The Hobbit (moves on)

In Hovin, an Oslo, Norway neighborhood, there’s a small pond that freezes in the winter, which makes it perfect for kids who want to skate. It sits inside a pocket of red brick houses, a stone’s throw from Valle Hovin, a speed skating arena, and Vallhall, an indoor soccer arena.

You can see the pond from the houses on the hill, and if you’re lucky, some kids will be playing. And just like kids everywhere, half their game takes place on the ice, the other half in their heads. Nobody’s ever just himself, because everybody’s pretending to be someone famous.

When Mats Zuccarello, the New York Rangers forward playing in his fifth season in the National Hockey League, was younger, his heroes were Peter Forsberg, the Swedish Hockey Hall of Famer, and his Colorado Avalanche teammates, Canadians Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. Posters of those three were plastered on the walls of his room.

On that same wall, now his brother’s room, there’s a New York Rangers sweater number 36, with “Zuccarello” on the back.

How times have changed.

Today, Mats Zuccarello is the New York Rangers’ fan favorite* they like to call ‘the Hobbit,’ thanks to his diminutive size and a remarkable resemblance between him and Elijah Wood, the actor who played Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings films.

Today, it’s Zuccarello who can get a sold-out Madison Square Garden to yell “Zuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuc” in unison. He’s the only Norwegian player in the NHL, and this season he became Norway’s all-time leading NHL scorer, overtaking Espen Knutsen.

While that pond wasn’t exactly the starting point for Mats Zuccarello’s hockey career – he was living in Hasle, an Oslo neighborhood close by, when his mother Anita enrolled him in hockey school – it’s where he honed his skills both before and after team practice.

“As a kid I was a little hyperactive and I think my mother was something of a hockey fan, so she signed me up at a local hockey school when I was three. I’m the first one in my family to play hockey, there’s no tradition for it,” says Zuccarello, whose maternal grandfather emigrated to Norway from Sicily.

His mother Anita could see the pond from their house, and when Zuccarello got older she’d drop him off at the Jordal Amfi practice rink, which was the hockey venue for the 1952 Olympics. Zuccarello called the rink his “babysitter” in a documentary film by the MSG Network.

By the time he was ready for high school, it was obvious Zuccarello had the talent to go far. He applied and was accepted to NTG, a special hockey program in Bærum in the greater Oslo region with connections to Frisk Asker’s hockey club. The tuition wasn’t insignificant, but mom Anita figured it was worth it.

Zuccarello dominated the junior leagues, scoring nearly a goal a game, and made his Norwegian league debut at age 18. But due to his diminutive size, many doubted his chances to go pro.

“I always heard that I was too small, even when I took the next step into the Norwegian league. The coaches seemed to believe in me, but the experts around the sport didn’t give me much of a chance,” Zuccarello says.

“I guess I did OK, but when I decided to go play in Sweden, I was again called too small to make it.”

In his final season in Norway, he led Frisk Asker to the league final. They may have lost to Storhamar but he won Norway’s “Player of the year” award, while finishing third in league scoring despite missing ten games. He was a big fish in a small pond and it was time to make the move to a bigger pond: the Swedish league.

“He’s always been an exceptional player, a great talent, with great hands. When he moved to Sweden he had already dominated the Norwegian league,” says Alexander Bonsaksen, Zuccarello’s childhood friend and a Team Norway regular himself.
“Then he did the same in Sweden,” he adds.

Zuccarello signed with Sweden’s Modo and won the scoring title in his second season. He also got to play with Peter Forsberg, his idol, as well as representing Norway in the Vancouver Olympics. It was the first time Norway had qualified for the Games since 1998, when NHL professionals were allowed to compete. Zuccarello didn’t score at the Olympics – Norway scored just five goals in three games – but the skills and tenacity of “the Norwegian Hobbit” made an impression on several NHL executives.

“The dream was to become a good Swedish league player, and to make enough money to support me during my career. After the Olympics, I got several offers, and then a phone call from Glen Sather, the Rangers general manager,” Zuccarello says.

“It may have been life in New York City that made me choose the Rangers,” he adds with a laugh.

On a non-game day, Zuccarello will be waiting by the curb for Carl Hagelin to pick him up for practice. The Rangers and the basketball team Knicks are owned by the Dolan family, and they have a state-of-the art training facility in Tarrytown, New York, in Westchester County, about 40 minutes north of Manhattan.

The team practices on the ice for about an hour, and then the players hit the gym, get a massage, and meet the media. Afterwards, Hagelin and Zuccarello drive back into the city, maybe take a nap, or Skype with friends.

Zuccarello and Hagelin have become good friends; they’re almost the same age, and have the same interests.

