By Steve Zipay
When Mika Zibanejad stepped into the Rangers dressing room after scoring a record-tying five goals – including the overtime game-winner – against the Washington Capitals on March 5, the area was deserted except for some equipment and training staffers.
Sure, Zibanejad had been slightly delayed doing television interviews, but the place felt odd, more like the scene after a defeat, when many players quickly flee before the print press arrives.
But instead, Zibanejad’s teammates were simply hiding before they burst in shouting to surround and congratulate one of the latest heroes at Madison Square Garden.
With a diverse background – his father is Iranian, his mother a Finn, and he a Swede – that is atypical of players who have graced the ice in Gotham through the decades, Zibanejad has had a journey to get here.
The 27-year-old center followed his father’s footsteps by first learning tennis in Stockholm, where his dad, then 23 and single, had fled in 1983 after the Iranian revolution that put the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini – a radical Islamist – in power.
Mika’s father, Mehrdad, a devout Christian, suffered under religious persecution. He was jailed for writing a philosophical article and had no choice but to serve during the Iran-Iraq War, which began in 1980. The lack of freedom was crushing and drove him away.
After securing a passport, he became an IT engineer for the government in Sweden and met Ritva, who would become Mika’s mother.
At seven, Zibanejad took up hockey from his older half-brother, Monir Kalgoum, and he concedes that he didn’t become a quality skater “until 15 or 16.”
Kalgoum played in European leagues before retiring in 2012, a year after Zibanejad was drafted sixth overall by the Ottawa Senators. Zibanejad has blossomed with the Rangers after a trade in July 2016.
Zibanejad, who said he’s now “more playing on instinct,” scored a career-best 41 goals and 75 points in 57 games last season, impressive numbers for a self-described pass-first pivot.
“He’s one of the most underrated players in the league,” teammate Ryan Strome said after the five-goal game, a feat matched by only two other Rangers in team history.
Off the ice, Zibanejad, who lives in Manhattan, has a side gig as a DJ/music producer, and his tunes and collaborations have been well-received in Sweden. As has his support for women’s hockey.
Last year, he launched Brodernas (Brothers), a Stockholm restaurant, with Monir and friends, which offers a signature burger “93:an,” representing his jersey number.
For every burger sold, 10 kroner (about $1) goes toward rebuilding the Swedish women’s national program.
Zibanejad also donated the bonus he received when Sweden won the gold medal at the 2018 World Championship to girls’ hockey programs in Stockholm. "They don't get the same type of resources, and that's too bad," he told reporters.
The soft-spoken, multi-lingual Zibanejad is reluctant to discuss politics or religion and sticks to hockey and music topics on his Twitter account. “Politics aren't one of those things nagging me, walking around and thinking about it,” he once told the New York Post. “Obviously I would love to see everyone being friends rather than enemies in the world.”
Seems he would rather set an example by what he does, a quality that has earned him an 'A' on his Rangers sweater.
About as far as he’s gone online was in September 2011, when he received some critiques for mentioning God as a factor in his success. In response, he simply Tweeted: "Yes, I'm a Christian, so I'm thanking God." Case closed.