Checking Out Peter Forsberg (Part 2)

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Peter Forsberg lit the hockey world on fire from the moment he first played with Modo in his hometown in Sweden. His talent was undeniable. In just over ten years, he'd won more competitions and received more honors than most players do in their lifetime. He had two Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold, two golds and two silvers in the World  Championships, a bronze in the World Cup, and numerous NHL All Star appearances. He'd also captured top honors for the best player in the season, as well as the MVP, in two different elite hockey leagues, won a Calder Award, and set records in the World Junior Championships, the Olympics and the National Hockey League. His accomplishments had piled up so much that he was already recognized as a future Hall of Fame inductee for the NHL. Yet, his body was failing him and injuries began to plague every year he played hockey.

Coming off what most describe as the best season in his career, Forsberg entered the Avalanche's 2003-2004 campaign with confidence. However, an ankle injury he sustained during 2002 continued to cause him difficulty. He was also beginning to have significant issues with his feet. On October 28th in a game against the Calgary Flames, he severely pulled his groin muscle, most likely as a result of overcompensating for his skating troubles. Although he was out of the line up for less than 10 days initially, the groin issue lingered for much longer, causing him to miss more games. Then, on February 16, 2004, he suffered a hip injury that kept him out for the next six weeks. All told, Foppa only played in 39 regular season games. As he'd done many times in the past, though, he managed to score at a 1.4 point-per-game pace, recording 55 points. He also had a strong presence in the playoffs with 11 points in 11 games.

 

 

Forsberg headed back to Sweden during the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. His countrymen welcomed him home with exhilaration; in fact, they erected a sign in his hometown of Ornskoldsvik that said, "Welcome to Foppaland." To say he was loved would be an understatement. Foppa signed a one-year deal with Modo on a team that would, again, be coached by his father, Kent. Of course his father was thrilled to have his son playing for him again, but the rest of the Modo organization was just as happy. Bengt Hedin, MoDo's Sports Director said, "Not many in my position are fortunate enough to put the world’s best player on their roster."

Forsberg's excitement was equally strong. There was still a dream he had yet to realize, one that he wanted dearly: the Swedish Championship title. It looked like this season would be his chance as he was joined by other NHL stars including Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Markus Näslund, František Kaberle, Adrian Aucoin, Tommy Salo, and Dan Hinote, Forsberg's teammate in Colorado. With what seemed to be an all-star roster, Modo was the heavy favorite that year. Unfortunately, despite all that fire power, they finished the season in 6th place.

Even worse for Forsberg was the fact that another season was cut short for him. This time, it was his wrist, and it required surgery. He ended that season having played only 33 of the 50 games. It's not surprising, given his history, that he still managed to score 13 goals and 26 assists for 39 points that year.

Upon returning to the NHL, he found that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement established during the lock out forced Colorado to make some cuts to their roster in order to stay below the new salary cap. The team offered Forsberg a four year, $13.5 million contract; given his talent and the fact that other clubs were willing to pay much more for him, he was forced to leave his beloved home in Denver.

He ultimately signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, the team that drafted him, for just over $5 million per year for two years. As they promised he would, Forsberg had proven the critics wrong when they said Philly made a mistake drafting him in the first round. Questions about his health still surrounded him, however, as he had surgery before the season began. This would be the first of many he'd have on his right ankle and foot.

In the winter of 2006, the Swede was able to represent his country once again in the Olympics. In Torino, Italy, Forsberg helped his team make it to the podium to hear their national anthem. It was the first time since 1994 that Sweden finished in the top three. His point-per-game average went a long way to making that happen.

For the Flyers, he appeared in a total of 60 games in the 2005-2006 season, missing most of them because of yet another groin injury. Like always, he averaged more than a point per game, this time registering 75. Even more telling of his impact, however, was the Flyers' record that year. They were 35-16-9 with him in the lineup; without him? 10-10-2. After an early exit from the playoffs, Forsberg broke the news to his new club that he needed more surgery over the summer and that he might not be able to return until after the 2006-2007 season began.

It's hard to believe that a sport which relied so heavily on exceptional skating ability could produce such a talented athlete with a birth defect in his feet. "I don't know the exact term, but I think it's just supination, you lean outside on your foot," he said. "It's very uncommon; the doctor was telling me some basketball players have this. Plus, I have a very hard arch and my foot is kind of leaning toward the other side, and that tears through the ligaments all the time.

"Through the years, it has been getting worse and worse, and the foot is getting kind of crooked, that is kind of what is going on. Actually, both [feet] are doing the same thing. So if I am going to keep on playing, I am going to have to get [the surgeries] done," he continued.

