Mats Zuccarello’s life changed over the summer when he welcomed his daughter into the world. He talked proudly about fatherhood on the first day of Wild training camp last month.
“I’ve got a baby now,” Zuccarello said before endearingly putting his arm around best bud Kirill Kaprizov standing alongside him. “I’ve got two babies.”
The punchline drew laughter from reporters in the room.
Zuccarello, a 35-year-old Norwegian, and Kaprizov, a 25-year-old Russian, were born a decade apart, and it’s hard to label their relationship. It’s not a father-son thing. And it isn’t even even a mentor-mentee thing, even though Zuccarello clearly has taken Kaprizov under his wing.
“Nope,” Zuccarello said. “I think we’re more like brothers.”
That’s clear to anyone who watches them interact. Whether it’s painting a masterpiece on the ice during an actual game, messing around after practice at TRIA Rink in downtown St. Paul, or eating dinner together on the road, Kaprizov and Zuccarello are usually attached at the hip.
“They are with each other 24/7,” said alternate captain Marcus Foligno, who acknowledged how difficult it must have been for Kaprizov to adjust when he arrived in Minnesota from Russia. “You try to cling to something right away, and Zuccy was the person that he clung to.”
That blossomed into a brotherhood on and off the ice.
“They spend a lot of time together,” said veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who got a glimpse into their relationship last season after joining the team at the late-season trade deadline. “They make me laugh. Just always joking around and trash-talking a bit themselves or chirping someone else. They make the room a little bit more lively.”
As the Wild prepare for their season opener against the New York Rangers at 7 p.m. Thursday at Xcel Energy Center, it’s fair to say they will go as far as Kaprizov and Zuccarello take them. While the Wild will need contributions from up and down the lineup, Kaprizov and Zuccarello will be the straw that stirs the drink.
Not that Kaprizov or Zuccarello are thinking too far ahead at the moment. Asked about feeling pressure to produce at a high level, Zuccarello replied, “I think we’re happy just to be back seeing each other in the locker room.”
That is a big reason Kaprizov and Zuccarello have experienced so much success over the past couple of seasons. They genuinely enjoy being around each other. Everything seems to fall into place after that.
“When I first got here, we kind of clicked immediately,” Kaprizov said. “He kind of has the same values as me, and that’s something that’s important to me with the way I was brought up.”
Naturally, Kaprizov started to gravitate toward Zuccarello, and their friendship took off.
“I do think Zuccy definitely made it a point to help him,” general manager Bill Guerin said. “I think that’s why the two of them are so close.”
It also has helped that they found an instant chemistry on the ice. As soon as coach Dean Evason decided to put Kaprizov and Zuccarello together on the same line, no matter who was between them, the dynamic duo found a way to make something happen.
“If we didn’t click on the ice, maybe we would be worse friends off the ice,” Zuccarello joked. “We just read off each other well.”
There was a particular play during the preseason that served as the personification of their relationship on the ice. After accepting a pass from Zuccarello on the fly, Kaprizov raced into the offensive zone before slowing down ever so slightly. With center Joel Eriksson Ek crashing the net, Kaprizov casually swept a no-look pass over to Zuccarello for an easy goal.
Writing about Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello for tomorrow’s paper. I can’t stop thinking about this goal from the preseason. pic.twitter.com/ssO22rZAPa
— Dane Mizutani (@DaneMizutani) October 12, 2022
“It’s uncanny, right?” Evason said. “Sometimes it frustrates us because they’re only looking for each other. You have to live with that because of a goal like that. I mean, Kirill makes that pass to Zuccy, I don’t think anyone saw him except him, right? They definitely have something special.”
That’s something their teammates have noticed seemingly on a nightly basis.
“It’s something that clicked from Day 1,” Foligno said. “You see those guys out there, it’s insane the passing plays they make. You’re going to see a lot more of that. They are always on the same wavelength.”
There aren’t many players in the NHL that have a connection like Kaprizov and Zuccarello.
“It’s like they’ve got eyes in the back of their head,” alternate captain Matt Dumba said. ” They just always know where the other guy is going to be. I think them building their friendship has led to them building their game.”
As fun as it is to watch Kaprizov and Zuccarello in action, it’s the little moments that make their relationship special. It’s not uncommon to see them on the ice more than an hour after practice, Kaprizov trying to outdo Zuccarello, and vice versa, in whatever game they made up on the spot.
“It’s something that we tend to do,” Kaprizov said. “Whoever loses has to stay and pick up the pucks or do something silly like that.”
“There’s a lot of seriousness going into the game and a lot of pressure,” Zuccarello added. “It’s a good way to relieve that pressure.”
It’s not hard to imagine Kaprizov and Zuccarello remaining friends forever.
“I genuinely do hope that we can continue our relationship no matter what,” Kaprizov said. “I hope I can call him and continue to hang out in the summers, and someday I can go see him in Norway and he can come see me in (Russia). Yeah, god willing, we can continue being good friends.”
As for Zuccarello’s daughter, Kaprizov got to meet her in person for the first time last month.
“She’s amazing,” Kaprizov said. “It’s awesome. I’ve enjoyed getting to know her.”
“Yeah,” Zuccarello said with a smile when thinking about the interaction. “He’s Uncle Kirill now.”
A perfect title considering Kaprizov and Zuccarello consider themselves brothers.