It’s an extremely rare event to hear about professional athletes crying. Think about it. The only contexts that come to my mind are championships or obvious significant injuries that are personal to players as they’re being carted or stretchered off the ice, field or court. Neither situation applied on Monday April 25th, 2015, the day after Mats Zuccarello inadvertently took a Ryan McDonagh slap-shot to the head. I was at the Garden April 24th; the same day the Rangers took down the Penguins in Game 5 thanks to the overtime heroics of Carl Hagelin. There was no gasp from the crowd or even halting of play as Zucc skated off the ice on his own straight towards the bench, as no one could’ve dreamed of the fact that his life and vitality were in serious peril.
On the 25th, Hagelin and Derick Brassard went to see Zucc in the intensive care unit and heard the diagnosis; a skull fracture, a brain contusion and a brain hemorrhage. When they saw that he was unable to speak and how frustrated that made him, they cried. Zucc was not only one of the most important players on the Rangers and a fan favorite for his big man’s play in a little man’s body and dazzling on-ice vision, but he was their close friend. He was their brother on and off the ice. The dire diagnosis and outlook at the time cannot be overstated, and rumors ran wild throughout Rangerstown that we’d never see Zucc walk again–skating and PLAYING HOCKEY the least of his worries.
The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is awarded to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. Zucc was on the ice skating and preparing for the possibility of returning to the Blueshirts lineup had they advanced to the Final LESS THAN TWO WEEKS after being unable to speak or move the right side of his body. Less than four months after the devastating injury, and while still recuperating, Mats Zuccarello was in Tanzania in East Africa doing charity work and spreading hockey around the globe. The conversation had moved swiftly from “Is Zucc’s career over” to “I cannot believe Zucc is coming back.” The sheer determination and willpower of Zuccarello is a marvel, and sure enough he played in 81 of 82 regular season games this year while leading the Rangers in points with 61 and setting a new career-high of 26 goals. He truly does epitomize the three Masterton qualities, and is the definition of “hockey tough,” albeit not in the traditional form.
I have nothing but praise and admiration for Zucc’s fellow Masterton Trophy nominees, Jaromir Jagr (I still wear the ageless ex-NYR captain’s jersey to games) and Pascal Dupuis (try not to tear up at his Pens salute video/valiant comeback effort from blood clots). But no one deserves it more than the man we call Zucc, who’s listed at 5’7 and had to fight not only the stereotypes that came with his frame just to get into the NHL, but more importantly a potentially life threatening injury. He’s now overcome both.
As the magical quote from legendary coach Herb Brooks goes, “a bruise on the leg is a hell of a long way from the heart.” Not even a slapper to the dome could stop Zucc’s passion and drive from culminating in a successful comeback attempt.