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Zuccarello not sure what to expect when he returns to New York with Wild

Forward who played nine seasons with Rangers says reunion with fans will be 'special'

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- Mats Zuccarello isn't sure what to expect.

After spending the first nine seasons of his NHL career with the New York Rangers, Zuccarello is returning to the city where he established himself as a player for the first time since the trade that sent him to the Dallas Stars on Feb. 23. 

The 32-year-old forward will take the ice on Monday, now a member of the Minnesota Wild, and will look up at the fans that adored him, in the city that nurtured him, with his former teammates looking on, when the Wild play the Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, MSG, FS-N+, NHL.TV).

And he just doesn't know how it will all play out. 

"We'll see when we get there," Zuccarello said on Saturday, before the Wild lost 5-4 in overtime to the Boston Bruins. "I don't really think about it that much. It's more other people talking about it. For me, I've always had a great relationship with New York, the fans. 

"I came there young and kind of grew up there. That's where I'm living almost my whole 20s. Obviously it's a big part of me. So yeah, I don't know if it's going to be emotional."

Zuccarello once thought that he might stay in New York forever, having gotten used to the vibe of the city, having ingratiated himself to a demanding fanbase. He led the Rangers in scoring four times, helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2012 and 2015, and three times won the Steven McDonald Extra Effort Award as voted by the fans.

But given the way the Rangers were trending, toward a rebuild, with his contract set to expire, he figured that his days in New York might be coming to a close last season. 

And then they did. 

"You get invited to the business side of the League, where you feel at home and then suddenly they want you out of there," Zuccarello said. "It was tough to accept in the beginning because you're passionate about your team and loyal and everything like that and you gave everything every game and then suddenly it comes to an end. Suddenly they don't want you anymore, or whatever, or they go in a different direction. It was hard to accept that in the beginning for me."

Video: MIN@ANA: Zuccarello scores after exiting penalty box

He didn't feel like the Rangers were forthright with him in the situation, as time ticked down toward the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. That was what bothered him most. 

"That was probably my biggest thing is the communication wasn't really there," Zuccarello said. "To be there for a long time and [not to] feel that was hard, but it's no different for me than anyone else. I just think that's the bad part of the business.

"Like, I'm not stupid. You have a sense of it way before it happens, but the communication could have been better. It is what it is. It's in the past, something you have to accept, like I said. It took me longer to accept than I ever thought it was going to be because you always have the mindset that you're going to stay there and it was your family, and then suddenly you're on a new team."

Zuccarello sustained a broken arm in his debut with the Stars and played only two regular-season games after the trade to Dallas, though he did come back with 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 13 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. 

He signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Wild on July 1, and has 11 points (four goals, seven assists) in 19 games. He returns to New York with a three-game point streak (four points; one goal, three assists) after picking up two assists against the Bruins.

"Right now, I'm happy," he said. "I had a great time in Dallas and now I'm here and having a good time here. Obviously, I'd like to win some more games, but life and teammates and everything here is great."

Zuccarello said he's looking forward to getting to Madison Square Garden, to seeing the staff at the rink, to saying hello. From there, he's not sure how it will go. 

Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has seen these kinds of reunions before. He recalled when Teemu Selanne, then with the Anaheim Ducks, went back to Winnipeg on Dec. 17, 2011, after the Jets returned to the NHL. Boudreau was there as coach of the Ducks. 

"Listen, I've been around this game for a long time and being one of the fan favorites in that organization for as long as he was, you can't treat it the same [as any other game]," Boudreau said. "I was there when Teemu went back to Winnipeg for the first time and it was a nut house. 

"I don't know if it could possibly reach that extent, but [Zuccarello] was a very popular guy in New York and New York is very passionate, so you never know what's going to happen."

So even though Zuccarello doesn't quite know what is awaiting him in New York on Monday, there's one thing that's clear to him.

"The fans, they did so much for me and helped me and supported me all those years," he said. "So that's going to be special, for sure."

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