Zuccarello exemplified what it means to be model New York athlete

victoriapaige56 | Flickr

victoriapaige56 | Flickr

It was just hours after the New York Rangers — also known as the Blueshirts — defeated their Hudson River rivals, the New Jersey Devils, on the Madison Square Garden ice on Feb. 23. Pure elation turned into shock, sadness and nostalgia, however. On that very same night, the Rangers traded longtime fan favorite Mats Zuccarello to the Dallas Stars. While the move was expected, as Zuccarello was a pending unrestricted free agent, it still hit Ranger fans extremely hard.

The very next day, after the Rangers’ overtime defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist summed up every fan’s emotional state after their beloved No. 36 was traded.

He choked up, holding back tears when asked about his reaction and thoughts on the move. The franchise’s greatest goaltender and one of the most beloved leaders for the past decade couldn’t even answer the question, merely responding by saying, “It’s tough.” The two players were teammates and close friends for the past nine years, and seeing a longtime teammate, friend and leader go was obviously a tough pill to swallow.

For nearly nine years, Zuccarello was among the most beloved members of the Rangers by the fan base. Despite his short, skinny frame and skepticism by media and experts about how this Norwegian enigma was going to make it in the NHL, he ignored the pessimism and proved to be the quintessential New York Ranger.

But Zuccarello wasn’t supposed to get this far.

Like many other players of his size, some felt Zuccarello would never turn out to be anything more than a bottom six type player — one who would be pushed around and never have a chance to contribute offensively. Someone a team would just waste its time deploying on a nightly basis.

Little did those skeptics know that they were going to be proven wrong in a very short amount of time.

After leaving the Rangers for a stint in the KHL during the 2012-2013 season, Zuccarello would make a triumphant return to New York and help lead the way to so many fond memories. His return just felt right. It was almost like a breath of fresh air had returned to the lineup, one that helps describe Zuccarello to a tee.

But it wasn’t the offensive production that brought fans to the stores buying Zuccarello’s No. 36. It was how he played the game. It was standing up to a 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chára, despite a huge size difference. It was being the first and last player in on the forecheck with the puck back deep in the offensive zone. It was how he would always stand up for his teammates, no matter what.

Zuccarello would turn all of the doubt and questions surrounding his future and become one of the most important Rangers during their run of contending for the Stanley Cup. He would lead the Blueshirts in scoring four times, including three straight seasons.

As time went on, he turned himself into one of the best two-way players the Rangers put out there on a nightly basis, seeing time in all situations. It didn’t matter if it was at even strength, on the power play or on the penalty kill; one would eventually always see Zuccarello on the ice.

Throughout his time with New York, he became a model for success, a player that younger guys look up to on a nightly basis. He executed with his tenacity along with his never-give-up mentality. Everybody always knew when he was on the ice, for the ball of energy would always be involved no matter the situation.

Just to show how tenacious of a player — and a person — Zuccarello is, he worked his way all the way back from getting hit in the head with a puck during the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. He would go on to miss the remainder of that playoff run, but it was clear the Rangers were missing a major piece to their lineup. They were one win away from returning to the Stanley Cup final, and many felt that missing Zuccarello took away the glue that held a tight-knit group of people together.

The Rangers would never end up getting back past the second round in Zuccarello’s final years as a Blueshirt, but that was never an excuse for him to stop trying any harder than he’s tried in the past. Perhaps that is the reason fans voted him as the winner of the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award three times in the last five years.

Zuccarello always knew the Rangers’ plans entering this season and how the likelihood of him staying a Blueshirt at season’s end was slim. Clearly, it affected his game and resulted in him getting off to one of the worst starts to a season any Ranger fan can remember. But like always, he went on to rebound and showed the fan base he would be okay even though nothing surrounding his situation was changing.

It takes a lot for the city of New York to rally behind a player. It is always difficult for newer players to adjust in any sport the city has to offer. Simply put, it doesn’t matter the name. All are expected to bring greatness. While Zuccarello was never the superstar, he would take that bolt of energy he brought every night and inject into the veins of the Blueshirt faithful, something no fan would take back at all.

Many fans believed that Zuccarello should have been named the Rangers’ team captain, as they have not had one since Ryan McDonagh, who was traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning at last season’s deadline.

The Rangers and Zuccarello will never get to the promised land together, but they were able to accomplish some of the best hockey this city has seen in the last two decades. They provided hope that continues to live on with each passing day no matter what’s surrounding the team.

Zuccarello’s final numbers with the Rangers were 509 games played, 113 goals, 352 points, one Stanley Cup Final appearance, two Eastern Conference Final appearances and seven playoff appearances in eight seasons.

The Stars have no idea how lucky that organization is to have Zuccarello for the remainder of the season and likely, the playoffs. Unfortunately, they might have to wait until the postseason to see Zuccarello play in full form, as in his first game with Dallas, after recording a goal and an assist, he broke his arm blocking a shot and will have to miss several weeks. But knowing the kind of warrior he is, the Stars should be confident that their newly acquired piece will be ready to go for a quest to bring Lord Stanley’s Cup back to the Lone Star State.

The players and fans will love Zuccarello as did all of Rangerstown. It’s going to be strange to see him wear the green and white colors of Dallas.

All of New York will be rooting for him. All of New York will hope he gets another opportunity to hoist the Stanley Cup.

While Zuccarello’s time as a Ranger comes to an end in a way no one wanted, he went out the way he came in: fighting all the way to the end. All of New York will miss his smile, his fight, his heart and soul. Zuccarello is and always will be a Ranger.