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Rangers' Zuccarello excited to lead Norway in Sochi

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello admits it has been some time since he represented his country on the international stage. But it was an eye-opening experience for Zuccarello when he skated for his native Norway in 2010.

Zuccarello's international experience that year started with the Vancouver Olympics, where he led an overmatched Norwegian team that lost all four games by a combined score of 23-8. But things got better for Zuccarello and the Norwegians when they competed at the IIHF World Championship that spring in Germany. The wing led a vastly-improved Norwegian squad, scoring the winner in a 3-2 win against Switzerland, as well as a big goal in a major 3-2 upset of the Czech Republic.

Now being called upon to represent his country at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Zuccarello is hoping to continue that steady improvement for his national team.

"It's going to be cool. A good experience. We're a small country. I guess we have as many hockey players as Toronto has ice rinks," said Zuccarello, who met with Norwegian hockey officials last week to discuss logistics for the upcoming games. "It's going to be tough but at the same time we made it to the Olympics, we'll do our best and work hard. We're equally as proud to represent our country as the Canadians and the Swedes and everybody else."

Whereas Zuccarello was a major contributor in 2010, he will be the focal point for Norway in 2014. As the team's lone NHL player, he'll be looked to to provide leadership and big plays. With his breakout season this year in which he ranks among New York's top scorers, Norwegian brass feels confident in their little leader.

"We're excited to have Mats on our team. It's a long time since he played in tournaments for Norway," said coach Roy Johansen, who was among the delegates visiting New York to meet with Zuccarello. "We are not the favorites for the Olympics. But we are keeping our preparation for the tournament and will hopefully have a good game against Canada."

Little is expected from Norway in Sochi, especially playing in a group featuring a Canadian team made up entirely of NHL stars. But the hope is that a strong performance can continue to grow the sport in the country of over five million people.

Zucarello's play will likely be a big part of that.

"Mats is playing here in New York. He is a great ambassador for Norwegian hockey," Johansen said. "It means a lot for the fans in Norway."

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