Friday April 22nd, 2016

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Mats Zuccarello always skated along the bottom of the pediatric growth charts. Then, at 5 ’7” he stopped growing entirely. For a long time, those were the only numbers that resonated with most people who evaluated him, no matter what he did on the ice. “A lot of people said, ‘He’s a good player, but he’s not going to make it because he’s too short, he’s too small,’” says Zuccarello, the Rangers top-line right wing. “Back home in Norway, from juniors to when I played on an elite team, people said I wasn’t going to make it. Got a chance to go play in Sweden: not gonna make it. From Sweden to here, the NHL? The same thing. All my life it’s been that way. Ever since I was little.”

After a beat, those last words sink in. “Well, I’m still little,” he says, smirking. “Ever since I was young.”

In 2010, when Zuccarello was 23, New York took a chance on the undrafted free agent, signing him to a cheap two-year contract. Although he had just earned the Guldhjälmen as the MVP of Sweden’s top pro league—an award that had previously been won by Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg and by Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers’ stylish and stalwart goaltender—Zuccarello spent half of that first season in the minors. 

But by 2014, he had become irreplaceable. His 59 points led the Rangers that season, and he has become beloved within Madison Square Garden. Part of it had to do with his height, which made him relatable. While adoring fans have for years tried to nickname him "The Hobbit," thanks not just to his stature but to the loose curls that spill out from under the back of his helmet, he is known mostly as Zucc within the Rangers’ dressing room, as it is, after all, an NHL dressing room. Most of the ardor, though, comes from his style of play. Winning the team’s Extra Effort award in two of the last three years, he turns what ought to be his most significant handicap into his greatest strength.

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Due to his low center of gravity, his impossibly tight turning radiuses, his relentless energy and his unusually long stick—which is as tall as he is, and which he wields in order to compensate for what he lacks in natural reach—when Zuccarello is on the ice he resembles nothing so much as a Roomba with a ruler attached to it. “The way the game’s going, it’s for guys who are strong on their skates and fast skaters, which he is,” says Rick Nash, who towers above his linemate by some nine inches. “If you ask our shutdown defensemen, they’ll say it’s harder to knock him off the puck than anyone else because he’s so close to the ice and has so much core strength.”

Zuccarello has another advantage. “His compete level is off the charts,” says Carl Hagelin, his friend and former teammate. “Compete level” is hockey-ese for grit. There is a reason why fans, their Tolkienian tag rejected, tried instead to make “the Honey Badger” stick. “He’s just fearless,” says Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. Zuccarello loves to hit opponents who are up to a foot taller than he is. He has rarely encountered a slap shot that he didn’t try to block, in an unusual way. Instead of staying square to a shooter, he leaps at him and pirouettes in mid-air, absorbing the blow with his side or his back. 

It wasn’t until there were four minutes and 40 seconds remaining in the first period of Game 5 of the Rangers’ first round series against the Penguins last April 24 that Zuccarello’s size became a problem for him. Camped out in front of Pittsburgh's crease, jockeying for position with Penguins defenseman Taylor Chorney, Zuccarello saw that Rangers defenseman and captain Ryan McDonagh was about to wind up for a blast from the point. Zuccarello wheeled towards the goal, in anticipation of a potential rebound. At that very moment, Chorney pushed him from behind, further decreasing the already low altitude of his head. Zuccarello, off-balance, heard McDonagh’s stick whistle, and then the crack of blade meeting puck. McDonagh’s shot might have struck the left shoulder of an NHL player of average height, painfully but harmlessly. That is not where it hit Zuccarello.

As Zuccarello slowly skated off the ice, doubled over, he had two thoughts. The first was that he had to get back to the bench, somehow, so he could be replaced. “I can’t back check here,” he thought. “Have to get there.”

The second thought centered on the strange sensation that he was experiencing. “It was a ringing feeling,” he says. “I was shaking. F---, I got a little stinger, I thought. It wasn’t that bad. Shake it off.”

Vigneault, hewing to playoff hockey convention, would reveal to the public only that Zuccarello had suffered an upper body injury, which was technically true. That ambiguous description, though, is usually code for something like bruised ribs, a sprained wrist, a separated shoulder. The injury that Zuccarello had sustained was much more unusual, and far more serious, than any of those.

Paul Broca was a French physician and polymath born in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, 300 miles southwest of Paris, in 1824. Broca made many contributions to medical science during his 56 years, but the most lasting was his discovery of the localization of brain function. Specifically, Broca came to the then controversial conclusion that speech is controlled by a region on the left side of the brain’s frontal lobe, which is now known as Broca’s area. Broca’s research determined that a sudden inability to speak—a condition called expressive aphasia or, now, Broca’s aphasia—is often the result of an injury to that region. The lesion might be caused by a stroke or by a fall or, as Broca could never have anticipated, by a six-ounce disk of vulcanized rubber that has ricocheted off a person’s head at a speed in excess of 90 miles per hour.

When the first period of Game 5 was over, Vigneault rushed to the Rangers’ medical room to check on his winger. Zuccarello wanted to tell his coach that the puck had hit him on the left side of his helmet, above his temple, and that the right side of his body was beginning to go numb, from his toes to his face. He could form the words in his head, but that was all. “He was looking at me,” says Vigneault, “and I could tell he could understand what I was saying, but there was no feedback coming. He couldn’t talk.”

