Peter Forsberg: Colorado’s Swedish King

During Peter Forsberg’s jersey retirement ceremony a few years ago, former Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix told a story about the Swede. During the 2001 playoffs when Forsberg was lost after having a splenectomy, the player desperately wanted to get back on the ice during the finals. Lacroix feared for Forsberg’s health and told him that wasn’t going to happen. Colorado still won the Cup despite Forsberg’s absence, and Peter had his name on the Cup for a second time. Peter Forsberg was a tough competitor. Playing weeks after going through potentially live saving surgery would most certainly have been a bad idea, but in Forsberg’s mind not playing was worse.

 

Peter Forsberg is set to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame this week. Ask any Colorado Avalanche fan and they’ll tell you this was only a matter of time. He’ll be remembered in Colorado as one of the franchise’s all time greats. Depending on who you ask, he’s the greatest player to ever wear an Avalanche sweater. He came to the franchise in a trade, a trade that many are still talking about today. For Colorado, it couldn’t have worked out any better.

The Trade

T Sanford/THW
T Sanford/THW

The 1991 NHL entry draft was the Eric Lindros draft. Everyone knew he was going to be the first overall selection. The Quebec Nordiques owned that first round pick. The only issue is that Eric Lindros didn’t want to be drafted by Quebec. To his disappointment Quebec drafted him anyway. After refusing to sign with the Nordiques and spending another year with his OHL team, Lindros was eventually traded a year later after a little intervention from the NHL. Quebec received a bit of a king’s ransom for Lindros. Coming to Quebec was Steve Duchesne, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, two draft picks and $15 million. The last piece of that trade was Philadelphia’s 6th overall draft pick in 1991, Peter Forsberg.

Forsberg was a talented Swede playing for Modo Hockey in his home country. He scored over 100 points in 39 games the year before the draft while playing for Modo Jr. He wasn’t as highly touted as Lindros though. The Hockey News said at the time before the draft that Forsberg was “a solid second rounder who could move into the first”.

While Eric Lindros went on to have a marvelous career, despite his fair share of concussion problems, Peter Forsberg’s time with the Colorado/Quebec franchise could hardly have been any better. Forsberg spent a few seasons in his home Sweden playing with Modo, but in 1994 he jumped the pond and began his NHL career.

Early Years

1994 was a big year for Peter Forsberg. It started out in a big way in Norway. Forsberg helped Sweden win gold at the 1994 Olympics. Sweden beat Canada in the gold medal game that is now immortalized in Sweden. His famous move in the shootout is not only commonly referred to now as the Peter Forsberg move, but the overhead image of that was made into a stamp back in his home country.  After the Olympics, Forsberg eventually began his NHL career in January of 1995 during the lockout shortened season. His first NHL game, interestingly enough came against the Philadelphia Flyers. He recorded his first assist in that game, and a few games later against the Buffalo Sabers scored his first NHL goal. Forsberg went on to score 50 points in 47 games that season, second on the team behind Joe Sakic. At the end of the season Forsberg was awarded the Calder Memorial trophy as the league’s top rookie. He was also elected to the NHL’s all-rookie team.

That was the only year that Forsberg would play in Quebec. After the 1995 season the Nordiques were relocated and became the Colorado Avalanche. Colorado inherited a great team from Quebec. There were still some adjustments to be made to get them to be a legitimate cup contender. Forsberg himself was getting accustomed to the NHL. His impressive numbers in his first season were proving that he was more than a second round, possibly later first round talent as The Hockey News suggested. Forsberg was on the verge of becoming a superstar. The People of Denver were about to witness it first hand.

 ‘Forget the rats, throw the hats’

I was nine when the Colorado Avalanche came to Denver. I still remember taking part in the name the team contest that lead up to the team’s introduction (my vote didn’t win). At nine years old you don’t really have a concept of whether or not a team is good. You either experience the joy of winning or the confusion and despair of why your team lost. I didn’t know how lucky all of us in Denver at the time were, and how great the hockey team that came to our city was about to become. Peter Forsberg’s first year in Denver, his second as a professional, was exceptional.

He had 116 points by the year’s end, with 86 assists. Colorado finished second in the western conference that year, behind the record-setting Detroit Red Wings. Everyone in Denver was excited for the playoffs. During the run of the regular season the city saw how good this team was. Additions like Patrick Roy and Claude Lemieux, vaulted the Avalanche into a conference powerhouse. It wasn’t until the playoffs began that the team really showed what they could do.

Peter Forsberg’s playoff run that year was as incredible as his regular season. The sad part for him, though, is that he was really overshadowed by his teammate Joe Sakic. Sakic put up historic numbers that playoff, but Forsberg was just as impressive. His crowning moment that season came against Florida in the Stanley Cup Finals. His hat trick in game two, completed in the first period, was one of the highlights of my time watching Colorado.