The plan was to have two separate surgeries, first on the right foot and then on the left. However, his doctor decided the second was unnecessary, so on May 15, 2006, Foppa went under the knife. After six weeks of recovery, he started rehab, determined to get back to the NHL. The Flyers felt so sure of his return, they made him their captain. Unfortunately, the season did not go as planned. Philadelphia struggled throughout the season, just as Forsberg did. The surgeries did not fix the problems in his foot and ankle as he had hoped. Despite scoring 40 points in the 40 games he played with them, the Flyers felt that trading him was the best option. So at the trade deadline, Peter Forsberg became a Predator.

In the 17 games he played with Nashville, he scored 2 goals and had 13 assists. For first time in his NHL career, Foppa fell short of his minimum regular season point-per-game pace. It would never happen again. In the final game of that season, he broke the hearts of the Avalanche organization and its fans by assisting on the game winning goal that would keep Colorado out of the playoffs for the first time in its history. That win helped the Predators end the year second in its division; they went on to face the San Jose Sharks in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, eventually losing to them 4 games to 1.

Forsberg became a free-agent at the end of the 2007-2008 season. Because of continuing problems with his feet, he announced that if he was able to play again, he wanted to stay in Europe and would only do so with Modo. He went on to say that if he did return to the NHL, it would only be for the Avalanche, Flyers or Predators, the three teams with whom he spent his entire NHL career. His commitment to the clubs that supported him through all of his struggles is a yet another testament to his character.

In November, Forsberg began preparing to compete in the Karjala Tournament in Finland. Unfortunately, he had to leave the competition as his play - and his feet - did not meet his own standards of performance. Numerous NHL scouts, most notably one for the New York Rangers, had intended to be at the tournament in hopes of signing the star to their roster for that season. It was disappointing to everyone, especially when he commented to reporters, "I have to say, I've never been so close to saying my career is over (as) right now."  Yet, he and the hockey world received good news shortly after that as his doctors gave him the green light to play after a positive analysis of his condition. "I can say now that I think we can solve the issues with his foot, so that it won't hinder Peter from playing hockey again," said foot specialist Bertil Romanus. He also said that with the new brace for which Forsberg had been fitted and the daily skating regimen he prescribed, there was all belief that he would play successfully that season.

It wasn't until February of 2008 that Peter Forsberg made his return to professional hockey. At the trade deadline, he signed - as promised - with his former club, the Colorado Avalanche. Sadly, another groin injury sidelined him again after playing only three games. He returned about a week later and ended the regular season having played 9 games and tallying 14 points with 11 of them coming in the final four games. Predictably, 13 were assists. His offensive output put him amongst the leaders in the league at a 1.56 point-per-game pace, ahead of league star Alex Ovechkin. Until his return, the Avalanche was looking like they would miss the playoffs for the second year in a row, but the arrival of Forsberg sparked a winning streak. With him in the lineup, they went 8-1-0.

In the first round of the playoffs against the Minnesota Wild, Foppa tied for the lead in assists with 4 in 6 games. Unfortunately, he was injured in the third game of the following round against the Detroit Red Wings. That would be the last NHL game the future Hall of Famer would play for over two years.

That summer, it came to light that during the time he played with the Avalanche, he had a battery pack attached to him which sent bolts of electricity into his muscles in an attempt to keep his foot aligned. It wasn't surprising, then, that it seemed his career was over. He made it clear that he would not re-sign with the Avalanche for the following season as he did not feel he would be ready for training camp in September. His doctors once again developed an intense training regimen in the hopes that the muscles in his feet would work properly again. If they didn't, Forsberg said, "I'm happy with the career I've had."

During the 2008-2009 season, Foppa played three games with Modo, but his skating was not at the level he believed it should be. So he spent the rest of the season working on his rehabilitation. On September 24, 2009, the forward returned to the ice playing with Modo for the 2009-2010 season. In that first game, he - unsurprisingly - scored the opening goal which would lead the team to a 4-1 win. Also unsurpisingly, he was as humble as ever. "It was such a long time ago (since I scored a goal) that I almost forgot what to do afterwards," he told Swedish news agency TT. When asked about his notorious problems, he replied, "My foot is OK, but I'm not really happy what I did on the ice tonight." He finished the season having played only 23 games but registering, as was so typical of him, 30 points.

Also during that season, he made one more Olympic appearance. The hockey community waited with baited breath to see one of their favorites return to the ice. Many felt he looked old and worn out, unable to keep up with the fast pace that dominated the sport at the time. Many more expected that this would be the last we'd see of the amazing player.

