#ForeverZucc Saying goodbye and good luck to Zuccarello

“It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.”-Boyz II Men

How do you say goodbye to someone you love and admire? Many of us are dealing with that the best way we know how. By saluting what Mats Zuccarello brought to the New York Rangers for seven years.

The day of Gotham’s reckoning came yesterday when the man forever known by everyone as Zucc was dealt to the Stars for second and third round round picks. Both are conditional picks that can become number ones if the following happens:

A.The Stars advance to the Western Conference Final with help from Zuccarello. It’s a long shot. But I have no clue what’ll happen out West.

B.Zuccarello re-ups with Dallas this summer. This is more possible. Who knows what will happen in two months as a rental.

Let’s forget the overreaction to what GM Jeff Gorton got back in return. It’s time to let things play out and see what happens. He still has some work left with plenty of phone calls the next two days involving Kevin Hayes and Adam McQuaid.

This post isn’t gonna be about either player or any crazy scenario when we have no idea on anything. It’s that simple. Someone had Hayes traded to Nashville Friday night. So yeah. I’m not going to get into all that. We will get a definitive answer soon. Be patient.

What I do know is how I feel about Zuccarello. A prideful small big man who brought everything to the table over the past half a dozen seasons. What I love most is no matter how much smaller he was than much larger opponents, he never backed down from anyone.

That’s a good quality New Yorkers identify with. It’s why we all chanted “Zuuuucccc” when he did something. Whether it be a big goal, assist, hit, block or getting in someone’s face, his willingness to get dirty is what we loved most. We’ve seen him go after Zdeno Chara and nose to nose with former pugilist George Parros. He didn’t care. That’s why he earned respect. They knew he wouldn’t take any crap. I can’t wait to see what he adds to a vanilla Dallas club that badly needs his creativity, determination and grit.

Zuccarello is scrappy as well as skilled. He is the classic overachiever who has done more than anyone thought he was capable of. Discovered during the 2012 Winter Games, the talented Norwegian right wing chose Manhattan when he came to the NHL. At first, he had to make former coach John Tortorella notice the ability he had. He liked what Zucc brought to the power play. An area of exasperation for every Ranger fan during the 2012 Playoffs. He definitely could’ve helped what became known as the power kill during a run to the Eastern Conference Final they lost to the hated Devils.

His time would come under former bench boss Alain Vigneault. For all the gripes about how close they got and the lack of communication at the end, Vigneault knew how to utilize Zuccarello. That became apparent during the 2014 run to the Stanley Cup Final. Without that key ingredient number 36 added to the very effective forechecking line of Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot, there is no comeback from 3-1 down against the Penguins in the second round. That third line was so dominant in the offensive zone that they gave the Pens fits. They were a perfect third line that followed the top two which featured the likes of Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and Rick Nash. Don’t forget that Brian Boyle combined with Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett/Daniel Carcillo to form a tough fourth line. Jesper Fast was a rookie who only got into three games.

The unbelievable balance and depth that roster possessed allowed them to advance in seven games past the Flyers and then rally around St. Louis and stun the Penguins, thanks in large part due to Henrik Lundqvist. He never played better. Although you could argue his virtuoso performance in the second round 3-1 comeback versus Braden Holtby and the Ovechkin Capitals the following year in the same round. Wow. What a time to be a Rangers fan. It’s hard to believe only four players are left from 2015. That’s how fast things can change.

Zuccarello was a huge part of those teams. Whether it was in a supporting role like ’13-14 when he put up 13 points (5-8-13) on that cohesive line with Big Game Brass (6-6-12) and Pouliot (5-5-10), or as a top six forward who led the team in scoring four different times, you always knew you could count on him.

I’m still astonished he came all the way back from a career threatening brain contusion and fracture sustained when he took a Ryan McDonagh shot to the helmet knocking him out for the remainder of the 2015 Playoffs. He lost his speech for a few days. It really is crazy how lucky he was. Thank God.

In 509 games as a Blueshirt, he finishes with 113 goals with 239 assists for 352 points and 215 penalty minutes. Like I said, he is scrappy as well as skilled. The fact that he’s 5-8 (ha) and listed at 184 pounds doesn’t stop him from winning battles he has no business winning. More often than not, he comes out with the puck and makes something happen. His former teammates would certainly agree. Look at how he turned his year around by producing 22 points (7-15-22) over a 14 game span to wind up with 37 points in 46 games despite missing time due to a groin strain.

It’s not just what he does on the score sheet. It’s his impact on the bench and in the locker room. For this team, he was like another coach due to his experience and intensity. He understands how to play the game. Hopefully, that’ll rub off on his new Stars teammates. It’s crazy to think the Rangers will actually see him for the first time as an opponent when they visit Dallas on March 5. It’ll be here before you know it.

What will it be like for former teammates, coaches, beat writers and fans? Will we be conflicted? I won’t. But of course I will be rooting for him to score a goal. Imagine if it’s on good pal Lundqvist, who paid tribute to him. Emotions will be running high.

We all are a little sad right now 😢. That’s okay. Zucc is one of our own. It’ll be strange to see him in Stars colors. Just picturing it is weird. That’s the tough part of sports. In the blink of an eye, you’re rooting for your favorite player. The next moment, they’re gone and you’re left wondering where the time went. What happened? It was the same reaction for me with Mark Messier, Alexei Kovalev, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch and Ryan Callahan.

It doesn’t get easier. That doesn’t mean you stop following your favorite player. I own a Kovalev road Pens alternate with an ‘A’ and the familiar number 27. I even wore it once to a game and got interesting comments. Both positive and negative. I never wore it to another game. I’ve also worn a old ’98-99 home white Pens Jaromir Jagr with the number 68. That was before he became a Ranger. I only received compliments and well wishes about if we had him. That era was pretty memorable. At age 47, Jagr is back playing in his home country with Tomas Plekanec. Happy 46th birthday to Kovalev! It is February 24.

I’m sure many of us will be pulling hard for Zucc as a Dallas Star. Just to get the better draft pick alone, it’s worth it. But I’m not expecting it. I will root for him because I love No. 36. I hope he can make magic with Jason Spezza. Maybe he can rub off on the very talented rookie blueliner Miro Heiskanen. I’m sure Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are excited to have him. Ben Bishop will no longer have to deal with him being a pest in front of the net.

Now, we’ll learn what it’s like to be his opponent. Circle March 5th on your calendar. Maybe if we’re lucky, it’ll go to three-on-three overtime with chaos ensuing. What if it goes to a shootout? Zucc was our Ace in the hole. He was money with his fancy footwork and splendid deke followed by sweet finishes.

I’ll miss him. We all will. He has the heart 💓 of a lion. One you can only love. No matter where he winds up this summer, I’ll always be a big fan of him.

Thank you Mats “Zuuuucccc” Zuccarello for the honest effort and even better person you are away from the rink. Good luck in Dallas!


About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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