Norwegian sensation embraces challenge
Zuccarello overcame obstacles in style to reach brink of NHL
By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
The newest member of the Rangers organization, Mats Zuccarello, will arrive in New York this fall with the sort of international resume that few elite NHL players possess and a remarkable hockey story that is truly all his own.
Before he began playing professionally, Zuccarello, 22, had two major strikes against him as far as his potential for reaching the NHL. He has already managed to overcome both of these potential obstacles at every other level, and those who know him well say there is no reason he won't find similar success in North America -- which would only help add to his growing notoriety in the hockey world.
The first concern with Zuccarello was his size. He stands 5-foot-9 in a world where most top players are well over six feet tall. The second concern was that he came from Norway, which has developed only four NHL players in the same time period that neighboring Sweden has produced hundreds.
Among those four Norwegians, only 2002 All-Star Espen Knutsen played a signicant number of NHL games. Knutsen's 207-game NHL career made a big impact on the young Zuccarello, a fellow native of Oslo.
"Espen was my favorite player. Here in Norway, he's been the greatest Norwegian player," said Zuccarello. "He's been a role model for me ever since I was a little kid."
Knutsen's success notwithstanding, Zuccarello's citizenship was likely a more daunting hurdle than his size. When Zuccarello became eligible for the NHL Draft in 2005, as a member of Norway's Frisk Asker Tigers, he was nowhere to be found on the NHL Central Scouting rankings.
In fact, no Norwegians could be found in that draft prospect list, and as a result, a future European star slipped through three NHL drafts because nobody had really seen him play until he joined the MoDo club in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, two years ago.
"Norway's not an elite league, and there was really nobody coming out of it," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' Director, Player Personnel. "I would say he's certainly been a late bloomer and he certainly is blooming now."
|Mats Zuccarello, who helped Norway upset the eventual World Championship gold medalist Czech team on May 11, was one of the most entertaining international players this past season.|
“The Norwegian league is nothing compared to the Swedish league,” said former Rangers forward Niklas Sundstrom, a 10-year NHL player who was a teammate of Zuccarello’s over the past two seasons at MoDo. “Mats came in and I saw right away that with his skill and quickness he would do really well in Sweden. I ended up playing with him on my line for the first year, and he was unbelievable. He was 10th or 12th in the league in scoring that year even though he was hurt for 10 to 15 games.”
The 2009-10 season was Zuccarello's European masterpiece, as he led the Swedish Elite league with 23 goals and 64 points in 55 games and played a major role in Norway's Olympic squad. His scoring title with MoDo also helped him earn the prestigious Golden Helmet Award as Sweden's MVP -- making him the first non-Swede to claim that honor since Finnish-born goaltender Jarmo Myllys won the Golden Helmet 13 years ago.
“This year, he just kept getting better and better,” said Sundstrom. “By the end of the year, he was the best player in the league. The other players in the league voted for him to win that award, so it’s really the best thing you can win. He's a great guy, and that was well-deserved for him.”
Only one other Rangers player or prospect has ever won the Golden Helmet since the award was initiated in 1986. That player was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist in 2004-05, and that can only be a great omen for Zuccarello, who will turn 23 just a few days before joining Lundqvist and the Rangers at the team's 2010 training camp.
Former Rangers forward Markus Naslund, a five-time NHL All-Star who concluded his NHL career with the Blueshirts a year ago, spent much of the past season as Zuccarello's teammate after coming out of retirement to help his hometown MoDo club. Naslund certainly knows what hockey fans in North America can expect from Zuccarello.
"I think he's unique, particularly in the way he skates and because he uses such a long stick for being a player of his size," said Naslund. "It gives him a different look than many other players. I find him very entertaining to watch. I think he's got great skills and he's not afraid to use them."
Sundstrom agrees that Zuccarello’s style is unmistakably remarkable.
“He plays very hard. He's a very, very smart player,” Sundstrom said. “And even though he's not the biggest guy, he plays physical, too. He gives a hit first, before other guys can hit him.”
Much like Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Jonas Gustavsson in 2008-09, Zuccarello emerged as the biggest undrafted name in Europe this past season, raising his stock dramatically in an Olympic year. He had a goal and two assists for Norway at the Vancouver Games and was the hero of a 4-3 loss to a heavily-favored Slovakia team that included Rangers forward Marian Gaborik on Feb. 23.
Zuccarello performed well enough in that near upset of Slovakia to draw considerable on-air praise from NBC announcer Mike Emrick, who took to calling him "Zuke" even though his official nickname is "The Hobbit", a monicker he picked up for his facial resemblance to actor Elijah Wood.
Against the Slovaks in Vancouver, Zuccarello led all Norwegian forwards with 24:53 of ice time, scoring a goal in the first period and assisting on another in the second. He also starred in a 5-4 overtime loss to the Swiss on Feb. 20, skating 23:19, firing five shots on goal, and tying for the team lead with a plus-2 rating and two of Norway's three game-winning goals.
What made Zuccarello's Olympic performance so impressive was that he did it on NHL-sized ice against some of the biggest NHL stars, proving that he was ready for the North American game.
"It's a big step up for me, because the level is much higher than what I'm used to," Zuccarello said of transitioning to a new style of hockey. "Of course, I'm going to need some time to get used to the smaller ice rink and everything around me and how the team plays, but I'm confident that I'm going to be able to do that as quickly as possible."
Zuccarello capped off his breakthrough season at the recent IIHF World Championship tournament in Germany. Representing Norway in the Worlds' elite division for the third consecutive year, he tied for the team lead with three goals in six games and also led the Norwegians with 17 shots.
