ever seen live https://t.co/GHrIPSDkvj
— DL (@davelozo) February 24, 2019
Let’s watch Mats Zuccarello anticipate & execute a backhanded breakaway pass for a teammate SITTING ON THE BENCH ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? pic.twitter.com/RJJP4Xr5mm
— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) 24. februar 2017
On Saturday, he was informed by the Rangers management that he would be scratched against New Jersey Devils. It suddenly became very clear that he had already played his last game as a New York Ranger. I can only imagine how stressful this must have been.
What did he do?
He sent me a text, saying that he was sitting out.
Why is this relevant? Because for a small hockey site like Nitten.no, any breaking news story is a big deal. We just started the site, resources are scarce, and there is no other professional hockey magazine in Norway. Helping this hockey magazine to grow, will help the sport grow too. In a moment of anxiety over his own future, Zuccarello was thinking about how he could use this to help a Norwegian hockey magazine grow.
It speaks volumes about his character. This is not the first time either.
Although Zuccarello is a rather private person, who hates it whenever the gossip media runs stories about his relationships or anything outside of hockey, he has always gone out of his way to help me – as one of only a handful hockey reporters in Norway – out. His family has told me that he doesn’t like the personal attention, but he loves the attention to the sport.
He has in fact been helping the game of hockey grow in Norway for years now, both by being the most successful Norwegian hockey player of all time, by being a tremendous role model, and by assisting the press coverage of hockey in Norwegian media.
Rangers beat writers Larry Brooks of the NY Post, Allan Kreda of the NY Times or Dan Rosen of NHL.com can confirm this:
After practically every game in Madison Square Garden from 2015 to 2018, Zuccarello was available to TV 2-reporter Mathias Ask and me. Since he wants to avoid the limelight, he stayed away from his stall in the locker room and snuck in the back door to do an interview with us if he saw us. Then he snuck back out again.
The only times he was at his stall, waiting for the New York media too, was whenever the Rangers lost and played poorly. He wants to take responsibility for poor performances, but he does not care for the attention otherwise. He just wants to play hockey and have fun.
You all probably know about his charity efforts. for years now, Zuccarello has worked to help underprivileged children play hockey, whether they live in Norway or in Africa.
When the women’s team Tromsø qualified for the promotion playoffs in 2017, they could not afford to travel to the venue. You can probably imagine how hard it is to run a women’s club in a small country like Norway, where we cannot even fill two divisions of ten teams in the men’s league. The Tromsø women’s team started a go-fund-me-project.
Once Zuccarello got wind of this, he called his PR manager and instructed him to fund their trip.
That is a win for hockey. Not that it would ever come out if Zuccarello had anything to say about this. He did not.
Some of you probably saw the story about Zuccarello driving by a kid shooting pucks at a garage door. While the kid was probably dreaming of making it to the NHL one day, suddenly Zuccarello was standing next to him shooting pucks. We would never have known about this if not for the kids’ mother, who posted this picture on Instagram.
Did I mention that hockey people are the best people?
Se dette innlegget på Instagram
#hverdagsmagi Når du står utenfor gården din og øver på skudd etter skudd for deg selv og kanskje dagdrømmer litt om hockey og helter og plutselig står @matszuccarello der rett ved siden av og slår av en hyggelig og lang prat. Da altså. @velle32 @vif_hockey_bredde_og_elite #vif #hockey #ishockey #newyorkrangers #zuccarello #hockeymamma @nyrangers
I also remember when he started his charity foundation, Zuccarellostiftelsen. When he launched it, he spoke about how sad it is that 55,000 kids in Norway need child welfare and how he wanted to at least help them afford to play sports.
“I know what sports has done for me. Not just when I am playing, but also socially. To develop as a team player, learn from others, grow your confidence and be part of something. That has made me who I am today. I just want to help people, and I am now in a position to do so, to help identify a problem and try to address that problem. This is the only good thing about being in the newspapers every day”, Zuccarello told me.
His charity events have raised several hundred thousand dollars for Right To Play over the years, while Zuccarellostiftelsen is doing a wonderful job of delivering free equipment to youth clubs in Norway.
This is the Mats Zuccarello I know. He cares about the sport of hockey and will do whatever he can to help it grow. He also cares about his teammates and the name in front of the jersey. He loved being a New York Ranger.
If you are a Ranger fan, none of this will surprise you. The way you have showed your love and appreciation for him, is something even Norwegians have noticed. It is probably part of why he is one of our nation’s biggest sports stars today.
Unfortunately, the Rangers management decided that the club is better off trading him. This became apparent last summer, when David Quinn travelled to Sweden to meet with Henrik Lundqvist and asked Jesper Fast and Mika Zibanejad to travel down from Stockholm to Gothenburg but did not bother to call Zuccarello and ask if he wanted to join from Oslo, which is closer.
I found it conspicuous that the new coach treated one of the veterans this way. Zuccarello led the club in points in four of the last five seasons. Yet he had to wait for a call from coach Quinn. As a journalist, I was naturally obliged to ask Zuccarello for a reaction to this story.
He didn’t respond.
Zuccarello will usually get back to me, but not this time. Not a word. This was not a good look for the Rangers, so he wanted no part of it. He stayed quiet. Loyal as always.
There have been other times too, when I have been critical of how the club has treated him, where he has rejected my theory or declined to comment.
This is also the Zuccarello I know.
You have got to respect that. I know I do.
This piece is my way of saying “thank you” to all Rangers fans for the way you embraced Mats Zuccarello. I know it meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to the game of hockey in Norway too.
You are great fans and deserve the best.
Mats Zuccarello is the best. If not on the ice, he certainly is off the ice.