On August 14, 2010, it appeared that Forsberg really was finished. He admitted that his problems were not getting any better and that he was running out of options to fix them. It seemed that he would finally give up the sport he loved and concentrate on his many other ventures he had going in Sweden: a golf course, hockey club, race horses, and even an airline. However, like the fighter he's always been, he decided to give it one more try. In December, he had another surgery on his foot. Once he had healed, he began practicing - on an informal basis - with Modo's junior team. He felt so good that in January, he had his agent contact the Avalanche to see about moving his practice to Denver. "I just don't feel like I'm done," he said. "I still feel like I have more to give. There have been plenty of times when I thought it was over, but I guess I just love playing hockey too much to stop trying."

The team was happy to accommodate, and the fans were ecstatic. On his first full practice, about 200 people showed up to the small practice rink. TV crews interviewed the many Forsberg jersey clad observers, and the buzz in the place was tangible. There was concern that all of the attention would negatively affect the other members of the team, but there was unanimous support for his return. "I don't know where he's going to be after that long break," long time teammate Adam Foote said. "But even if he's not going to be at that ultimate level, a Forsberg at any level is good for your hockey team."

Colorado's newest star, Matt Duchene, watched Forsberg growing up and patterned his game after the legend. His giddiness at playing with his idol was evident when asked about his experience with the Swede in practice. "We’d have...good chemistry," Duchene said. "I’d like to get him in the lineup as soon as possible."

News of the return spread quickly across the hockey circles, and a big concern was how well Forsberg could play. Had any of them watched him in practice, the doubts would have quickly subsided. In fact, another former teammate, Paul Stastny, said, "After a few practices and the way he looked, it would have been a surprise had he not come back because he was looking that good."

As always, Forsberg was cautious about making committed statements on the return. When talking with the press, he was guarded on his progress. He admitted the practices were hard and that the speed of the young team with whom he was playing was intimidating. But if ever he was going to make a successful return, this was exactly what he needed. If he could skate with one of the youngest and fastest teams in the league, he could play in the NHL. Thus on February 6, 2011, Forsberg signed a one-year, $1 million pro-rated contract with the Avalanche.

There are people out there who say Forsberg should just retire, that his repeated attempts at a comeback are embarrassing to him and the sport. They say his flip-flopping between still being a professional hockey player and calling it quits only tarnishes fans' memories of him. But Forsberg never said he was calling it quits. He never said, "I'm retiring." He may have said if this doesn't work, I might be done. But that's "if" and "might be." When you look back at his career, he never once stopped fighting to remain in the game. Every time an injury hit him, he fought back. Surgeries, doctors, braces, physical therapy, battery packs, whatever it took. He also never deceived his teams; whenever possible, he played through the pain when they needed him, and he always told them his intentions as soon as he'd made a decision.

This is a man who, above all else, loves playing hockey. It's one of the biggest crimes in sports that his body has tried to sabotage that love. So to call him anything but brave, passionate, dedicated, representative of all that is amazing about this sport, a sport which arguably draws to it the toughest warriors of all athletes, would be an insult because no matter what he faced, his desire to play was always there. In The Hockey News' book The Top 60 since 1967, Andrew Podnieks wrote, "Forsberg is a man of the highest skills and standards, a player whose body could be bruised, but never his heart." And in the end, isn't it an athlete's heart which takes skill and talent and propels him to greatness? Peter Forsberg is an unmatched example of this.

Tonight, Forsberg returns for his first NHL game since 2008. Based on his track record, expect him to record at least a point. Peter the Great indeed.

 For Part 1 of this story, go to Checking Out Peter Forsberg (Part 1) on Mile High Hockey.

References:
http://avalanche.nhl.com/club/player.htm?id=8458520&view=notes
http://slam.canoe.ca/Slam/Hockey/NHL/Calgary/2011/02/07/17185906.html
http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=551933
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Forsberg
http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=10490
http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/news/story?id=3095918
http://www.usatoday.com/sports/hockey/2009-02-12-forsberg-return_N.htm
http://forum.sbrforum.com/players-talk/10849-peter-forsberg-out-until-2007-a.html
http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2009/hockey/nhl/09/23/forsberg.sweden.comeback/index.html
http://www.angelfire.com/on2/peter21/2002.html
http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/jul/13/report-foot-woes-might-end-forsbergs-career/
http://www.hockeybuzz.com/blog.php?post_id=11214
http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_17313559
http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/news/story?id=2442111
http://www.ruggedelegantliving.com/a/003044.html
http://everything2.com/title/Peter+Forsberg
http://quebecnordiques.blogspot.com/2007/12/peter-forsberg.html
http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/02/18/us-olympics-ice-hockey-idUSTRE61H1MI20100218
http://www.camelclutchblog.com/olympics-peter-forsberg/
http://m.si.com/news/nhl_sports/wr_nhl_sports/detail/3368716;jsessionid=54D276C17F602E4B90336B4947215BA1.cnnsi2
http://www.nypost.com/p/sports/rangers/item_bGiZA1XkVuS1HYnSgtJACO

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