On May 11, in a 3-2 upset of the Czech Republic team that went on to win the World Championship gold medal, Zuccarello scored the game's first goal at 12:09 of the opening period. Two days later, he broke open a 1-1 game vs. France, scoring the winner and adding an assist in the third period to propel Norway to a 5-1 victory. He went on to get another game-winner when the Norwegians beat Switzerland 3-2 on May 17.
"He's a very, very skilled individual," said Clark, who saw Zuccarello play four games in Germany. " He has the hands and the hockey sense that you need to have if you're a smaller player. When he played against teams that were Norway's equal in that tournament, he would dominate the game."
Despite all of his international success, it was at MoDo this past season that Zuccarello truly made a name for himself. He had 20 multi-point games for a team that rebounded from a rough start to miss the playoffs by just one point. He also had six three-point games, two four-point games and a seven-game scoring streak from Dec. 8 to Jan. 2.
|Mats Zuccarello has drawn comparisons to current NHL stars from two former stars in Markus Naslund and Niklas Sundstrom, both teammates of his with MoDo of the Swedish league in 2009-10.|
"He is not afraid to mix it up, and he's not afraid to be the first guy to go into the corner and get the puck," said Naslund. "He's got a great, low center of gravity, and he reminds me a little bit of the way (Sidney) Crosby fights off bigger guys when he's got the puck. It's a little bit different than Crosby's style, but it's similar, too, in that he can handle big defenseman and still be able to make a play. That part of his game really impressed me."
Zuccarello, who led the team's forwards with an average of over 22 minutes of ice time, thrilled MoDo fans with some electric performances. On Oct. 5 against Skelleftea, he had a four-assist night -- with three assists on the power play and one shorthanded. On Oct. 27 vs. Timra, he assisted on the tying goal at 19:50 of the third period and picked up another assist on the overtime winner.
In a road game at HC Linkoping on Nov. 1, he had a three-point outing and scored at 19:06 of the third period to force overtime. On Nov. 14 vs. Jonkoping, he scored on a penalty shot, on a power play and then assisted on the game-tying goal at 14:11 of the third period. The list of such games goes on and on.
"My goal was always to play in Sweden, but now, in this past year, I started to realize that I might get a chance to play over there (in the NHL)," said Zuccarello. "It is a dream come true for me to be able to compete at such a high level and I don't have words to say how much it means. It's a big step for me. The biggest ever."
At MoDo, Zuccarello had the unique and valuable opportunity to play with several former NHL stars, including Naslund, Peter Forsberg and Sundstrom. He played wing on lines with both Sundstrom and Forsberg for parts of the year, as well as his Norwegian Olympic teammate Per-Age Skroder.
"I was so fortunate to be able to play with Peter and Markus this past year," said Zuccarello. "That was unbelievable for me after growing up in Norway to be playing with such good players. That was also a dream come true."
Although he had Forsberg as his center for the post-Olympic explosion, he was not skating alongside the NHL stars for much of the season.
"He played with Forsberg on the power play at times, but the first half of the season, he didn't have Niklas and Peter to set him up, and he was still producing," said Naslund. "He continued to produce in the second half, obviously, having better play-makers around him, but he creates a lot on his own as well."
As Zuccarello's exposure grew during the 2009-10 season, Sundstrom was in a unique position to answer his teammate's questions once the Norwegian considered pursuing an NHL career. The Rangers were a team that intrigued Zuccarellon from the start.
“I'm really excited for him to be playing for the Rangers,” said Sundstrom. “He actually called me when NHL teams were first starting to call him about next season. He asked me a lot of questions about the Rangers organization, so I'm really glad he ended up there.”
Zuccarello also reached out to Naslund for advice about his next step in hockey, and he is grateful to these NHL-experienced MoDo teammates for their advice.
"I talked to both of them, especially Niklas," said Zuccarello. "I called him and asked what he thought about the club and how it would fit me. He only had positive things to say and he really made a big contribution to my decision."
Naslund was happy to provide his perspective on what lay ahead for the Norwegian star.
"Throughout the year, I talked to him a little bit about playing in the NHL and my experiences playing for different teams and what you can expect," Naslund recalled. "For any player, to have a chance to play for the Rangers, who are such a traditional and historic club is exciting, and I think he's excited about having the chance to experience that whole thing. It's just like I felt when I was coming in there. There's something special about having the chance to play at MSG and wear the Rangers uniform."
Naslund did not play on a line with Zuccarello during the season, so he had a front-row seat when it came to watching him. Knowing exactly what's required to make it in the NHL, Naslund said he is convinced that Zuccarello can bridge the gap between Europe and North America and be a star on both sides of the Atlantic.
"It's always an adjustment when you come over," said Naslund. "It doesn't matter if you're 18 or 25 at the time, because it's a different game, and you're playing against bigger and stronger and better players.
Sundstrom, who played 750 career NHL games, goes even further than Naslund in projecting rapid success for his MoDo teammate and doesn’t expect the adjustment will be so difficult because the NHL is different from the pre-2005 league where Sundstrom spent the bulk of his own career.
“I don't think he's going to have a problem with (adjusting) because he's such a smart player and he's very quick,” said Sundstrom. “With the current rules, even the smaller guys can really play at the top. Look at Martin St. Louis, who puts good numbers up there every year. I think Mats is also going to do really well over there (in the NHL) and produce a lot of points.”
No matter how things turn out for him, Zuccarello's history and work ethic appear destined to make a fan favorite, while his journey from the Norwegian league's Frisk Asker Tigers to the North America should serve as an inspiration for NHL hopefuls -- particularly in his native country -- for years to come.
"It has always been a dream of mine to play in the NHL, a dream that I never thought I could reach," said Zuccarello. " ... The Rangers are an Original Six club with a great history and they are giving me the best chance to play on their team. I'm real happy about that, but in the end it's up to me."