“Hagelin and I are pretty close, we hang out even in the off-season. And Derrick Brassard. I played together with [team captain] Ryan McDonagh in the AHL. The whole team with Rick Nash, Martin St. Louis, Henke [Lundqvist] is a big group of friends, but I’m closest with Hagelin and Brassard,” he says.

‘I’m the first one in my family to play hockey – there’s no tradition for it’

“He’s a fun-loving guy, for sure. He’s always joking around and being funny,” says Lundqvist.

“For better and worse,” he adds with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s just too much.”

But it’s that happy-go-lucky, take-things-in-his-stride way that has gotten Zuccarello to where he is today. That, and the countless hours on the pond, at Jordal Amfi, and at the team practices.

“He used to look up to other players, and then come to practices and imitate their style. One day he’d be Forsberg, the next day Ilya Kovalchuk,” says Bonsaksen.

It’s the ability to imitate stars that gave Zuccarello the skill set that has taken him to the best hockey league in the world, despite the obvious challenges that he has faced – and it’s not just his size. The fact that he is from Norway, a country that has produced a total of just seven NHLers, and of them, the first one, Bjørn Skaare, played just one game with the Detroit Red Wings in November 1978.

But it took a setback to push him to really reach his potential.

“The first season with the Rangers was good, but in my second year, I didn’t get much ice time, so I signed with Metallurg in Magnitogorsk, Russia in the KHL. I got to play with some great players, had a good coach, and towards the end of the season, I got a chance to return to New York,” he says.

“I got pretty far on talent alone, and it took me a while to realize what it takes to be a real pro player, and how to train in the off-season,” he says.

Bonsaksen offers another explanation to why Zuccarello was able to turn his game around in Russia.

“I think he got a little lighter there, and faster again. When he got to the NHL, he was always told to gain weight, put on some muscle, but in Russia, he worked a little harder, and, well, the food probably wasn’t that great,” he says.

“I’ve always wanted to have fun, and maybe haven’t taken things as seriously as I should have. I believe things will work out in the end. But, live and learn, live and learn,” says Zuccarello.

Whatever the reason, the Rangers called, and Zuccarello said yes, after some consideration – and push from his mother and brother. Last year, he led the team in scoring, and became the first Norwegian player to play in the Stanley Cup final.

It’s hard not to like the undersized hockey magician, who’s bursting with energy, always giving his all, and who, after the Rangers score a goal, hangs on his teammates’ backs.

That’s why his jersey is one of the most popular sold at the Garden and the nearby Modell’s sports store. That’s why of all the Rangers, Zuccarello is the only one of the few that has his own minifigure, together with Nash, McDonagh, and St. Louis – all NHL stars.

“It is a little funny that there’s a minifigure of me. My mother actually bought one,” he says, with a smile.

On a game day, the team has its morning skate at Madison Square Garden and eats lunch at the arena, before the players go for their afternoon naps at home. Afterwards, Zuccarello walks to the arena.

“It’s perfect. It’s only a five-minute walk for me. Nice to get some fresh air,” he says.

In five years in the city, Zuccarello has made friends in New York, even though it’s not always easy with a hockey player’s schedule that includes 82 games –  half of them on the road somewhere in the US and Canada. And in the off-season, Zuccarello heads back to Oslo. But a part of his heart stays in the Big Apple.

“New York is an amazing city, with all kinds of people and cultures meeting here, from hipsters to billionaires. And somehow, there’s room for everybody, everybody can find his place here,” he says.

“I think people enjoy life more here. If you go out for a beer here on a Tuesday night, it’s fine and you won’t be the only one, but if you do that in Norway, people will look at you like you’re a drunk. People are in New York to chase their dreams.”

‘I’ve always heard I was too small, even when I took the next step into the Norwegian league’

Maybe that’s why he chose to sign an extension with the Rangers, and reportedly give in on his salary demands. Not that a four-year contract worth $18 million is a poor deal. But had he become an unrestricted free agent he could have fielded offers from all 30 NHL teams, not just the Rangers. Several teams would have lined up to get his signature on a long-term deal.

“It was frightening and exciting at the same time. I knew I would have received offers, but salary isn’t the only important thing. I’ve been here my whole NHL career; it would have been disappointing to leave New York.

“It was tough not to think about becoming a free agent, even though people always say they don’t. But I’m only human.”

In New York, he’s both a celebrity and one of eight million. He’s got the minifigure, he’s done the ads, and he’s a true fan favorite – but he can walk to the arena.

“I don’t like being in the limelight too much, so I turned down an invitation to appear on [popular talk show] ‘Skavlan,’ for example. How exciting would it be for the Swedes to see an NHL player being interviewed, they have hundreds of players. I like being a little off the radar, and just live my life,” he says.

But inside the world’s most famous arena, everybody knows his name.


*) Footnote: Zuccarello was traded to the Dallas Stars on February 23, 2019.

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