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Peter Forsberg forged golden legacy in Sweden

by Risto Pakarinen

Postage stamp images in Sweden are usually reserved for kings.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise Peter Forsberg is one of the few hockey players to have his likeness on a stamp issued by Swedish Post, the government agency regulating the country's mail system.

In a wonderful piece of symbolism, the moment commemorated on that stamp represents Forsberg's ascendancy to the hockey throne in his country.

The stamp captures Forsberg in the process of pushing a puck past Canada goaltender Corey Hirsch into the net, giving Sweden the lead in the shootout of the gold-medal game at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

A select group of Swedish players have had their likeness on a stamp, but Forsberg is the only one to have a singular accomplishment portrayed.

Why not? The goal paved the way for Sweden to win gold that February afternoon, an iconic accomplishment for generations of fans.

Peter Forsberg's famous shootout goal

(Click to view full-size image)

On Swedish TV, the commentator ran out of words when he saw the puck slide under Hirsch's glove. When he was able to catch his breath, he called it a "Kent Nilsson" goal.

Nilsson, a Stanley Cup winner with the 1987 Edmonton Oilers, used the same move in the 1989 World Championship in Globe Arena in Stockholm, against the United States, beating John Vanbiesbrouck on a breakaway.

Forsberg, 15 at the time of the Nilsson goal, was obviously impressed. Five years later, he pulled the same trick out of the bag in the Olympic final with the most memorable of results.

On Eurosport, the TV commentator was as shocked as his Swedish colleague.

"That kid showed a lot of cheek pulling that one off," he said.

On Feb. 27, 1994, at 6:33 p.m. local time, a hockey star from Sweden like no other was born.

"It was and will always be a big part of my career and something that catapulted me into celebrity status in the hockey world," Forsberg said.

The goal and the gold catapulted Forsberg to a place -- the postage stamp -- reserved almost exclusively for the monarchy in Sweden.

The musical act ABBA was pictured on a stamp, as was tennis legend Björn Borg, but Swedish Post advanced the argument that each subject represented something bigger, served as a symbol of something inherently Swedish. When Borg and alpine skier Ingemar Stenmark were each on a stamp in 1981, the name of the series was called "Sweden in the World." When ABBA appeared on a stamp in 1983, the series was called "Music in Sweden."


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That was how the Forsberg stamp was framed, how it got past the protests of the critics who argued postage was reserved for one set of royalty and not for a hockey interloper no matter how regal he may have been.

Forsberg's penalty-shot stamp is part of a series that Swedish Post released to commemorate two World Championships in Sweden. The series has two stamps, one with long jumper Erica Johansson, to commemorate the athletics world championships in Gothenburg, and the other with Forsberg, for the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in Stockholm.

But for Swedish fans, the stamp meant so much more. It was a tribute to a moment forever frozen in time, one that goes a long way in defining perhaps the greatest player in Sweden's hockey history.

Amazingly, the stamp almost didn't happen.

Hirsch didn't like the idea at all and balked when approached for permission to use his likeness. For that reason, the Canada goalie on the stamp does not have a nameplate, and he wears No. 11, not Hirsch's No. 1.

But 20 years heals all wounds.

"It's amazing to be able to tell my children that I have an Olympic silver medal. I wish we had won, but that wasn't meant to be," Hirsch said. "At the time, I didn't think about it and I didn't get a lot of good advice. I was just repeating what I had been told, about suing the federation. When you're a kid, you don't know, and now … it shouldn't have mattered. I have some of the stamps myself."

That goal will always connect the two men, so even now, with Forsberg going into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Hirsch's name comes up. He's accepted his part in the story.

"Peter's earned it, he has won everything, and he's been a good role model for the game. I like to think I had a hand in it," Hirsch said, laughing.

Forsberg embraced his date with destiny, relishing the opportunity to be a difference-maker as the gold-medal game went to the shootout, which would break a 2-2 tie between Sweden and Canada.

Each team had two of its first five shooters score before the process entered sudden death.

Sweden coach Curt Lundmark was looking for heroes on his bench. He locked his eyes on Hakan Loob, a Stanley Cup winner with the Calgary Flames and the only Swede to score 50 goals in a season in the NHL. Loob looked away, as did Mats Naslund, who won the Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens in 1986.

Tomas Jonsson, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the New York Islanders, said he'd take a shot, and Magnus Svensson, who scored in the first round of the shootout, also said he was game, giving the Swedes three potent weapons, including Forsberg.

Jonsson scored Sweden's first goal of the game, assisted by Loob and Forsberg; Svensson tied it 2-2 with 1:49 remaining in the third period, assisted by Forsberg and Jonsson.

Loob led Sweden in tournament scoring, Naslund was voted to the All-Star team, but in the shootout they were leaning against the boards on the bench with Forsberg on the ice. Some of the players were standing in front of the bench; Lundmark buried his face in his hands as Forsberg accelerated to pick up the puck at center ice and make his attempt.

He picked up speed all the way to the top of the circles and then just glided, his eyes on the net and Hirsch. Forsberg made one fast move with his stick to his forehand -- he beat Hirsch with a backhand on his first penalty shot -- and then, at the last moment, as he was moving past the net, and as Hirsch was moving to his right to block the shot, Forsberg switched to his backhand and pushed the puck into the goal.

