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Checking Out Peter Forsberg (Part 1)

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There’s no way around it: Peter Forsberg is a legend. His accomplishments are heralded across the world and not just in hockey circles. Touted as being one of the - if not the - best two-way players to ever play the game, it’s impossible to deny that he’s made a huge impact on the sport. But what really makes Forsberg special can’t be found on a stat page. The heart of the Forsberg legacy can best be seen in the passion he has for the game, the dedication he has for the teams with which he’s played, and the impact he has on those around him. These are the things that have shaped the man that strikes fear in those who have to face him on the ice and awe in those who get to watch him from behind the glass.

Peter Forsberg was born on July 20, 1973 in Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. Growing up, he played both hockey and football (i.e, soccer) and actually had more promise in the latter. Much of that had to do with the fact that he was not considered big nor strong enough to be a successful hockey player. However, he decided to focus on hockey anyway. Foppa (which is simply a common way to shorten the surname Forsberg) first tried out for Modo, a club in Sweden’s elite league, Elitserien, in early 1990. However, his size and strength - or lack thereof - prompted the coach to tell him to spend the summer bulking up. In what would become a trademark aspect of his character, Forsberg did as suggested and dedicated himself to becoming strong enough to compete at the professional level.

Making the team for the 1989-1990 season, he spent most of it with Modo’s junior club where he averaged nearly a point-per-game. In the one game he played with Modo Sr., he also notched a point. It seems almost prophetic that it was an assist as he would end up sitting fourth among all NHLers in career assists-per-game (.901) behind notables Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr. Marc Crawford once said of Forsberg, "He's such an unselfish player. He's one of those players who would rather make a pretty play and feed somebody else for the goal than score himself."

The following season, he split his time between the two clubs. With Modo Sr., he recorded 17 points in 23 games. However, in the 39 games he played with the junior club, Forsberg netted 38 goals and 64 assists for a total of 102 points. In other words, he averaged 2.6 points-per-game.

That summer, the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him 6th overall. His selection in the first round came with skepticism as he was originally slotted as a solid second round pick. The Flyers organization insisted that the fans and critics would come to see that they’d made the right choice. Although Forsberg was dealt to the Quebec Nordiques in 1992 in what has come to be seen as one of the most lopsided trades in the history of the NHL (Eric Lindros to the Flyers in exchange for Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Ron Hextall, a 1st rounder, $15 million dollars and future considerations), the Flyers would end up being rewarded for the shrewd decision.

Despite what was already sure to be a strong start to his NHL career, Forsberg opted to stay in Sweden in order to represent his country in the Olympics. At that time, professionals were not released from their contracts to do so, and it was something he considered a priority, playing both for himself and for the people of his homeland. Thus, he spent the next three years with Modo, solidifying his reputation as a physical player with the innate ability to see the ice in a way few had done before him. His penchant for playmaking, passing and scoring seemingly impossible goals prompted people to oft compare him to Wayne Gretzky. Joe Sakic said of Forsberg,  "I might be biased, but I think he was the best two-way player in the league for a lot of years. There was nothing he couldn't do."

In his three years with Modo, Forsberg amassed points at a point-per-game pace. He also was awarded the Guldpucken (Golden Puck) for the best Swedish hockey player and the Guldhjälmen (Golden Helmet) for MVP, an award decided upon by the players in the league, twice each: 1993 and 1994. During that time he also played in two World Championships, coached by his father, helping Sweden win a gold and a silver.

Yet, it was during the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer that Peter Forsberg became a national hero. After a grueling duel with Canada for the gold medal - one which was comprised of overtime and numerous penalty shots - the Swede beat goaltender Corey Hirsch with a move he copied from retired Swedish ice hockey player Kent Nilsson, but which has since come to be considered a classic Forsberg move. Although the gold was secured when Tommy Salo denied Paul Kariya on the next attempt, it was Foppa who garnered the praise of a nation and became the only the second hockey player in Sweden to have his image immortalized on a postage stamp.

Forsberg shifted his attention to North America after the Games, but due to a lock out, he didn’t play his first game until January 1995. In that game (coincidentally against the Flyers), he once again put a point on the board, and once again, it was an assist. In less than a week, he scored his first goal. Those points would begin a torrid rookie campaign that earned him the Calder Trophy. His 15 goals and 35 assists came in only 47 games, making him second in scoring for the Nordiques behind Joe Sakic.

That summer, the Nordiques moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. His history with the team is well-known - especially to Avalanche fans - and he has secured himself in the hearts of Coloradans forever. Although his offensive output (116 regular season points, 21 in the playoffs) was invaluable to the success of the team that would eventually lead to the organization’s first Stanley Cup, it was Forsberg’s drive to win that made him essential. His ability to score big goals at the right time would inspire the team to never give up. "As good as he is, he works harder than anyone and that really rubs off on people. He's so competitive and wants to win so bad," said Derek Morris, teammate in 2002-2003. Forsberg didn’t miss a single game that year, something he would not be able to do again in over a decade of professional play.

As much as Peter Forsberg is known for his on-ice magic, he is also known for the injuries that kept him off the ice. They started in 1996 when he missed 17 regular season games and 3 games in the playoffs. In the 1997-1998 season, he missed 10 games. The following year was 6 games. That year, he represented Sweden in the Nagano Olympics where he suffered a serious shoulder injury. Due to surgery over the summer, Forsberg was limited to just 49 games in the 1999-2000 season. It’s important to note that, despite all of the injuries he suffered, the forward was still able to put up more than a point-per-game in every single season. Playing through pain became something he did often and without complaint, never allowing it to stop him from being an offensive threat. Said current teammate John-Michael Liles, "A guy like that, regardless of age or layoff, he has that skill level and he's still got that fire and passion."

In the second Stanley Cup season for the Avalanche, Forsberg missed 9 regular season games. More disconcerting, though, he was forced to sit out the second half of the playoffs due to a splenectomy. During the final game of the second round, Forsberg suffered the injury to his spleen. However, it wasn’t until later that night while having dinner with the team that anyone knew something was wrong. He began coughing up blood and became extremely pale due to the pain. He was rushed to the hospital where the ruptured spleen was removed.

Forsberg didn’t play in the 2001-2002 regular season. Because of the spleen injury and an overall decline in health, he and his doctors decided it would be best to take the year off to recuperate. Moreover, it was about that time that the infamous problems with his feet began to affect his play. It’s also said that he was doubting his commitment to the game, finding less joy in it than he had in the past. Clearly, the injuries were wearing on him. In a pure exhibition of class, Foppa refused to take his annual salary that year, despite the fact that his contract said it was rightfully his. Instead, he returned to Sweden where he focused his energy on building a golf course.

Forsberg returned for the 2002 playoffs, and in true Foppa fashion, he led all players in points with 27. It seems no matter how much time he takes off from the sport, he always comes back to make an immediate difference. In fact, the 2002-2003 season was Forsberg’s best. He recorded over 100 points and was awarded both the Art Ross Trophy for most regular season points scored by a player and the Hart Memorial Trophy as MVP. Brendan Morrison, who had the daunting task of playing against Forsberg many games during those years, said, "I really admire him as a player. I loved to watch him. He was a guy who could control the tempo of the game with the way he sees the ice. (It's) remarkable...He can hold on to the puck a whole shift and you find yourself chasing him the whole time and saying, ‘Give it up to somebody, please.’ He’s pretty relentless." It was that relentless attitude that kept Peter Forsberg trying over the next 7 years - years marred by failings of his body - to get back to the game he loved.

For Part 2 of this story, go to Checking Out Peter Forsberg (Part 2) on Mile High Hockey.