Mats Zuccarello knew immediately something was wrong. He was sitting inside the home locker room at Madison Square Garden trying to talk to the trainer, but he couldn’t get a single word out. A few minutes earlier, during a playoff game between the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, he had taken a slapshot to the helmet that would sideline him with the most devastating injury of his career: a brain contusion and a fractured skull.
But few knew that at the time. When he was hit, Zuccarello looked rattled but skated to the bench by himself. There wasn’t even a stoppage in play. But while his teammates were celebrating Carl Hagelin’s overtime winner, Zuccarello was rushed to the hospital. He wouldn’t regain his speech for four days and lost the feeling in the right side of his face. For several weeks, he couldn’t get up from the couch without feeling dizzy.
Half a year later, Zuccarello has made a remarkable comeback. He says he feels fine now and shows it by leading the team in points through the first 15 games of the season.
“Of course, it’s always nice to contribute and be a leader on the team,” Zuccarello said. “So we’ll just have to hope it continues and to keep working.”
His resurgence has been welcomed by his teammates, who not only see the Norwegian winger as a great locker-room presence, but as a crucial part of the Rangers’ success.
“He can slow down the game and find openings so we create chances,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “It was tough for us to lose him during the playoffs, but right now he’s playing his best hockey and that means a lot to us.”
Although the doctors told Zuccarello early on that his injury would heal, the road back was still hard and took its toll not only on Zuccarello, but also those closest to him.
His best friends on the team, Derick Brassard and Hagelin (now with the Anaheim Ducks), broke down in tears when they saw him at the hospital. The captain Ryan McDonagh told reporters how devastating it was to see his friend “in a hospital bed with wires going every which way.” His mother took the first flight from Norway to be with him.
To regain his speech, Zuccarello underwent about a month of speech therapy. When he spoke to the media in June, for the first time after his injury, he was visibly struggling with certain words. Now, he’s almost back to normal.
“My Norwegian is almost perfect, I would say, except a few times,” he said. “My English is a bit different, but I’ll have to live with that. It’s fine.”
A few weeks after the injury he started skating on his own, but he wasn’t able to recover in time to help his team get back to the Stanley Cup final. The Rangers season ended in the seventh game of the conference finals against Tampa Bay Lightning. Zuccarello was watching from the stands.
“It’s always tough, but the guys did well without me and were a couple of goals away from a new Stanley Cup final,” he said. “It was probably worse for me who had to sit and watch.“
Zuccarello’s off-season preparation didn’t just include training camp in New York but also trips back to his native Norway and what he calls a “very special” trip to Tanzania. First, he made a return to the ice at a charity game in Stavanger, Norway aptly called the “Zuccarello all-star game.” Several of his Rangers teammates including Brassard and Hagelin but also Kevin Hayes and Chris Kreider showed up to support him. McDonagh was supposed to go, but an injury kept him away.
Then, in early August, he went to Tanzania with Right to Play, the charity he’s involved in. Zuccarello said the trip, where he toured a school and even taught some of the students how to use a hockey stick, gave him a new perspective on his own situation.
“It was great to get away and see that my injury doesn’t mean anything in the great scheme of things when you see how those people have it,” he said. “I was very lucky. It was fun and a great trip.”
Zuccarello entered training camp with a few adjustments, such as a new helmet designed to do a better job of protecting his head, and determined to help the team win their first Stanley Cup since 1994. His teammates said he never once tried to use his injury as an excuse.
“That’s not how Zuke is,” said Derek Stepan. “He comes to the rink, he works hard and he’s a professional. He enjoys what he does and I think that’s the biggest thing about Zuke.”
Zuccarello’s been known to have slow starts to the season, but this year’s been completely different. Last season, he needed four games to get his first point and eight to get his first goal. This year he had six points through his first eight games. He set a new milestone when he notched his first hat-trick in the NHL against the Toronto Maple Leafs on 30 October.
Tuesday night he once again showed his gifted passing when he assisted Rick Nash to put the Rangers up 2-0 against Carolina Hurricanes, and dethrone Oscar Lindberg as the team’s points leader. New York ended up winning 3-0, their sixth straight win in a row.
“I think once he was cleared to get back at training and on the ice he worked extremely hard to get to a level where he’s had success this season,” Staal said. “That’s a credit to him and obviously it’s great for our team.”
Zuccarello has always been known to joke around and keep things light in the locker room. In practice, he often raises his arms and celebrates wildly if he scores, especially if Lundqvist is between the pipes. When speaking to the Guardian he joked that his teammates are probably happy that he’s talked less after the injury. At least some of them disagree.
“He’s a big part of our room, a great personality around the room and a positive guy,” Staal said.
Stepan, who made his Rangers debut the same season as Zuccarello, agreed.
“It’s good to see him back and it’s good to see his smiling face,” he said.