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Work harder than the big guys

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# 01.12.2017 - 08:37:03

Mats Zuccarello might be the most tenacious player in the NHL, though he hardly looks the part. His curly, shoulder-length hair and disarming half-grin suggest that the winger is a laid-back type -- rather than the hard-nosed heart of the New York Rangers. Then there's his physical stature. At 5-foot-8 Adolphus Washington Jersey (he was listed at 5-foot-7 his first few years in the league) and 179 pounds,

Zuccarello swims in his uniform like it's an oversized pair of basketball shorts and his dad's old sweater. That is especially apparent when he's tussling with a towering defenseman such as the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman, which he did earlier this month, even goading the 6-foot-6 Hedman into some after-the-whistle shoving.
But consider how many obstacles Zuccarello had to overcome just to get here: Growing up in Norway, he was told he'd never make it as a pro. Scouts who saw him play in the Swedish Elite League believed he was too small for the NHL. Even after he signed with New York as a free agent in 2010, he wasn't a lock to make the Rangers' James Reimer Womens Jersey roster. When asked about
Zuccarello's prospects during the winger's first training camp, then-Rangers general manager Glen Sather chuckled and, according to the New York Post, quoted a poem: "'Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.' We'll see. He's in the same boat as everyone else."
Zuccarello is now the only Norwegian in the NHL, and he is his country's all-time leading scorer.
Consider also what Zuccarello has overcome since he arrived on Broadway: During Game 5 of the 2015 Eastern Conference quarterfinals, a slap shot off the stick of teammate Ryan McDonagh careened into Zuccarello's helmet. The winger was rushed to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a fractured skull and brain contusion. He remained hospitalized for three days, lost feeling in his left arm and couldn't speak for four days.
"I still have effects from it," Zuccarello said. "My talking is a little bit off when I get tired or I talk fast. I kind of stumble on words. Some words are harder than others. It is what it is. I'm from Norway anyway, so they don't expect me to speak perfect English."
Zuccarello is now an alternate captain for the Rangers and the team's leading point scorer in three of the past four seasons. Croons of "Zuuuuuuuc" swell through Madison Square Garden any time the 30-year-old as much as poke-checks.
Zuccarello's path might be unique, but he's emblematic of a larger trend in hockey -- or, rather, a smaller one. As athletes across other sports grow -- NBA players uniformly measure taller, and NFL players are consistently stronger -- the NHL has become faster and shorter. This season, there are 37 players in the NHL shorter than 5-foot-9. Twenty years ago, there were only 20.
As a service to anyone who has been told he is too small to make it, ESPN asked Zuccarello to share some of his secrets. Here is his guide to surviving in the NHL as an undersized winger.
When Zuccarello debuted for the Rangers in 2010, he used a comically large Evan Boehm Womens Jersey stick. It was taller than he was. "Have you seen how long his stick is?" defenseman Brady Skjei said, laughing. "I have no idea how he's able to stick-handle with that thing. It's remarkable."
The advantage: It augments Zuccarello's radius and gives him artificial reach. "I always played with a long stick -- I've had it since I was a kid -- so it's something I'm used to by now," Zuccarello said. "I like to change up my stick. I don't remember what length it was [then]. It's probably a little bit shorter now than when I came into the league, but I like it this way."
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