Mats Zuccarello, Minnesota Wild look forward to new season
Personnel changes, slow starts, COVID-19 affect Zucca’s first season with Wild
Business & Sports Editor
The Norwegian American
The future looked bright on a sunny day, July 3, 2019, at Oslo’s Hotel Continental, as Mats Zuccarello was to announce his next NHL destination after nine years with the New York Rangers and a couple of months with the Dallas Stars.
The winner: Minnesota Wild, five years, $30 million, believed to be the richest contract ever for a Norwegian sports figure. Zuccarello said Minnesota was the closest he could get to Norway outside of Norway—Minnesota is the hockey state in the United States. He wanted to make the announcement in the actual Norway.
“Oslo’s my hometown,” said the 33-year-old right winger in a phone interview from Minneapolis. “Obviously, I’m the only player right now from Norway that plays over here, so there was quite a bit of interest in where I would sign. I was home at the time, as well, so I felt I might as well announce it at home.”
Two weeks later, Wild general manager Paul Fenton, who had negotiated the deal, was fired. On Feb. 14, assistant coach Dean Evason replaced coach Bruce Boudreau as interim coach. Zuccarello and the team got off to a slow start, and just as things were turning around, COVID-19 closed down sports worldwide—plus, Zucca had to adjust to his new surroundings. Maybe it was fitting that our interview was on Dec. 31, as Zucca put 2020 behind and set resolutions for 2021.
“From a personal aspect, I came from a place where I was very comfortable,” he said. “I’d been in New York for almost nine years. When I left, I think I was the oldest forward there, one of the old guys. I had my place. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. That was the hardest part right away, coming to a team that was a little bit older, trying to find my place, have people get to know me.
“It took probably a little longer than I hoped. I didn’t really play great in the beginning, struggled a little bit. Once I was here a while, I grew into the group and got to know everyone and became comfortable. I started to play better, so I feel completely different going into this year, more confident, more comfortable.
“With COVID, hockey becomes the second priority. The health and pandemic are more important than any sports. It’s sad when you can’t play, but it was okay, because you understand the situation. You know you’re no more important than any other person on this planet. Everyone shut down and people couldn’t do their jobs. Everyone had to stay in for safety reasons. We just accepted it. It’s been a strange and tough year for people so, hopefully, 2021 will be a better year for the whole world.”
At the time of the Wild’s last game on March 8, they were on 12 wins-5 losses-1 overtime loss roll, were 35-27-7 and had moved within a point of a playoff spot with 13 games left. It took nine games for Zuccarello to score his first goal, but in the last 11 games, he had one goal and six assists. The NHL restarted in August in two bubbles, Eastern conference teams in Toronto and Western Conference teams in Edmonton, and had best-of-five rounds for teams to qualify for the eight playoff spots in each division. The 10th-seed Wild drew seventh-seed Vancouver, won the first game 3-0, then dropped the next three 4-3, 3-0, 5-4. Zuccarello had an assist in the final game and finished the season with 15 goals, 22 assists, 37 points, his worst per game average since 2012-13 and uncharacteristic minus 9. His career +/- is plus-31.
“Generally, it wasn’t a great season personally or for the team,” said Zuccarello. “I think we should have gone further in the playoffs, but it is what it is. We played a good team. I thought we played a really good first game. Every game was tight. If we scored on enough chances, obviously, we would’ve done better. When you lose three games in a row, you got to be honest and face the fact that you’ve lost to a better team at that point. We all don’t like losing that way and we’ve had an exciting summer working out, trying to get our team better and ready to go for a better season this year.”
The Wild return a lot of balance with left wing Kevin Fiala (23 goals-31 assists-54 points), defenseman Ryan Suter (8-40-48), center Eric Staal (19-28-47), left wing Zach Parise (25-21-46), defenseman Jared Spurgeon (12-20-32) and center Luke Kunin (15-16-31). The interim label was removed from Evason so there is familiarity with the head coach.
Zuccarello’s return is delayed. In his first game with Dallas in Feb. 2019 he broke his right arm blocking a shot but returned for the playoffs. In November 2020, he had surgery on his wrist on the same arm in Norway.
“I tore some ligaments in there when I broke my arm in Dallas,” he said. “I struggled with my wrist for a little bit and couldn’t figure out why. It was a good thing we found it and were able to repair it. I’m still recovering. Hopefully, it’s going to be soon when I can get on the ice and start playing again. I will see doctors here in coming weeks and discuss it. It’s part of the game and our job. You get hurt a lot, so you just have to listen to the experts and have them tell you what’s the best way for you to come back healthy.”
The NHL decided to have a truncated 56-game schedule that began Jan. 13 (the Wild started Jan. 14), with geographic Eastern, Central, and West Divisions, with eight teams each, and North with the seven Canadian teams. Teams in the American divisions will play seven games against each team in their own division, while the North division will play nine or 10 games against each other. This is to minimize travel. Anaheim, Arizona, Colorado, Los Angeles, San Jose, St. Louis, and Vegas will join the Wild in the West.
“It sucks that we can’t have the fans,” said Zuccarello. “Hockey at the pro level is nothing without the fans, I believe. We have to do the best we can. Eventually, the fans will come back, and the game will be ultimate again. We’re super-happy we can go back to playing. There are hockey fans around the world missing the NHL and maybe we can provide a little positivity on TV. We’re lucky that we get to go to work. If the divisions are best way to get this done, we’ll do it.”
One positive from joining Minnesota is connecting to the Norwegian community.
“It was great,” he said, and you felt the smile over the phone. “In New York, I would visit the Norwegian church. It’s always exciting to meet Norwegian people, talk the language, and eat some Norwegian food—and just meet people who are here for different reasons.
“New York is New York. I was young when I was there, and there was a lot of stuff happening. It was exciting. Now, I’m a little bit older, and I like my peace and quiet. That’s why I love being here in Minnesota, living outside the downtown and then just enjoying, relaxing. As a professional athlete, we don’t really do much outside of working out every day, training, skating, playing games and traveling. The peace of quiet, I love here. All the cities that I’ve lived in I’ve enjoyed in different ways and met a lot of nice people. Every city that I’ve lived in has different aspects of them that I really enjoy. I’m lucky to have spent years in different cities.”
When Minnesota played the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in Nov. 2019, Ranger fans gave him a “Zuc” salute.
Zuccarello is also known for his charitable efforts. He is an ambassador for Norwegian speed skating legend Johann Olav Koss’ international organization, Right to Play, which “uses play as a learning tool to improve children’s everyday lives in developing countries. We have developed a unique method where through play, we protect, educate, and strengthen children’s opportunities for a better future,” says the website. It has attracted numerous athletes. Zucca also has his own foundation.
“I met [Koss] in New York. I love what they do in terms of educating with play,” said Zuccarello. “I was a very playful guy. I think you learn more when you have fun at play. I’ve had some charity hockey games in Norway. I have some people in Norway helping me. I’ve been to Africa twice to see what we’re working for. I’ve been lucky. It’s been awesome to be a part of that. Back home in Norway the goal is to get young kids playing sports even if they can’t afford it. A lot of people want to contribute so it’s been awesome. I think the biggest goal for an athlete is to be a good role model for kids and people around the world, especially in Norway and wherever you play. It’s nice people appreciate what you do. You’re humbled by it, but you don’t do it for the recognition. I’m thankful to have the chance to help out.”
An assist man on and off the ice.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.