When Mats Zuccarello makes his Madison Square Garden return on Monday with the Minnesota Wild, it will invoke complicated emotions for every Rangers fan. That will be particularly the case for the many Norwegian fans, some of whom started following the Rangers specifically because of Zucarello.
Tommy Steinmo, who is from the northern Norwegian town of Narvik, took a casual interest in the Rangers in 2011 when the team was featured on HBO’s Road to the Winter Classic.
“When Mats came back from the KHL I started to watch games and became a fan (of the Rangers),” Steinmo said.
Jørgen Wiig similarly took a general interest in hockey but had no major rooting interests.
“I watched a lot of games and random best-of VHS tapes on hockey trips in the ‘90s. (I) didn’t really have a team. Just liked certain players,” Wiig stated. “I started watching the Rangers when Zuccarello joined in 2010.”
Others had been Rangers fans well prior to Zuccarello’s arrival, but happily acknowledge that is presence was serendipitous.
“My number one team has always been the Rangers. Why exactly I ended up there, I think, is a mix of different factors,” Eivind Færgestad told Blueshirt Banter. “But i will say that my interest for the Rangers spiked when Zucc joined.”
Prior to Zuccarello’s debut, just six Norwegians had previously played in the NHL for a combined 510 regular-season games. Espen Knutsen led the way with 207 games and only two NHL seasons with more than 41 games played. Zuccarello was the country’s first real full-time NHLer of magnitude. That he did it in New York, a city with a bigger population than the entire country of Norway itself, made it extra special.
“I think proud is the right word. He is a great player but an even better guy. And everything gets bigger when your home is New York and MSG. We Norwegians are very envious of the Swedes when it comes to hockey. They have world-class players on almost every NHL team. We have Zucc,”” Færgestad said.
Hockey has been a niche sport in Norway. Line Skarsbø, a hockey fan well before Zuccarello came onto the scene, says she saw Norwegian interest spike with his continued success.
“It was a big deal in Norway and him playing for a team like the Rangers definitely helped promote hockey as a sport in Norway. The sports media did not really focus on the NHL at all before Mats got to play in the league,” she said. “Every time he got called up to play it was all over the news, and it got bigger and bigger every year he played in New York.”
There was also pride not only in Zuccarello’s on-ice success but also in the way he carried himself on and off the ice as well as how passionately New Yorkers took him in as one of their own.
“To this day I still have to tell my friends who are not into hockey what a big deal he was and is over (in New York),” says Mads Sverre Ingebrigtsen, who only started following hockey in 2010.
Zuccarello’s departure was a bitter pill to swallow for all Rangers fans. For Norwegians, though, it would have understandably been particularly harsh. One might find it hard to blame them for a loss of passion for the Rangers. However, all who were interviewed insist they are still very much on board.
“Definitely still as passionate and probably more with every season. (I) still watch the same amount of games,” claims Ingebrigsten. “Really excited about the team going forward, especially after all the players coming in over the summer; Kakko, Fox, Trouba, and Panarin.”
“Yes, I am still just as passionate about (the Rangers.) I watch as many games as I can,” claims Steinmo.
As for Zuccarello, they all check in on how he’s doing in Minnesota, but to varying degrees.
“I try to keep up with the games he plays with the Wild now, but with the timezones it gets difficult watching live, but I do watch a lot of the games the day after,” said Skarsbø
Others, though, are not as vigorous in keeping up with Zuccarello.
“I haven’t seen one Wild game. I’ll read the occasional article about Zuccarello and check up on his stats every now and then, but that’s it,” said Wiig.
Incredible as it seems, nine months have passed since Zuccarello’s departure from New York. His return tonight will be bittersweet and a lengthy, emotional tribute is expected. It will be a strange experience for everyone involved, and especially Zuccarello’s compatriots. Nonetheless, they’re less conflicted in their rooting interests than one might anticipate.
“I hope the Rangers smash (Minnesota),” stated Færgestad.
Steinmo feels similarly.
“It’ll be nice seeing him at the Garden again, but I’ll just want the Rangers to win. That’s the most important thing,” he opined.
Still, they can be forgiven if they’re less upset than usual if Zuccarello puts the puck in the net.
“If Mats scores I’ll be happy for him because I want him to keep continuing his successful NHL career,” stated Skarsbø. “As I said before he is a big part of raising interest in hockey in Norway and hopefully he will inspire more Norwegian players to get to his level.”
Ingebrigsten summed it up with a desire to see the best of both worlds.
(I’m) not rooting for him to score, but wouldn’t be too angry if he does,” he said. “Maybe if he gets a hat-trick, but the Rangers win the game 4-3 or something. Everyone is happy!”