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New digits: Behind Seeler's decision to give number to Zuccarello

Young defenseman volunteered 36 to veteran forward after he signed with Minnesota in July

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

Nick Seeler was one of just 10 players in the NHL to wear the jersey No. 36 in the NHL last season. With that in mind, there really wasn't much thought of him changing numbers last summer. 

The reason why, of course, is that the Wild went out and signed perhaps the best player in the history of the NHL to wear the No. 36, Mats Zuccarello. 

It was a bit of tough luck for Seeler. It's not as though he wore a single-digit number or one that is commonly used. It was 36 for crying out loud.

"It was kind of funny, because there's not many 36s in the NHL," Seeler said. "I figured I'd have to have that conversation sooner rather than later."

It didn't take long for that chat to take place.

The Wild signed Zuccarello on July 1 and a few days later, Zuccarello got ahold of Seeler, who volunteered to give it up. As it turned out, Zuccarello had planned on selecting a new number, but once he learned of Seeler's willingness to surrender it, he gave his new teammate a call.

Since entering the NHL in 2010-11, Zuccarello had worn no other number, through 8 1/2 years with the New York Rangers, then in the few weeks to end last season after he was traded to the Dallas Stars. 

There were 21 other franchises in which Zuccarello could have signed where no conversation would have been needed ... Minnesota was not on that list. 

"I didn't want to be the guy that comes in and makes another guy change his number," Zuccarello said. "But the equipment managers indicated to me that he'd change, so I called him and we had a nice chat. He was super nice about it and respectful. It was something I really appreciated."

Seeler was issued that number for his NHL debut in 2018 and had it on his back for the first 93 games of his career since. He didn't wear it in the American Hockey League or in college, but the number did have some sentimental value to him: It was the first number he ever wore in high school when he played for the junior varsity team at Eden Prairie. 

The agreement made between Zuccarello and Seeler was pretty low maintenance. The veteran forward agreed to buy the young defenseman a nice dinner or two on the road during the upcoming season.

But immediately, the questions from his buddies began.

"'Did he buy you a Rolex or something?'" Seeler remembers them asking. "And immediately, I was thinking, 'Should I have been asking for more?' But no, I don't need anything like that. He was really nice about and it and respectful, so I gave it up."

Zuccarello said his ties to 36 began in high school when he was issued the number for the first time. It didn't have any meaning then, but it just sort of stuck. 

"No special meaning or anything," Zuccarello said. 

He certainly became synonymous with the number in New York, where he would become one of the most popular players on the Rangers. 

Undrafted out of Oslo, Norway, Zuccarello signed with the Rangers following the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and played in 67 games over his first three seasons in the NHL.

His breakout season came in year four, when he scored 19 goals and had 59 points in 2013-14. He's been remarkably consistent ever since, posting between 49 and 61 points in every full season since. 

"He's been in the League for quite some time, so he's earned the right to have that number," Seeler said. 

Once Seeler chose to give up 36, he was in need of a new number. 

He thought about taking No. 3, which was the number he was assigned as a member of the Iowa Wild. That was his second choice. The number he wore throughout his career, 11, wasn't an option.

"I think that one might be taken," Seeler said. "Maybe I should have asked Zach [Parise] about that one."

Instead, he decided to go No. 55. 

In doing so, he became the third player in franchise history -- and the third defenseman -- to wear double fives, following in the footsteps of Matt Dumba, who wore it his first two seasons in the NHL, and Nick Schultz, who wore it from his NHL debut in 2001 until he was traded to Edmonton mid-season in 2012.

But why 55?

"When I first turned pro, in Iowa, I wanted that. But the numbers didn't go that high," Seeler said. "And I liked it when Dumba wore it. I thought it was a good looking number."

Perhaps not surprisingly, one of Seeler's favorite players to watch growing up was longtime Detroit Red Wing Niklas Kronwall. The brusing blue liner known for his big hits played in 953 games over 15 years with the Wings before retiring following last season.

The only jersey number Kronwall ever wore with Detroit? None other than No. 55.

But in an era where a lot of young defensemen might like to look at a Brent Burns or a P.K. Subban or even a Matt Dumba -- guys that are more offensive and score points -- there was something about Kronwall's game that appealed to a young Seeler.

"I can't tell you how many times I'd watch those hits, when he'd back up into those guys," Seeler said. "I thought that was really cool. Just fun to watch and he always had that edge about him that you had to keep your head up."

And if nothing else, wearing 55 gives Seeler something to shoot for when it comes to NHL longevity one day.

"What a career he had," Seeler said. "That's a guy you can look up to and watch his career. Just so stable back there, a steady Eddie."

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