At this time last year, hockey wasn’t Mats Zuccarello’s No. 1 priority. It was getting back to normal.
Zuccarello, 28, suffered a fractured skull when he was hit by a Ryan McDonagh slap shot in Game 5 of the Rangers’ opening-round victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. While it didn’t look serious at first glance — Zuccarello was able to skate off the ice on his own — the ramifications of the injury proved bigger than anyone could have imagined. Zuccarello had bleeding in his brain, lost feeling in his arm and was unable to speak for several days. Once he left doctor’s care, he began taking speech therapy.
Entering the year, Zuccarello said the injury was behind him and that the focus now was getting back to being the player he was, and that meant taking some bumps from the opposition.
The loss of Zuccarello in last year’s playoffs was palpable, as was his return this season, when he skated in 81 of the team’s 82 regular season games and all five playoff contests.
“That’s how Zucc is,” Derek Stepan told The Guardian in November
. “He comes to the rink, he works hard and he’s a professional. He enjoys what he does and I think that’s the biggest thing about Zucc.”
Since returning to New York in the spring of 2013, Zuccarello’s closest friend on and off the ice has been Derick Brassard, who was hit especially hard by Zuccarello’s injury.
“I saw him the day after the incident happened at the hospital,” Brassard said last June. “It wasn’t easy, but at the same time, I think he was taken care of by our doctors. They did a really great job with him.”
In February, ex-Ranger Carl Hagelin told the NY Daily News
he and Brassard “broke down” upon seeing Zuccarello in the hospital after it happened.
“…then when he was trying to talk, nothing really came out, he’d say something and it was like ‘shhzzzz,’” Hagelin said.
“You could see that he knew what was going on so he got frustrated, and then Brass broke down and then I broke down because of the whole mix of everything,” Hagelin added. “It was an emotional day.”
Now a year later, Zuccarello is coming off one of the best seasons of his NHL career, with career-highs with 26 goals and 61 points. His bounce back from the injury led to him being a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy
, which is presented annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. The award is voted on by the Professional Hockey Writers Association.
Zuccarello is the first Ranger since Dominic Moore in 2014 to be nominated for the Masterton Trophy. In total, five Rangers have won the award, including Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Adam Graves and Moore.
“Seemed like he didn’t miss a beat, which was incredible,” McDonagh told Sports Illustrated in April
. “From the start of the season, he was back, making the same plays.”
“[Doctors] said I’m going to be 90 percent fine health-wise and they don’t know about the last 10 percent," Zuccarello said. "My talking is off a little bit, but I can live with that for sure. That’s the least of my problems.”