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Avalanche Storytime with Adrian

Book excerpt: Peter Forsberg, Mr. Cool



Peter Forsberg

In these slower-news times of the off-season, I thought some fun reading material here might be the occasional excerpt from a book I wrote on the Avs called “100 Things Avalanche Fans Should Know or Do Before They Die”, which came out in 2016. 

This is Chapter 11, in its entirety, entitled “Peter Forsberg – Mr. Cool”, in which I attempt to describe what Foppa was really like on and off the ice.

Nobody who has ever played for the Avalanche was as cool as Peter Forsberg. He had quite the charmed life—big, fancy houses, millions of dollars, swarthy Swedish good looks, unbelievable skill as a hockey player. He also had more bad luck health-wise than most any player who ever suited up in Denver. But let’s focus on the positive for a moment.

Forsberg was the best player I ever saw in his prime, at least among forwards. Anyone who watched him with any regularity will usually say the same thing: he could do it all. Great skater, great passer, unbelievable stick handler, a sixth sense for what would happen next on the ice before it happened, very tough and physical, very tough in the clutch—there was nothing Forsberg couldn’t do well on the ice.

The one thing he couldn’t do very well after around 2001, however, was stay healthy consistently. Bad ankles were the primary culprits for his career being cut short, but Forsberg had just about every other kind of injury you could imagine. Groin pulls, shoulder problems, broken fingers, pelvis problems, back problems, concussions, Charley horses—you name it, Forsberg had it.

He tried hard to find solutions for his ankles, especially the right ankle, including undergoing a procedure in Philadelphia during which the entire bottom third of his ankle bone was sawed off and soldered into a different spot in an attempt to relieve pressure. It didn’t work.

Forsberg’s career was good enough to warrant inclusion in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014, however. His career points-per-game average (1.25) remains among the top 10 all-time. He won two Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals with Sweden, including the famous shootout goal on Canada’s Corey Hirsch in 1994 that was memorialized on a postage stamp. He won a Hart Trophy, an Art Ross Trophy, and led all playoff scorers in 2002 despite missing all of the regular season and despite playing only three rounds.

Still, there is some sorrow in how Forsberg’s career developed. He played in the wrong era in some ways. The NHL of the late 1990s and through 2004 was a butcher shop of a league, in which marginally talented defensemen could get away with hacking and whacking at guys of Forsberg’s talent. If I had a dollar for every time I saw Forsberg take some egregious infraction that went uncalled, I’d be able to eat out at Morton’s every night for the next two weeks. So many times, Forsberg would beat a defender with a fake or his speed around the end, and so many times the defender would just bear hug him and haul him down, with no call.

And yet Forsberg could be his own worst enemy with that stuff. He invited too much trouble with his style of game. Whereas teammate Joe Sakic played a quick give-and-go game and avoided big hits, Forsberg would hold on to the puck forever and stubbornly try to make his way to the net with battering-ram force. But he became like the bull with too many rodeo cowboys on his back after a while.

Because opponents knew they could get away with most anything, and because Forsberg had too much of a temper to turn away from a confrontation, they could too easily lure him into a war of attrition rather than a game of skill. Teammates such as Adam Foote and Claude Lemieux and many others were always telling Forsberg not to take the bait, to walk away, but he just couldn’t help it. Every slight had to be addressed.

I went to Sweden in the fall of 2014 to visit Forsberg, shortly before he was to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. I finally discovered where he really came from and how he was so cut from the mold of his hometown, Ornskoldsvik. It is a rugged logging town, but one of breathtaking beauty. A majestic harbor sits right in the middle of two large hillsides. That contrast fit the stories I wrote for the paper from there, a kind of Beauty and Beast theme of his career.

Unfortunately, I was sick as a dog the whole time there and slept much of the time in a closet-sized hotel room. But the times I got to spend around Forsberg there were something I’ll always cherish. One day I met him at a swanky restaurant in downtown Stockholm for lunch, and as he was to just about everything, he arrived late. But suddenly there he was, only he was pushing a stroller. He had brought his infant daughter, Lily, along, and while she slept the whole time, Foppa and I had a great, leisurely lunch while he discussed his career. It was so strange to see the guy who seemed he might forever be the eligible bachelor, who wore cool, stylish clothes and always hung out at the best parties and hotspots and yet still kept a private mystique about him, suddenly doting on a baby daughter. He also had an older son, Lennox, who just might carry on his NHL legacy someday, at least if the early scouting reports from the Forsberg living room are to be taken into account.

A couple nights later, I drove the four or five hours to Ornkskoldsvik in my tiny, manual transmission rental car and was supposed to meet him at the home arena of his Swedish League team, Modo, where he starred as a player and now was the part-owner and general manager. I stopped off at a pizza parlor next to the arena named Mamma Mia, where the owner, Giordano Sternad, talked about the days when Forsberg was just a kid coming in for pepperoni pies with his friends.

Suddenly, to my shock, in walked Forsberg with his father, Kent, and another friend. I wasn’t expecting him and he wasn’t expecting me. So, I actually sat a couple tables away, alone, while they dined at one near the front. It was a little bit awkward for me because, well, I kind of expected him to invite me to their table. I mean, here I was, about 5,000 miles from home and all.

But that was the real Forsberg too; Very private, very hard to really get to know. Just when I was about to walk out, feeling like a jilted date or something, Forsberg got up, said he’d be out in a few minutes and that he’d give me a ride to that night’s Modo game, against rival Skelleftea.

Suddenly, I was in the passenger seat of Forsberg’s super-nice Audi, listening to him tell stories of landmarks around “Ovik,” seeing the first hockey rink he skated at and seeing his boyhood house, and getting all kinds of other juicy little tidbits about his life for use in my stories. He was as friendly and accommodating as could be. As I walked into the arena with him, whisking past all security and walking up to his private luxury suite, I thought I was his best buddy in the world.

Then he told me: “I can’t watch the game with you. I get too into it.” So off I went again, to another box, where father, Kent, and mother, Gudrun, also sat. They knew better than to think they could watch a game with him too. He really was that privately competitive about his team and didn’t want to be distracted. Modo got hammered 7–3 that night, and Forsberg was quite upset afterward.

We had made tentative plans, on the car ride over, to meet up after the game to maybe down a couple beers and talk more, but the loss sent those plans right into the harbor adjacent to the building. So I walked back to the nearby hotel alone—the hotel that was owned by one Peter Mattias Forsberg. Not only did he own the hotel—a really nice, new one—and part of Modo but he owned an airline (NextJet) and a golf course in town. Talk about the life, right?

And yet the next morning I was eating the totally free, all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast, thinking my time with Forsberg was over. Suddenly, there he was, getting a plate and getting in line just like everyone else for some of the delicious variety of meats and other very good items, making zero show of anything. This time he invited me to join him, and we had another great talk, and toward the end, he dialed his brother, Roger, to arrange a lunch meeting with him a few hours later.

While Forsberg went back to the local airport for a flight back to Stockholm on his own airline, I sat with Roger at some hilltop restaurant with a ridiculously gorgeous view of the city and harbor below, listening to great stories of what it was like to grow up with a younger brother who just happened to be one of the greatest hockey players of all time.

The next day, after 14 hours or so of flying that included a layover in Helsinki, I was back in my Thornton, Colorado, bed saying, “Did that really all just happen?” That’s sort of what it was like covering his career. It was wonderful and it had some great memories. And yet it seemed like it went by way too fast, too quick to really realize how great it all was at the time.

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