NEW YORK – Mats Zuccarello thought he’d be with the Rangers for his entire NHL career.
He spent most of his adult life in the Big Apple, arriving as a 23-year-old from his native Norway and becoming a fan favorite during his 500-plus games with New York — building a bond with the city, the team and its faithful that he figured would never end.
“Obviously, it’s a big part of me,” Zuccarello said.
But what once might have looked like his future is now Zuccarello’s past.
After the Rangers cut ties ahead of last season’s trade deadline, shipping Zuccarello across the country to the Stars, the forward switched his NHL address again in July when he signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Wild.
Now, nearly five months later, Zuccarello will return to Madison Square Garden on Monday when the Wild’s three-game road trip continues against the Rangers. And while this reunion may not have been on the 32-year-old’s radar at one point in time, he’s excited for it and liking the change of scenery with a new team.
“Right now, I’m happy,” Zuccarello 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, who emerged last summer as the right winger the Wild coveted, spent almost nine years with the Rangers. Although he scored goals, Zuccarello made the most impact as a playmaker — five times eclipsing 30 assists in a season; twice he had 40 or more. And his worker-bee style endeared him to fans.
“A lot of good years,” he said. “Up and down years in the beginning, but a lot of good years. You’ve got to appreciate them — the Rangers, the teammates you had and coaches and everything that helped you become the player you are.”
New York was playoff-bound nearly every season early in Zuccarello’s tenure, even advancing to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, but it began to rebuild in 2018. And with Zuccarello’s contract nearing its expiration, the team decided to trade the impending free agent on Feb. 23.
“It was tough to accept in the beginning because you were passionate about your team and loyal and everything like that, and you felt like you gave everything every game and then suddenly it comes to an end,” Zuccarello said. “Suddenly they don’t want you anymore. They go in a different direction. It was hard to accept that for me in the beginning. I get emotional like that. I get loyal and wanted to stay on the team.”
Zuccarello had a sense of what was coming before the split, but said he felt dialogue with the team could have been better.
“Probably my biggest thing is the communication wasn’t really there,” he said. “To be there for a long time and don’t feel that, it was hard. But it’s no different for me than anyone else. I just think that’s the bad part of the business.”
With the Rangers is where Zuccarello thought he belonged, but he’s glad he’s on the Wild. And as his games-played tally has gone up, he’s settled in more with his new surroundings. Two assists in the Wild’s 5-4 overtime loss to the Bruins on Saturday gave him a three-game points streak. Over his past 12 games, Zuccarello has four goals and six assists.
“It’s an older team here than it was in New York, so you have to find my spot and the team has to get to know you, what kind of guy you are,” Zuccarello said. “It probably took a little longer than I was hoping, but I feel more and more comfortable every day coming into the locker room and on the ice. When you win, too, you get more confident.”
And that’s an encouraging development for Zuccarello and the Wild, partners in forming Zuccarello’s next chapter.
“The past is the past,” Zuccarello said, “and now I’m just glad to be here and enjoying Minnesota.”