NEW YORK (AP) — Hockey rarely gets much attention in Norway, a skiing-obsessed nation that turns to soccer when the snow melts. Mats Zuccarello is changing that.
Zuccarello is only the seventh player from Norway to make it to the NHL, and he's the first to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Now, "Zucca" has Norwegians staying up late to watch New York Rangers games and checking the stats to see if he scored.
"A lot of Norwegians have fallen in love with Zuccarello," says Roy Kvatningen, sports editor for Norwegian online paper Nettavisen. "First and foremost because he's successful at what he does. He won the scoring title in Norway, he won the scoring title in Sweden, and now he's playing on the biggest stage in the world.
"He's also got a cool name and a good personality: confident, but down to earth."
Former teammates of Zuccarello and his mother are being interviewed by Norwegian media. Downhill skier Kjetil Jansrud and players on the national soccer team have sent him congratulatory messages.
In his fourth NHL season, all with the Rangers, Zuccarello notched 19 goals and 40 assists in 77 games. He added four goals and seven assists in 20 postseason games to help New York get to the finals for the first time in 20 years.
"Some people, like my close family and friends that have been following me since I was young, are really excited," he said. "I told everyone it's a huge opportunity for me to play, but at the same time nothing is won yet."
The affable 26-year-old winger hopes his success will build up hockey at home, but he knows it will take a lot more than that.
"I would love to be a role model for younger players back home and create some more buzz around hockey," he said. "Hopefully this can help. If I was Norwegian or not, I would be equally happy to play in the Stanley Cup finals."
Norway finished last in the Sochi Olympic hockey tournament. Zuccarello believes a greater commitment is needed within the country before success outside of it can be reached.
"We have 25 rinks. There is no ice in the rinks during the whole summer," he said. "... How are you supposed to be a good hockey player when you go four months with no ice?"
Zuccarello says Norway hasn't made a commitment to hockey since Oslo hosted the 1952 Olympics.
"Nothing," he said in a frustrated tone. "We have one new rink in Norway that is not from '52. They have renewed it a little bit, but our main rink in Oslo was built in '52, and that's not good enough. It's got to start from the top. It's going to cost money, but the government has money. You've got to use it to get new rinks, get people excited to go to a hockey game with new seats.
Norway is considered the "little brother" in hockey circles to Sweden and Finland. Sweden has 10 times as many rinks than Norway, Kvatningen said.
Zuccarello was fortunate to attend a hockey-centric high school and then played three seasons in Norway's elite league. From there he went to Modo in Sweden's premier league before signing a free agent deal with the Rangers in 2010.
He watched the Stanley Cup finals as a youngster in the early morning hours. The first one he recalls was the Colorado Avalanche's victory over Florida in 1996 when he was 8.
The Avalanche, with Swedish star Peter Forsberg, was Zuccarello's favorite team. They won that series in a four-game sweep — ending it with Uwe Krupp's goal in triple overtime.
"I remember waking up. I was going to school, I turned on the TV and Uwe Krupp scored the overtime winner," Zuccarello said. "I didn't think it was live. I thought it was taped."
He might be about to create a lot of sleepless nights for grown-ups and kids alike back home once this series against the Los Angeles Kings begins Wednesday. Family members and friends are planning to make the trip to New York to see him play live in Games 3 and 4.
They will have to make room for other Norwegian tourists who are looking to make the trek, too.
"I know already that more Norwegians have been traveling to New York to catch a game at Madison Square Garden," Kvatningen said. "Even if they're not hockey fans, it's a great experience for Norwegians to go over there and see a small Norwegian guy getting celebrated."
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter contributed to this report from Stockholm, Sweden.