Mats Zuccarello at high point with New York Rangers and Norwegians

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Monday, November 16, 2015

NEW YORK -- While the New York Rangers battled in the second round of the postseason this past spring, forward Mats Zuccarello was in a hospital bed unable to speak.

During Game 5 of the Rangers' first-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a puck off the stick of teammate Ryan McDonagh struck Zuccarello in the head and he suffered a fractured skull and a brain contusion.

"It was scary at first," the 28-year-old from Oslo, Norway, said. "It's not something you go through that often and it was tough. I had some tough weeks, but I tried to stay positive and I had a lot of help from family and friends and the team. I felt like I was going to come back. It's hard to describe how you feel, actually, but I had some tough weeks for sure."

It was days before Zuccarello could speak.

"I knew everything I wanted to say and my brain was kind of clear, but I couldn't get it out, so that was the worst thing about it," Zuccarello said. "Lying in the hospital is never a good feeling, but people have gone through worse than me, so I'm just happy, lucky to be able to come back and play. There are no complaints here. Yeah, I was lucky."

When he regained his speech and functions, he began skating on his own while the team was competing in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. If the Rangers had advanced to the Stanley Cup finals, he might have tried to play despite his injuries, but New York lost, which allowed Zuccarello more time to recover.

In the aftermath of the injury, Zuccarello and the Rangers wondered if his career was over.

"It was a serious injury, especially with the head, so for sure you are thinking about it," he said. "but after a couple of months I felt better and my speech came back and I started to get more and more positive."

Zuccarello took a few extra weeks off during the offseason just to make sure he was symptom-free and he started working out again in mid-July. It was difficult at first because of the injury and long layoff.

"After a few weeks I felt stronger and felt back to normal, so that was a good feeling," he said.

During his recovery, Zuccarello received an outpouring of support from family, friends and fans in Norway.

"It was good, especially from friends and family," Zuccarello said. "I got a lot of nice messages from everyone. I felt like everyone was supporting me, especially from the team as well, so it was nice."

A turning point in his recovery, especially from an emotional point of view, occurred when Zuccarello was on a trip to Tanzania in Africa as an ambassador for Right to Play, an organization dedicated to help underprivileged children. Elin Flaglien, a reporter for TV2 Norway, covered the trip and believes it was a life-changing experience for Zuccarello.

"That was a great experience," Flaglien said. "That trip really helped get his motivation going and his head back in the right place."

Zuccarello has helped the Rangers to an 11-2-2 record with seven goals and five assists for 12 points.

"We knew he had to go through some hurdles over the summer to get over his injury," said teammate Marc Staal, "and once he was cleared to train and get back on the ice, he worked extremely hard to get back to a level where he's had success this season, so that's a credit to him and obviously it's great for our team."

Zuccarello is a humble person. He's the all-time leader in games (237), goals (52), assists (102) and points (154) by a Norwegian player in NHL history. Only eight Norwegians have played in the NHL and Zuccarello is hoping to change that.

In fact, while discussing his status as a Norwegian player in the NHL, Zuccarello quickly changed the subject and wanted to credit fellow countryman Andreas Martinsen, who made his NHL debut for the Colorado Avalanche Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Zuccarello is proud of his background.

He began skating when he was three and remembers how quickly he fell in love with the game at a young age and wants others from his homeland to enjoy a similar experience. So, he created The Zuccarello Foundation to help grow youth hockey in Norway.

"It's nice to help hockey back home, maybe get more [kids] to start playing. We need to get hockey going again back home," he said. "It's on the right path and with me being [in the NHL] is getting more media attention back home for hockey, so it's a good start and hopefully we can get some more players here."

His interest in hockey was strong from the first day his mother laced up his skates.

"I wasn't sitting still a lot, so my mom wanted me to do something and took me to hockey school. I've loved it ever since," he said. "It's been a good journey. It's a dream come true playing here, especially for the New York Rangers."

It wasn't easy getting to the NHL and it was tough staying.

After playing in the Swedish Elite League, Zuccarello signed as a free agent with the Rangers in the summer of 2010. He split the 2010-11 season between the NHL and the Rangers' AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack. He spent the majority of the next season in the AHL, and played only 10 games for the Rangers in 2011-12. For the 2012-13 season, he played 44 games in the KHL before returning to the Rangers as a free agent to close out the regular season.

He hasn't left.

"It was tough in the beginning getting used to how it is over here," Zuccarello said. "You're used to playing in Norway and Sweden, where it's kind of safer, and you come over here and it's a little bit different. It's a challenge but you learn every day. I've been blessed with a lot of opportunities."

Not only is Zuccarello popular in Norway, his Ranger teammates respect him on and off the ice.

"He's a big part of our room," said Staal. "He's a great personality around the room and a positive guy. He's a big part of our team and it's great seeing him have success for us."

Zuccarello's popularity is soaring in Norway. Kjell Grommimgem is the owner of the Bohemen Sports Pub in Oslo, Norway, and even though the NHL is not that popular in that part of the world, Zuccarello is.

"He's very, very popular because he's the first Norwegian to have success in the National Hockey League, so he's very popular," Grommimgem said. "Every time he scores, it's on television and it's all over the news. He's extremely popular. It's kind of strange, actually, because hockey isn't that big in Norway but Mats is very popular."

Now that Zuccarello's career is back on track after this past spring's frightening experience, his status in New York and Norway are at an all-time high.

"I'm proud to be here representing Norway. It's good for hockey back home," Zuccarello said. "I try to help as much as I can, but you can't save the world; you can only do so much and I try to do my part."