Zuccarello signs with the Wild

Heading “home” to Minnesota

Zuccarello

Photo: Frode Hansen / VG
Mats Zuccarello grins during the press conference after he signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Minnesota Wild at the Hotel Continental in Oslo

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

Mats Zuccarello’s loyalty to Norway influenced his decision on the next team he chose to play for, and he returned home to announce his new contract. The Hotel Continental in Oslo was the venue for Zuccarello to sign a five-year, $30 million free-agent contract with the National Hockey League Minnesota Wild on July 3. The pact also includes a no-movement clause and a modified, 10-team no-trade clause for years four and five. It is believed to be the richest contract for a Norwegian sports figure.

“Minnesota is the closest you come to Norway outside Norway,” Zuccarello, 31, told the media. “That means a lot to me. I had a good vibe from Day One I talked to them. I really felt like they were pushing and really wanted me. I think every human being responds well when they feel like they’re wanted.”

“There are many Norwegians here, and that means a lot. This is the hockey state in the United States, and I’m a hockey nerd,” Zuccarello said on the Wild’s Twitter account.

The Wild intends to market the Norwegian connection.

Zuccarello dismissed the distinction of being the highest compensated Norwegian athlete.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” he said to VG. “I am proud to sign a five-year deal with one of the coolest teams in the world. It’s just a dream to be in the NHL. I’m proud to have five more years. I work out well and feel fit. That’s what I’m thinking of.”

Despite being left-handed, Zuccarello has played right wing most of his career. The Wild hopes he and another free agent signing, Ryan Hartman, improve their scoring from that side and return them to the playoffs, which they missed last season for the first time in seven years. Minnesota averaged only 2.56 goals a game with 11 shutouts in 2018-19, 27th in the league.

“We have a really good team that has a chance to win,” General Manager Paul Fenton said in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He’s a natural right wing. He attacks from that spot, has the ability to cut in, make plays, cut through the seams, get opportunities. For me, it was the right fit. He’s not the tallest in stature (5-8), but he uses an incredibly long stick. Most guys would be awkward with a stick that is as long as he uses. But he’s so natural, fluid, [and] smooth. He has a competitiveness, to me, that I love. I want our team to play with more competitiveness. For me, he will make us harder to play against.”

Zuccarello was a New York Ranger from 2010 until February, when the rebuilding Blueshirts traded him to the Dallas Stars for two conditional draft picks. He broke his arm in his first game with Dallas, but he returned for the playoffs, scoring four goals and adding seven assists in 13 games. He had a combined 12 goals, 28 assists for 40 points in the regular season.

“I was a little hurt and broke my arm, but apart from that, it was my best season.” he said in VG.

In nine years with the Rangers, he scored 113 goals and added 239 assists for 352 points and was plus 37. His career stats are 114 goals, 231 assists, 355 points, plus 40 in 511 games. He has scored 21 game-winning and 78 power play goals. In 73 playoff games, Zuccarello has scored 15 goals and added 27 assists for 42 points with three game-winners and a plus six. The Rangers reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2014, losing to the Los Angeles Kings.

It wasn’t easy leaving New York for Zuccarello, his teammates, or the fans.

“It was, of course, a very sad period,” he said in VG. “You have built up a life there over many years where you have friends, people in the organization who are important to you, and ties that you have for the rest of your life. It’s a process I went through, but when it happened, it was almost like it was lovely.”

The website Blueshirt Banter posted: “He’s a hell of a person, which we knew prior to the trade and now even more. He’s been a vocal ambassador for LGBT rights and appreciation. He’s been a stalwart with charity initiatives and often preferred his contributions to be kept anonymous. It’s impossible to find a single player, media member, fan, or restaurant server who has had a single negative interaction with him. He’s avoided a single controversy his entire career, and not because of a conscious effort to ‘avoid distractions,’ as teams love to call it. Being himself was the only PR he needed.”

Five years is a way down the road, especially when you’re starting anew now. Playing at “home” is not out of the question.

“We’ll see how the body is,” Zuccarello told NTB. “If it is Norway in five years, there are two teams that are in my heart, Vålerenga and Frisk Asker. I was born, raised, and played for Vålerenga throughout my childhood. Frisk became the springboard when I went to upper secondary school until I left for Sweden. I can only take it on the gut feeling when I possibly come home. It will be tough to choose between them.”

For now, Minnesota will have to suffice as Norway.

This article originally appeared in the August 9, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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