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Hartnett: Zuccarello Carries Hopes Of Growing Hockey Nation On His Back

Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Mats Zuccarello (Photo by Francois Laplante/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

When Mats Zuccarello takes his first shift in Wednesday night’s Stanley Cup Final series opener, he will become the first Norwegian to make an appearance in a Stanley Cup Final.

“When you play hockey, it’s the biggest thing,” Zuccarello said. “For me, it’s bigger than winning everything else. It’s something special to be able to play for it.”

The Rangers come into the series as clear underdogs, and no player sums up that underdog spirit more than the pint-sized Zuccarello. Surrounded by colossal Los Angeles Kings opponents resembling California’s redwoods, Zuccarello has the ability to weave through traffic and dish off sublime assists. When alone on a breakaway, the 26-year-old has an arsenal of unpredictable one-on-one moves.

Zuccarello has blazed a unique path into the NHL. Listed at 5-foot-7 and 179 pounds, Zuccarello has proved doubters wrong by demonstrating that he plays much larger than his diminutive frame would suggest. Watch Zuccarello closely. You’ll see a player who isn’t afraid to get in the face of opponents who tower above him and is persistent at all times. He’s an all-action player without an off switch.

“It’s a huge opportunity for me to play,” Zuccarello said. “At the same time, nothing is won yet. We play a pretty tough team, but we’re a good team, too. It’s going to be some tough games. Hopefully, we can have the bounces on our side and win. Nothing is achieved yet.”

‘ZUCC’ HOPES TO INSPIRE NEW GENERATION OF NORWEGIAN YOUNGSTERS

Zuccarello is only one of seven Norwegians who have played in the NHL. Six Norwegians were able to successfully make the jump to the NHL before Zuccarello. Most notably, Espen Knutsen played in 207 career NHL games and represented the Columbus Blue Jackets at the 2002 NHL All-Star Game.

“He was a role model for me when I was younger,” Zuccarello said. “Of course, it shows that it’s possible. Even Patrick Thoresen and (Ole-Kristian) Tollefsen were just a little bit older than me. They showed it was possible.”

Zuccarello is set to shatter all records held by a Norwegian. His 59 points scored during the regular season eclipsed his career-high 53 points. He has already pulled even with Knutsen’s 30 career goals in 63 fewer games played. Next season, Zuccarello only needs to record 19 points to surpass Knutsen’s 111 career points.

Like Knutsen before him, it’s now Zuccarello’s turn to carry the torch for Norwegian hockey and provide inspiration for youngsters back in his homeland.

“I hope so,” Zuccarello said. “I hope I can be a role model and get more people back home to play and be interested in hockey.”

Zuccarello rarely wishes to shine light on his own accomplishments, often deflecting praise to his teammates. In a league full of talented players with down-to-earth traits, there’s something refreshingly humble about Zuccarello. Usually, it’s difficult to get Zuccarello to talk for length about himself. Yet, the opportunity to play a part in growing the game in his homeland is a role that Zuccarello fully embraces.

“I would love to be a role model for young players back home and create some more buzz around hockey,” Zuccarello said. “I have some family and friends coming in for the home games, so that’s going to be huge.”

It’s amazing that Zuccarello and Norwegians who came before him made it to the NHL, considering the absence of adequate facilities in Norway and a lack of upkeep during the summer.

“We have to start somewhere if we want to be a hockey nation,” Zuccarello said. “We have 20, 25 rinks. There’s no ice in the rinks during the whole summer. Three or four months with no ice — how are you supposed to be a good hockey player when you go four months with no ice? The facilities are really bad. There’s a long way to go.”

Zuccarello is urging the Norwegian government to invest in hockey.

“It’s going to cost money, but the government has money,” Zuccarello said. “You’ve got to use it to get new rinks, get people excited to go to a hockey game with new seats.”

ZUCCARELLO ENJOYING BREAKTHROUGH 2013-14 SEASON, FORMED OUTSTANDING LINE WITH BRASSARD AND POULIOT

This season, Zuccarello has taken his game to new heights. He led all Rangers during the regular season with 59 points and shared the team assist lead (40) with playmaking center Derek Stepan. Zuccarello formed a dynamic line with center Derick Brassard and left wing Benoit Pouliot.

The Pouliot-Brassard-Zuccarello line quickly formed a telepathic understanding and has been the Blueshirts’ most consistent line from mid-December all the way to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

“Since Christmas they’ve probably been our most consistent line,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said earlier this playoffs. “They’ve got real good chemistry. They read off one another and support one another.”

Through 20 playoff games, Zuccarello has scored four goals and registered seven assists for 11 points. He is a plus-five and has averaged 16:45 time on ice per game. Zuccarello (25) has only one less blocked shot than 6-foot-7 inch center Brian Boyle, who leads Rangers forwards with 26 blocked shots.

His first memory of watching a Stanley Cup Final was when the Colorado Avalanche swept the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Zuccarello remembers waking early in the morning and, to his surprise, seeing Colorado defenseman Uwe Krupp score the series-winning, triple-overtime goal in Game 4.

“That was the first one I watched,” Zuccarello said. “I remember waking up and going to school. I turned on the TV and saw Uwe Krupp score the overtime winner. I didn’t think it was live. I thought it was taped.”

The Avalanche was Zuccarello’s favorite team as a youngster due to his admiration for superstar forward Peter Forsberg. He kept a close eye on the Avs and remembers Colorado defeating the New Jersey Devils in a seven-game epic to lift the Stanley Cup in 2001.

“I watched Colorado in 2001, because that was always my favorite team,” Zuccarello said. “I watched them against New Jersey and the last game there, when they won.”

Forsberg was affectionately known as “Big Foppa” throughout his career due to his tremendous strength. While Zuccarello’s game is quite different from the legendary Forsberg’s, he is equally unselfish with the puck.

After years of watching Stanley Cup Finals in odd hours of the night in Norway, Zuccarello will have a chance to produce some highlights for fans following closely in his homeland. Should Zuccarello and the Rangers capture the Stanley Cup, its effect will be felt well beyond the five boroughs and surrounding Tri-State Area. It could trigger a surge of hockey popularity in Norway.

Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.

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