Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund are at it again.
It shouldn't be surprising to see Forsberg's Colorado Avalanche and Naslund's Vancouver Canucks in a battle for playoff positioning in the Western Conference. The competition between the two dates back to their boyhood days in Sweden.
Yes, this showdown goes back a long time – just ask any person you might know from Ornskoldsvik, Sweden. It is one that natives Naslund and Forsberg played out numerous times as youngsters in their hometown of 60,000.
You see, as improbable as it may seem that two of the League’s best players hail from the same hometown best known for the MoDo teams, both Naslund and Forsberg grew up in Ornskoldsvik – born just 10 days apart. Then, like now, Forsberg played for "the big team" of MoDo, while Naslund – as Forsberg put it – lived on "the wrong side of town." What that meant was that Naslund's team was the perennial underdog to Forsberg's team. Actually, there were three or four teams vying to upset MoDo. With the town boasting as many as five rinks, there was never a shortage of challengers.
This season, the Northwest resembles Ornskoldsvik circa 1985, as no fewer than four teams seem bound for the postseason, with the Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers looking to join the Avalanche and Canucks. Still, the marquee battle is between the Avs and Canucks – Forsberg and Naslund.
Forsberg's team is seeking a record-setting ninth divisional title, trying to overcome a slow start and the ensuing turmoil of a coaching change. Naslund's group is trying to sustain its fine play of the first half – a level of performance the Canucks offered up during the second half of last season.
But for the two Swedish stars, a little reminiscing might creep into the proceedings. As youth hockey rivals before they became junior teammates at age 14, Forsberg remembered Naslund as "the player who would never give up, even as his team was losing to us." He delivered that last little detail with a sly smile – the type of dig reserved for rivals turned friends. Actually, Forsberg meant it as a way of explaining Naslund's leadership now in evidence as the captain of the Canucks. Many observers here have been surprised as much by Naslund's strong turn as captain as they are by his League leading goal-scoring pace.
Not Forsberg. He saw the resolve and determination in Naslund long ago – in the kid that wouldn't quit no matter what.
Maybe that trait explains a lot about Naslund – the guy who finally flourished after a slow start in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being the 16th pick in the 1991 Entry Draft; who has played his best hockey since recovering from a broken leg in 2001. As you might expect, each knows quite a bit about the other. Forsberg was Naslund's centerman once the two became junior teammates and long has witnessed his goal-scoring prowess. Naslund, too, remembers Forsberg as both teammate and foe. He says that his game is "about the same" and that Forsberg always had "great hands" – hands that made him the eighth-overall pick in that very same ’91 Entry Draft. If there has been a change in Forsberg the kid and Forsberg the NHL star, Naslund thinks it is because "he is a better skater now."
According to Markus Naslund, Peter Forsberg has always had great skills, but is a better skater now than earlier in his career.
It is hard to imagine the indomitable one-on-one player Forsberg improving over the years as a skater. But Naslund would know better than most. Just as Forsberg knows that Naslund won't stop trying as the Canucks look to unseat the Avalanche in the Northwest. It is insight traced all the way back to their roots in the hockey-playing hamlet of Ornskoldsvik.
Former NHL goaltender Darren Eliot played for the Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings and Buffalo Sabres during his career. He also competed for Team Canada at the 1984 Winter Olympics. He also is a member of the Atlanta Thrashers’ broadcast team.