When Forsberg joined the Nashville Predators at the end of the 2006-07 season, he came from Philadelphia, where he had played for the Flyers and Allen Iverson had played for the Sixers. He had the Iverson impression down cold – no trace of a Swedish accent – and every now and then, all of a sudden, he would do it in the dressing room, around the trainers and equipment guys, or for Weber, the team’s TV voice.
We’re talking about practice. We’re not talking about the game. We’re talking about practice.
“Peter Forsberg does that perfectly,” Weber said, smiling. “So my goal this weekend is to be able to get him down on the digital recorder and preserve it forevermore.”
As Forsberg makes another comeback attempt with the Colorado Avalanche – playing his first NHL game since 2008 on Friday night at Columbus, with another game Saturday night at Nashville – the memories come back. There is also a compulsion to look and listen hard, to snap a picture or press record, to put away one more memory for posterity, because you never know. This time might really be the last.
Maybe you don’t know Foppa’s funny side, the one that does the Iverson impression. But if you follow hockey, you know Forsberg once was the best player in the world, that injuries derailed his brilliant career again and again – thigh, spleen, groin, a right foot that still torments him at age 37. But he has come back again and again because he loves hockey. We’re not talking about practice. We’re talking about the game.
“I’m not surprised that he’s still trying,” said Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), who has faced Forsberg in epic battles as a defenseman for the Detroit Red Wings, but also has played with him as a member of the Swedish national team. “I think he wants to go out on his own terms and he doesn’t want that injury to be the reason why. I think that’s why he’s still trying it.”
“He’s a stubborn man, always has been,” Lidstrom added. “I think that really shows now.”
Forsberg is no Brett Favre. Stubborn as Favre was, as much as he couldn’t let go of football, as badly as he was beaten up at times, he was able to start almost 300 consecutive games at quarterback before his ironman streak finally reached its end in December. Favre started more than 300 consecutive games if you count the playoffs.
No, Forsberg follows in the footsteps of Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux, two of the greatest players in hockey history, even though they could have been greater had their bodies not broken down.
This is a man who has won two Olympic gold medals, immortalized on a Swedish postage stamp for his trademark shootout winner at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. This is a man who won the Stanley Cup with the Avs in ’96 and 2001, but didn’t play the final two rounds in ’01 because he’d had his spleen removed.
This is a man who missed the 2001-02 season to recover, but returned for the ’02 playoffs, went to the Western Conference final and came back in ’02-03 with the most decorated season of his career, winning the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.
And this is a man who was better than a point-per-game player afterward, but never played more than 60 games in a regular season again. He ranks 10th all time in points per game (1.254), but only 100th in points (885).
How much more could he have accomplished if healthy?
“I think as a forward he’s the greatest European who ever played in the NHL,” Predators winger Martin Erat said. “It was so sad a player like him have to suffer so much pain through the game. It’s sad for everybody to see him just to suffer so many injuries.”
So many times, it was supposed to be the end, but Forsberg would show flashes of his greatness that would tantalize him to keep trying.
The Flyers traded Forsberg to the Predators before the trade deadline in 2007. Forsberg was having trouble with his right foot, his contract was up and he was unsure about his future. The Predators were awestruck at how he struggled physically and still produced offensively.
“I remember every period he’d have to get a new pair of skates,” Predators defenseman Ryan Suter said. “I don’t know what it was. He liked them stiffer or something.”
Said Predators coach Barry Trotz: “He was beat up. He was hurt. And when the game was on the line, he just dug in. He had that great capacity to find that extra ‘it.’ He had it when it was needed to come through.”
Forsberg sat out most of the 2007-08 season. He signed with the Avalanche in February of ’08 to give it another shot, but he played only nine games in the regular season, seven in the playoffs.
Still, despite his doubts, he never quit. He played in Sweden. He played at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, taping his foot, gutting it out.
“He probably wasn’t at his best,” said Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, a teammate in Vancouver. “You can still see how he sees the game. He’s seeing things that not a lot of other guys see. There’s no doubt that he’s a special player. Any time he can be on the ice and contribute, he’s one hell of a player.”
Now he’s back again. Right when Forsberg returned last month to practice with the Avalanche and see how he felt, the Predators happened to be in Colorado. Some of his old teammates saw him at their hotel and detected a difference, just in his demeanor.
“He just seemed so energized,” Suter said. “When he was in a lot of pain, when he was with us, he was fighting a lot of injuries. He just didn’t look comfortable. He looked refreshed and ready to go again (now).”
It showed on the ice. Avalanche center Matt Duchene, a 20-year-old all-star, grew up watching Forsberg and modeled his game after him. He watched Forsberg make some of the moves he mimics to this day – like carrying the puck around the net with one hand on the stick, the other hand protecting it.
“He surprised me,” Duchene said .”I didn’t think he’d look as good as he did. Not that he’s not a good hockey player, but that I’ve heard so much about his foot injuries and how much it’s hampered his skating, and his skating looked great.”
Forsberg signed a contract for the rest of the season at a prorated $1-million. He cautioned to reporters, “I’m not sure I’m going to be good. We’ll see when I get going.”
Who knows how he’s going to play? Who knows if he can make a difference for the Avs, who have lost five straight, seven of eight, and sit 14th in the Western Conference, seven points out of the eighth and final playoff spot?
Who knows even if he will finish with the Avs, in the event he plays well, the Avs fall out of the race and a contender wants to trade for him before the deadline? Who knows what might happen if he feels good and decides he wants to come back next season?
But who doesn’t want to find out?
“He might not be as dominant as he was 10 years ago, when he was dominating in the league,” Lidstrom said. “He might not have that in him still. But with all the skill he has, he’s still going to be able to make plays, seeing the ice and making those open-ice plays and making the passes where you don’t expect him to make them. I still believe he can do that.”
We’re talking about a gamer.