Mats Zuccarello was a natural-born leader even before anointed as one with an “A” on his sweater to symbolize his status as an alternate captain for the 2017-18 season that commences Thursday at the Garden against the Avalanche. He remembers the way it was for him when he first arrived as a 23-year-old from Norway for training camp in 2010.
And he is part of a group that is making certain it is not that way for the young guys making their way into the NHL these days.
“We’re not as tough on the younger guys as the veterans were seven or eight years ago,” Zuccarello told The Post when asked who looked out for him the way he and his teammates are looking out for 18-year-old Cezch prodigy Filip Chytil. “It was a lot different then. That’s just the way it was.
“I know that it must be a little scary for Chytil, coming to a new place, a new country, learning a new language and trying to fit into the best league in the world. I’m doing what I can to make it more comfortable for him. And with me and Rick [Nash] on his line, we talk to him a lot and are going to do what we can to make sure he has fun playing his game.
“There are things he has to learn about playing in our end, he has to stay tight and get the puck out, but he just has to play his game, be creative and let his skill take over at the other end. We’ll read off him and try to make it as easy as we can for him. He just has to let his talent take over when we have the puck.”
The Rangers first signed Zuccarello as a free agent in May of 2010 after he dazzled for Norway in the 2010 Olympics playing under the name of Zuccarello-Aasen. He also tore up the Swedish Elite League for MODO Hockey while winning the league’s 2009-10 MVP award.
He was a Glen Sather find. And during No. 36’s first training camp, the then-GM recited the first lines of a poem entitled either “The Wild Swans” by Erik S. Hansen or “The Battle of Copenhagen” by E.C. Stangland when asked about Zuccarello’s prospects for making coach John Tortorella’s team.
“Ten thousand Swedes ran through the weeds, chased by one Norwegian,” Sather replied, chuckling in front of a baffled audience. “We’ll see. He’s in the same boat as everyone else.”
The boat soon set sail for Hartford and the AHL. Zuccarello made his NHL debut on Dec. 23, 2010 against Tampa Bay, getting 17:52 of ice time skating on the right with Brandon Dubinsky on the left and Derek Stepan in the middle. Ryan McDonagh would make his Rangers debut two weeks later. Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal are the only current Blueshirts to predate Zuccarello.
But it took time for Zuccarello to establish himself. He played 42 games that year, but only 10 the following season, buried most of the year in the AHL. And then while the NHL was locked out in 2012-13, an unsigned Zuccarello, whose rights still belonged to the Rangers, took his talents to the KHL and Magnitogorsk.
“I didn’t know what would happen but I thought going there, playing important games at a high level would help me become an elite player and give me my best chance of playing for the Rangers,” Zuccarello said. “I owe so much to [Winnipeg coach] Paul Maurice, because he told me that his goal was to do everything he could to get me back to the NHL.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t even play that well, but I worked hard and got into the best hockey shape of my life. And then I signed and came back at the end of that year. And beginning the next year, with AV here, I had a coach who believed in me.”
Zuccarello, of course, was referring to Alain Vigneault, under whom the winger has blossomed. No Rangers skater wears his heart on his sleeve more than No. 36 and no Ranger plays with a harder physical edge or more passion than the new alternate captain.
“I expect him to continue to influence and lead,” Vigneault said in announcing the selection. “I think he’s earned the respect of everyone in the NHL in nor just how he plays but the way he came back from a real serious injury.”
That, of course, was the brain contusion and hairline fracture of the skull he suffered when hit on the side of the head by a shot off McDonagh’s stick late in the first period of Game 5 of the first round of the playoffs against Pittsburgh.
The 30-year-old Zuccarello said that while he is fine physically, there are times he still experiences some after-effects while speaking.
“Sometimes I miss words,” he said. “If I’m excited or under stress and talk quickly, I might miss a whole sentence. The doctors told me to expect. My language is around 85-percent, and I have to live with that. The doctors say it should get to 100-percent, but we’ll see.”
By the way, there is no player on the Rangers with greater celebrity in his particular homeland than Zuccarello. The Norwegian publication Nettavisen has a correspondent here for the sole purpose of covering Zuccarello.
He is to Norway as McDavid or Crosby is to Canada. When asked about it, Zuccarello shrugged.
“I wouldn’t be able to answer. You should ask him,” the winger said, pointing to correspondent Roy Kvatningen, who was a few feet away.
“He is absolutely one of the biggest sports stars. Nobody in Norway is bigger,” said the journalist, who speaks for up to 10 or 15 minutes with Zuccarello following every home game. “If we don’t have ‘Zuccarello in our headline every day, nobody reads it.
The Zuccarello you’ve seen on the ice and his teammates have seen in the room is the Zuccarello you and they are going to continue to get as he enters his fourth full NHL season. The letterman isn’t going to be a changed man.
“My goals are team goals. If we succeed, I succeed,” he said. “I lead by example and by working hard on the ice. Off the ice, I try to keep it loose. We’re in such a competitive environment and in such a serious business that it’s important to have fun when we can.
“That’s how I am.”
And seven years after running though the weeds, this Norwegian is an alternate captain of the Rangers.