It was a remarkable playoff run for Forsberg and the Avalanche. They beat the record-setting Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference finals which sparked one of the best rivalries in the history of hockey. Then they swept the Panthers in Finals to bring Colorado its first professional sports championship in the state’s history.  Joe Sakic was always going to win the Conn Smyth that year for the insane numbers he posted in the playoffs, buf Forsberg wasn’t far behind. He was a superstar. A second year pro scoring more than 100 points and helping to lead his team to a Stanley Cup is one of many examples of Forsberg’s immense talent and will.

Becoming a Colorado legend

When you think back to what made Forsberg so dominate there are a lot of things to come to mind. His vision on the ice, his physicality and his sublime passing ability. Still the greatest pass I’ve ever seen in a hockey game came off the tape of Peter Forsberg. He lofted a pass from his own corner right over the entire San Jose Sharks neutral zone onto the tape of Rob Blake’s stick  who was able to walk in and score. The most remarkable thing that I can think of about that play was that Rob Blake was just about level with Forsberg when Peter made the pass. It was beautiful.

Peter Forsberg was able to take games over as well. There was this idea as an Avalanche fan that the team was never out of the game if Forsberg was playing. He had this physicality that made it almost impossible to take him off the puck. He could control the puck in his own end for a long time on his own, just skating around and around waiting to make a play. One story that many Avalanche fans will be quick to tell was a game against the Florida Panthers in March of 1999. Colorado were down 5-0 until late in the second when Forsberg made it 5-1. In the third period it was all Forsberg. Forsberg finished that game with 6 points, and the Avalanche won it 7-5 with 6 3rd period goals.

He was able to make plays that nobody seemed to have any business making. His strength on the puck was second to none when he was in his heyday. He helped lead Colorado to their second Stanley Cup in 2001. His regular season was again an impressive campaign. 89 points in 73 games continued his record as a more than a point per game player. He obviously missed the last two rounds of the playoffs but his help in winning the President’s Trophy went a long way in securing home ice advantage for Colorado.

Forsberg missed the entire 2001-2002 season because of an injury that would begin to haunt his career soon. But he eventually came back for the playoffs. Incredibly he posted incredible numbers that post-season. He scored 27 points in 20 games, but unfortunately the team fell short to the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals. Had the Avalanche made the finals there was little doubt that he would have been the favorite to win the Conn Smyth.

2002-2003 was, from an individual standpoint, Forsberg’s best season. One year removed from a season ending injury, Forsberg led the league in scoring and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. He scored 106 points with 77 assists and led Colorado to another division title. The playoffs abruptly ended in a seven game series against Minnesota. That season was a testament  to how competitive Forsberg really was. To go from sitting out an entire season to winning league MVP is almost unbelievable.

Unfortunately for Forsberg the injuries started to occur more frequently. His physical style became very taxing on his body. Ankel problems and foot problems started to keep him out of the lineup with some regularity.  After the 2002-2003 season, Forsberg never played more than 60 games in an NHL season. Eventually after the 2004 lockout, salary issues meant that Forsberg was about to leave Colorado and head to the team that originally drafted him. He had a productive 2 season’s in Philidelphia. But once again injuries limited his playing time. Eventually he was traded to Nashville at the deadline, but he was unable to do much with the Predators and the team lost in the first round to San Jose.

Forsberg returned to Colorado the following season but his legs wouldn’t let him compete at the level he was accustomed to, and he returned to Sweden to play for Modo after only playing 9 games in Denver. Forsberg gave it one more go at the NHL when he played 2 games for the Avalanche during the 2010-2011 season. But injuries were too much, and he finally called it a career .

A first ballot Hall of Famer

Peter Forsberg finished his NHL career with 249 goals, 636 assists and 885 points. At first glance these numbers are not hall of fame number on their own. But Peter Forsberg’s career isn’t about just numbers. He was a completely dominant forward on one of the most dominant teams of the late 90’s and early 00’s. He averaged 1.25 points per game which is good for 8th all time. He retired with 2 Stanley Cups, an Art Ross, a Hart Trophy, two Olympic gold medals and one stamp. But for Avalanche fans only two things matter when discussing Peter Forsberg’s legacy. The first are the two banners that hang up in the rafters in the Pepsi Center, the second is that Forsberg never gave up on the team. He was a Swede that was drafted by Philidelphia, played his first NHL game in Quebec but to Avalanche fans he’ll always be Colorado.

We create memories of players that we’ve never met. It might not make sense but sometimes sports don’t make sense. I’ll remember watching his hat trick in game two and then immediately going outside in the dark to play hockey in the street and pretend I was Peter Forsberg. I’ll remember waking up one morning to get ready for school and having my Dad tell me that Peter Forsberg is done for the season because he needed to have his spleen removed. I remember thinking that he’d be back and better than ever. Peter Forsberg didn’t need a spleen. But more than anything I’ll remember watching him skate past defenders, brushing them off him like it was nothing. There will never be another Peter Forsberg, and that’s ok, because we don’t need another, we just need to remember the one we had.