CENTENNIAL, Colo. – The South Suburban Family Sports Center, practice rink for the Colorado Avalanche, was packed with fans Sunday, many of whom wore Swedish jerseys and waved small blue and yellow Swedish flags.
They came to watch Peter Forsberg's first official practice with the team, and he didn't disappoint while taking part in every drill during the hour and 15-minute workout. It was a longer and more difficult session than usual, probably because the Avalanche has been outscored 11-3 during a two-game losing streak and has skidded into ninth place in the Western Conference.
The standing room-only crowd of 200-plus fans didn't go unnoticed by Forsberg, who is auditioning for a place on the roster nearly three years after he last played in an NHL game with the Avalanche.
"It was great," he said. "The guys told me that not too many people have been watching the practices. It's great to be back here. I have great memories. It's definitely better to see some people here. At least they care a little bit."
Forsberg remains one of the most popular players in team history, and his presence also attracted far more media members, including several from his native Sweden, than usually attend a practice.
"It was a tough practice, I thought," Forsberg said, adding it will take a few days to adjust to the time change, to the smaller North American ice surface and to the speed of the Avalanche players.
Forsberg arrived in Denver late Friday night and skated with injured center Ryan O'Reilly and assistant coach Steve Konowalchuk for 45 minutes Saturday morning at the Pepsi Center.
"I was very nervous before the practice about how fast it was going to be," Forsberg said. "I felt great for the first 10 minutes and then my legs got a little heavy after that. Of course it’s awesome to be back here and to put on the Avalanche jersey again. Hopefully I can stick. It's hard to judge after one practice, even if it was fast today and the guys were quick. Hopefully I'll get better and better."
Forsberg added with a smile: "Hopefully the guys can get a win (Monday against St. Louis) and it'll be a little easier practice on Tuesday."
Avalanche coach Joe Sacco said Forsberg performed better than he anticipated for an initial practice, which included a drill that involved battling with a defender in the corner.
"I thought he looked well, I thought he played well," Sacco said. "I thought he worked hard considering the terms of the practice. It was a hard practice today, but he had energy. I thought he did a good job."
Forsberg was one of the NHL's elite players in his prime – he won the Hart and Art Ross Trophies in 2002-03 and helped the Avalanche win Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001 – but he's 37 years old and in recent seasons has been limited by groin ailments and a troublesome right foot.
"He looked good, he was moving well," Avalanche center Paul Stastny said. "You do the battle drills in a couple practices and only he knows how his foot can hold up. Probably he'll have to see how he feels tomorrow. It was kind of a tough practice, a grueling practice with a lot of battling. That's a good way to test it out.
"There's no expectations here. No one really knows what his foot's really like, how his body is really like. I know he's got that desire to keep playing and he wants to be out there. It's fun to have him out there. He's quite a special player and you can tell he's got the smarts for the game."
"There's no timetable," Sacco said. "Peter will be the one … he'll have a big say in it, too, on however long we feel it's going to be necessary. He wants to see where he's at and we're going to give him that opportunity."
Forsberg said his foot "was good" during Sunday's practice. "I can't complain; it's been worse. I'm not going to go and talk about it exactly, but it felt OK today. Hopefully I'm going to feel better and better here and get into the work habits and everything. These guys are great skaters. It's a young team and they were flying out there. I'm just going to try and stick with the tempo for a few days and see if I can get there."
Second-year center Matt Duchene, who turned 20 a week ago, was an Avalanche fan while growing up in Haliburton, Ontario, and he owns a Forsberg jersey he plans to get signed.
"We had a little chat on the ice, just talking about how he's feeling," Duchene said. "I told him I’m going to be bugging him every day he's here. It'll be cool if he gets in the lineup. I don't think he missed much of a beat (in practice). He hasn't been in the NHL in a while, but I think for a guy like him with that caliber it's going to be pretty easy to get back into it."