Mats Zuccarello Brought Innocence Back to Hockey

On December 23rd, 2010, the New York Rangers needed to convert their third shootout attempt or else they’d lose the game to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Mats Zuccarello, playing in his first NHL game, hopped over the boards and skated to the center of an anxious Madison Square Garden. He took an extremely slow approach towards goaltender Dan Ellis before swiftly undressing the netminder with what would become his signature backhand-to-forehand deke, extending the shootout.

In many ways, this was a moment which would perfectly foreshadow Mats Zuccarello’s time in the NHL. For one, the impressive display of skill and execution, but Zuccarello’s output is also very experiential in nature. Here is an undrafted player brought up on the heels of injuries to Marian Gaborik, Ryan Callahan. and Vinny Prospal; the team’s three most skilled wingers. He’s thrust into a tense, do-or-die moment, and he scores a wonky goal and offers an authentic celebration. An apprehensive Madison Square Garden turns jubilant. Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti seemed taken aback. Even the usually stoic John Tortorella broke character on the bench and offered a massive chuckle. The implications seemed to matter to everyone in that arena except for Mats Zuccarello. He wanted to score a fun goal and have fun celebrating it. He just wanted to play hockey. For a brief moment, everyone else fell under his spell and had fun as well. The circumstances were besides the point.

Following hockey in 2019 is a comprehensive experience for many reasons. Fans have (or at least, have access to) an overwhelming amount of information. When discussing the value of players 20 years ago, fans had a few basic stats at their disposals and the rest was largely open to interpretation. That’s far less true today, with advanced data exposing so many different aspects of every player’s contributions.

The salary cap has also further commodified players. Whereas salaries used to be solely a problem for ownership to worry about, fans are now forced to pay close attention to the ways in which each player’s salaries are going to affect 22 other players. That can create an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance when a revered player gets paid more than he is worth and complicates the roster building process.

This hyper-awareness equally extends off the ice. There used to be major barriers between player and fan on a personal level. In 1999, people knew little of players’ personalities beyond what they could infer from actions on the ice as well as the rare magazine article. Social media has completely torn down those walls, and fans now often have a pretty good idea of what players’ lives are like. They know all about players’ hobbies, passions, and little idiosyncrasies. They know where Pavel Buchnevich went on vacation during the summer, and what Kevin Hayes wore for Halloween, as well as what music Mika Zibanejad is listening to at any given moment.

That also means becoming more aware of players’ shortcomings as well, and especially so in a socially woke age. Fans are more likely to know if a player has politics he or she disagrees with. They found out Kyrie Irving has a horrible take on the shape of the earth. They found out that David Booth is horrifically transphobic. If a player is accused of a criminal or morally reprehensible action, it’s no longer perceived as an inconvenience or distraction, but instead a matter at the forefront of public conscience.

Every single player on that 1994 Rangers roster is beloved. Of course they are. They won the Stanley Cup. But I also wonder how the perceptions of many players would have changed in modern circumstances. What if Essa Tikkanen’s contract had prevented the team from being able to fit Steve Larmer under the salary cap? What if analytics painted a less-than-rosy picture of Jeff Beukeboom? Would Adam Graves’ and Brian Leetch’s sterling reputations have held up with social media profiles tipping their interests and beliefs?

Will Blackhawks fans be able to look back at Brent Seabrook with the same kind of unconditional love knowing that his contract was an albatross that hurt the team for years? How can one think of the Los Angeles Kings’ Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 without also thinking about the horrific details of Slava Voynov’s arrest? Naivety and ignorance made it incredibly easy for sports fans to put athletes on pedestals in the past, and that is changing.  More than ever before, fans in every sport are exposed to some uncomfortable realities. There are players we desperately want to like who are detrimental to their teams’ performances, and there are great athletes who are also horrible people. The pedestals are crumbling.

How many of the players who were unabashedly idolized in the past would have survived today’s many litmus tests?

Let’s be clear that this is not a desire to go back to the old days. The data has enhanced the people’s collective knowledge of the game. Access to players’ personalities has brought the fans closer to the players and made it a more entertaining experience. Most importantly, it’s long past the time that we stopped “sticking to sports.” No longer should unethical behavior be glossed over simply because a guy can skate fast or throw a ball hard.

It is, however, a testament to Mats Zuccarello. There were no holes in his game even despite his size. He can score pass, skate, forecheck, defend, and battle for pucks. He could play in any situation, and there are virtually no instances of him drawing the ire of his coaches. At no point was Zuccarello’s contract a point of contention. In fact, he was chronically underpaid.

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.

Maybe most miraculously, he is perhaps the only player left on whom everyone can agree. It didn’t matter if you are a millennial stats enthusiast or an old-school season ticket holder who wears a Nick Fotiu jersey to every game. You love and appreciate Mats Zuccarello equally.

That’s because Zuccarello made hockey fun in the purest way possible. Sure, hockey is a business and winning the Stanley Cup is the ultimate goal, not to mention the perks that come with success; money, fame, etc. Zuccarello is one of the few players in the league for whom getting to step on the ice was every day was the only motivation necessary. For him, this isn’t about ego. He liked making creative plays on the ice. He loves creating goals because goals are fun, and then he gets to wear a goofy smile while celebrating along with his teammates and the fans. He likes to win for the same reason. He likes to chirp Sidney Crosby. He likes pissing off Henrik Lundqvist in practice by taunting him after a goal. In a league that is nauseatingly competitive and commercialized, Zuccarello steps on the ice with the innocence a child jumping into a pile of leaves for the first time.

Zuccarello was an outlier who made it once again possible to idealize an athlete. Perhaps that is why the trade was devastating. For so long, Zuccarello seemed to exist outside the orbit of The Business. It was hard to conceptualize a trade even in the days leading up to the deadline simply because that concept was incomputable. Mats Zuccarello steps onto the ice in a Rangers jersey and flawlessly plays his brand of hockey. That’s what he does, and that’s what he always will do. The Business and everything it entails is meant for all of the other players in the NHL; Not Zucc.

He was traded. The illusion was shattered. For years he had escaped anything to do with the salary cap, roster building, and Father Time, and it was a hell of a run. But now The Business finally came for him, and with that, all innocence was destroyed. Even Mats Zuccarello is a cog in the machine.

The world is still spinning and the Rangers are still playing games. Life goes on. The future will bring new players. Some of them are going to be better than Zuccarello. Some might get their numbers retired or win a Stanley Cup.

None of them will make watching hockey as fun and pure as Mats Zuccarello did.