As Zuccarello sat upright and silent in an ambulance that raced from the Garden to a hospital on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, he felt scared. Scans revealed that he had suffered a fractured skull, a contusion and bleeding in his brain, which explained not just his aphasia but his right-sided weakness, as the left motor cortex is located near the language centers that Broca identified. As Zuccarello lay in a hospital bed, with machines chirping around him, he started to feel lonely, too. Hours before, he had been doing all he ever wanted to do. Now he was alone, unable to communicate not only with his teammates but also his worried mother and girlfriend back in Norway. While most expressive aphasia patients also lose the ability to write, and therefore text, Zuccarello did not. He had, however, forgotten his phone back at the Garden.

“All I was thinking was, Am I ever going to be O.K. again?” Zuccarello says. “Am I going to be able to talk? Am I going to be handicapped? A lot of thoughts go through your mind right there.”

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A guilt-wracked McDonagh was the first person to visit Zuccarello, immediately after the Rangers’ series clinching, 2–1 overtime win. “You’ve seen guys get hit, broken bones, broken jaws off shots, facial injuries,” says McDonagh. “That one was pretty extreme, when you see 40 or 50 wires hooked up to his head.”

Zuccarello’s mother, Anita, arrived two days later, straight off the first available flight to New York. Zuccarello had downplayed his injury to her, after having been reunited with his phone. “I could see it in her face—she was shocked,” he says. “She said she had to go to the bathroom. I knew she was crying in there.”

That evening, Hagelin and Derek Brassard, another teammate and close friend, came to visit. They were shocked, too. “When you saw him, you didn’t think about if he’s going to play hockey again, but if he’s going to be normal again,” says Hagelin, who is now a member of the Penguins. “He could only make sounds with one side of his mouth.” The trio’s hockey-bred toughness softened. “They both started crying right away,” says Zuccarello. “I started crying, too. It was a release, after two days of being scared and worried. It was kind of nice.”

“It is by no means a given that somebody with a contusion to that part of the brain is going to have a full recovery,” says Brian Edlow, a neurologist and head trauma expert at Massachusetts General Hospital. Most expressive aphasia patients, though, are neither as young nor as physically fit, with the resulting brain plasticity, as Zuccarello. Four days after the accident, he began to regain feeling in his right side. He also forced out his first words, although he still had months of speech therapy ahead of him. His native Norwegian came back to him before his English, as is common with languages that are more deeply ingrained, but he couldn’t speak either fluidly until mid-summer.

After a week, he was released from the hospital. But as the Rangers stormed back from a three games to ones deficit to win their second round matchup with the Capitals, Zuccarello was limited to 10 minutes at a time of plodding on the High Line, the elevated park near his Manhattan apartment. Due to the risk of continued hemorrhaging in his brain, he says, “I wasn’t allowed to get my blood pressure up. I could only walk super slow for a month.”

In late May, as the Rangers neared the end of their conference final against the Lightning, Zuccarello skated again for the first time. He imagined that he might return for the Stanley Cup Final, but the Rangers, the conference’s top seed, lost to Tampa Bay in Game 7. “You wonder if he was able to help us down the stretch, what would have happened,” says McDonagh. “That was the toughest part, him missing out on that chance, and us going down without having our whole team.” Zuccarello looked ahead to the 2015-16 season. He would still have at least one significant hurdle to overcome.

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Trauma affects everyone differently. As Zuccarello prepared to play his first competitive game since his injury—on Sept. 22, in the Rangers’ preseason opener against the Devils—he had no idea how he would react the first time he heard a stick whistling behind him. “I had a whole summer to think about it and worry,” he says. “You kind of tell yourself, I’m going to be the same player. But I couldn’t really know until I got out there and found myself in front of the net, with someone shooting.”

The result? “Seemed like he didn’t miss a beat, which was incredible,” says McDonagh. “From the start of the season, he was back, making the same plays.”

In fact, he was making even better ones. Though he says the feeling in the right side of his body is only 90% of what it used to be, and that he still sometimes has to search for words – particularly in English – Zuccarello just completed his best NHL season yet. He led the Rangers with 61 points, on 26 goals and 35 assists. As the one-year anniversary of his injury approached, the Rangers were again locked in a first-round matchup with Carl Hagelin’s Penguins.  Through the series’ first four games, Zuccarello had registered an assist and a goal – the winning one in Game 2, New York’s only victory so far.  Even a 3-1 series deficit might not prove daunting, given all that Zuccarello has overcome. “Maybe when you’re just born to do it, and it’s the only thing you’ve done your whole life that you love, it just comes natural,” he says.

Vigneault was moved by his unlikely star’s return to form, but not surprised. During his first practice back with the team last fall, Vigneault watched as Zuccarello found himself positioned between the goal and a shooter. Zuccarello charged and leapt in the air, twisting his diminutive body to absorb the puck’s impact.

“All right,” Vigneault thought to himself. “He’s good to go.”

No small thing, to be sure.

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