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Mats Zuccarello Is Norway’s Knight

Category: Hockey,Sports

OSLO, Norway — To truly appreciate Mats Zuccarello, it helps to visit him in his native Norway.

Zuccarello’s rock-star status in Oslo is, of course, linked to his prowess with the Rangers, whom he has led in points each of the past three N.H.L. seasons.

But 19,000 fans, many decked out in No. 36 Zuccarello jerseys, did not turn up for an outdoor charity hockey game in mid-August in Norway’s largest soccer stadium just because of that.

Zuccarello is the most successful N.H.L. player to come out of Norway, a country of about five million people. And his efforts to bring sports to children in his home country and beyond have endeared him to fans, activists and fellow athletes.

“We all feel for Mats because we know how big his heart is,” said Jorgen Olsen, who attended the outdoor game with his 8-year-old son, Anton. “Mats is a role model for all of Norway, and we have to support him.”

Zuccarello, a 5-foot 7-inch forward from the Oslo suburb of Loren, has been beating the odds his entire career. He was one of only two Norwegians to play in the N.H.L. last season. He has excelled at every stop — with Frisk Asker in the Norwegian league; with Modo in the top league in Sweden, where he was the most valuable player in 2010; and for the past eight seasons with the Rangers, where he is a fan favorite on a par with goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

At 31 and entering the final year of his contract, Zuccarello is now the third-longest tenured Ranger, behind Lundqvist and Marc Staal, after a series of trades of the past two years. The franchise’s recent overhaul includes a new coach, David Quinn, who replaced Alain Vigneault after the Rangers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2010.

“Everything is new so it is going to take some time to get used to, but it has been positive,” Zuccarello said.

As other Rangers stars have left, Zuccarello has taken on a more visible role, and that has made him a contender to be the team’s captain when its season opens Thursday. Feisty when he is playing and somewhat shy when he is not, Zuccarello is often last off the ice following pregame warm-ups and the first to offer teammates affirmative fist bumps between periods or to greet his goaltender after the final buzzer.

Without a playoff run, he had more time than usual to focus on charity work this summer. In mid-June, days after the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, Zuccarello was in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, teaching children soccer and teamwork skills through Right to Play, which organizes trips for athletes to disadvantaged communities around the world. Zuccarello has helped raise more than $800,000 for Right to Play over the past five years.

“I just like it,” he said. “I think it’s a cool thing to do, to have the opportunity as role models and the position we are in to help out other people.”

Jimmy Vika, the national director for Right to Play in Norway, has witnessed how much muscle Zuccarello puts into his visits to Tanzania.

“We work with 25 great athletes in Norway, but I have never seen an athlete with such energy and passion around children,” Vika said. “Play has been a big part of Mats’s childhood and life, and I believe he really relates to how we educate children through play in our projects. I remember him saying in the field that ‘playing with these kids gives me the same feeling as when I score in Madison Square Garden.’”

Zuccarello also made time during his off-season for youth camps at home in Trondheim and Bergen. His foundation is receiving hockey equipment for Norwegian youngsters from the N.H.L. Players’ Association. And last year he quietly helped a women’s team from the far northern city of Tromso pay its travel costs to play in a tournament in Stavanger, about 1,400 miles to the south.

The outdoor hockey game in Oslo in mid-August was a joint effort with Lundqvist, who is from Sweden. Zuccarello had previously served as the host of summer indoor games for charity in Stavanger, but nothing of the size and scale of the outdoor game, called the Henke & Zucca Summer Classic. The supporting cast included the retired Daniel Alfredsson and Peter Forsberg and current N.H.L. stars like Zdeno Chara of the Boston Bruins, Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning and William Karlsson of the Vegas Golden Knights.

It was clear Zuccarello’s current and former teammates were happy to take time out of their summer schedules to be there for him in his home country. Among the former Rangers at the event were Derick Brassard, Carl Hagelin, Antti Raanta, Artem Anisimov and Ryan McDonagh.

“For Mats to do this in Oslo is very special, a proud moment for him,” said Lundqvist, who first met Zuccarello at the 2010 Olympics, three months before Zuccarello signed with the Rangers. “To do this in your backyard means so much. I’m proud.”

Zuccarello didn’t disappoint his home fans, scoring four goals in his team’s 10-7 loss. Loud serenades of “Zuuuucc” resonated through the soccer venue, where Norwegian and Swedish flags billowed above the makeshift rink.

“I have followed Mats since he was a little kid, for at least 20 years,” Jan Erik Fuglseth, 49, said. “Hockey is not that big in Norway, but he is helping to make it bigger. His impact is huge.”

Zuccarello’s charity work also helped him recover from a head injury sustained during the first round of the 2015 playoffs, when a slap shot from McDonagh struck Zuccarello in the side of the head. The brain contusion and skull fracture kept him off the ice for the rest of the postseason, and when worried teammates first visited him at the hospital, Zuccarello had trouble speaking.

But that summer, he still flew to Tanzania for Right to Play.

“I saw what he went through when he had the brain injury,” said Johann Olav Koss, a four-time Olympic gold medalist in speedskating for Norway, who founded Right to Play in 2000. “He came to our field program in Tanzania two months later, and I watched him because I was curious how this would impact him as a person. It became part of his recovery. He said he could put everything in perspective.”

Zuccarello was joined this summer in Tanzania by his younger brother, Fabian, who will play hockey this season at SUNY Morrisville.

“To see him in that environment is cool for a brother who is just used to him at home playing soccer and PlayStation,” Fabian Zuccarello said.

Their mother, Anita, whose parents moved from Italy to Norway before she was born, marveled at the scene in a crowded Oslo banquet room the night after the charity game.

“I can’t believe how big all this has become,” she said. “I ask myself, ‘Is this my son doing all of this?’”

Koss said such a large event to benefit a foundation was rare in Norway.

“Mats is trying to break down barriers towards understanding of giving — of celebrating philanthropy at home,” Koss added.

When Rangers president Glen Sather showed up to present a donation on behalf of the team, Zuccarello playfully asked, “Am I getting a new contract right now?”

He can become an unrestricted free agent in July, and depending on where the Rangers are in the standings by the trade deadline on Feb. 25, he could be moved. But last week, he deflected any talk of this being his last season with the Rangers.

Whatever jersey he is wearing at the end of this season, Zuccarello expects to be back in Norway next summer, handing out hockey sticks in small hamlets across the country, or in another far corner of the globe teaching soccer and teamwork lessons.

“He is the best ambassador Norway could have,” said Alexander Solberg, whose 11-year-old son, Julian, participated in Zuccarello’s camp in Bergen this summer, “and how he uses his fame is remarkable.”


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