"I remember thinking that I had him as he went around and he made his move to the left," Hirsch said. "I thought I had cut him off. The puck really goes under my glove; it's just a matter of centimeters.

"Now, we still had a chance, if Paul [Kariya] had scored."

Loob was up and down the Swedish bench, Forsberg was pumping his fist on the ice, and Kariya, who had seven points in eight games and was on the verge of a superstar career in the NHL, hopped on the ice. Tommy Salo made a fantastic save, and Sweden won the gold medal.

Forsberg, the 20-year-old from Ornskoldsvik, who had grown up idolizing Loob, had helped his idol become one of the first players to win the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold, and a World Championship.

It was quite the ride for a player who had been selling programs in the stands of Modo games less than four years earlier, that is until coach Jan-Åke Andersson called the 17-year-old to join Modo's Elite League roster.

The people in Ornskoldsvik always knew Forsberg would grow up to be somebody.

When he was 7 years old, the local paper Ornskoldsviks Allehanda wrote "a name to keep in mind is Peter Forsberg."

Yet nobody knew how big a star he'd become, or, in all honesty, what he'd become. The article was published after Forsberg won a cross-country skiing competition. He also played soccer, against the team from the other side of the town with Markus Naslund as his nemesis. Forsberg won a silver medal in a school competition in the javelin.

He somehow found the energy to do all that.

"I really didn't eat anything -- no meat, no fish -- and at school I ate maybe on two days out of five. I didn't like anything, so instead I ate cinnamon buns when I got home. The rule was max three buns, never four," Forsberg said, laughing at the memory.

"And when I got to middle school and we were allowed to leave the yard during breaks, I could ride my bike home and eat pancakes Mom had made and put in the freezer. I didn't start to eat properly until high school, so I went from nothing to everything."

In Sweden, young hockey talent makes their debut in the annual TV-Pucken, a tournament for select district teams. All the big names have represented their district. In 1988, the final was played between Stockholm, the biggest district, and Angermanland, a northern district with Ornskoldsvik as its hockey hub.

The star of the Ångermanland team was Naslund, a powerful wing who seemed to score at will. In the final, Stockholm took a 2-0 lead, and Ångermanland's coach, Kent Forsberg, decided to roll two centers. One of them was his son, Peter, a puny but feisty player.

"I had no muscles at all," Peter said. "Everybody on the district team had to do hanging knee raises, and most guys could do it, but when it was my turn, Dad just told me to keep walking. No point in even trying."

Funny, then, that he'd turn out to be a player often described as strong, and that one of his trademarks was the offensive hit, when he would initiate contact even as a puck-carrier.

"Maybe it was good that I was so small, that I couldn't really hit. I had to learn to keep my head up and see where everybody was," he said.

In one of his first shifts with Naslund at the TV-Pucken championship, Forsberg's long pass across the neutral zone sent his linemate on a breakaway. It resulted in a penalty shot, and Naslund scored. Moments later, Forsberg-Naslund struck again, and, eventually, Angermanland won the game.

The TV-Pucken title was the beginning of a friendship that continued through high school, with hockey as its foundation.

"We practiced three times a week with school, and then we had conditioning and theory classes on nutrition and so on, but we also had a lot of free periods, and we always hit the gym then. We'd do three exercises, and one of them was always bench press," Forsberg said, laughing.

Anders Melinder, the hockey high school's principal and later an assistant coach for Modo, created an atmosphere where hard work came first. The players took care of the rest, constantly pushing each other to new heights.

"Our practices were like the Stanley Cup Final. There was hard hitting and fights, but the next day, they'd all come back, wanting to win," Melinder said.

Melinder said Forsberg excelled at almost everything the coaches stressed. His one true weakness, though, was organization.

"I remember at least once how he ran after the players' bus all the way to the rink, because he had missed our time," Melinder said.

They practiced 20 hours a week when school and club were combined.

"It was almost too much," Forsberg said. "We'd have seven ice practices a week, plus games, plus the off-ice work. At one point, my legs just gave out. I remember how I'd have to skate an 8 around the net and I simply couldn't. My legs didn't carry me anymore, and I hit the post. Tragic, really."

But that's what has always separated Forsberg from other good players: his ability to mine every ounce of effort from himself.

In late November 1990, coach Andersson put Forsberg on the Modo senior team roster again, and, like in his first game, he spent most of the game on the bench. In fact, he was so sure he wouldn't get to play he was deep in thought, studying the game program, when the coach called his name.

"He played his first game against us, still wearing a full cage, and he was all over the place, hitting everything," said Loob, who had returned from the NHL and was playing for Farjestads BK. "Thomas Rundqvist (a Sweden regular) was really mad at him. I mean, we were 13 years older than him.

"And then after we met him after the game, there was that kid, looking at his shoes, very shy. But on the ice, he'd stop at nothing."

That season, Forsberg, 18, played about half the games and finished fourth on the senior team in scoring. At the end of the season, Forsberg and Naslund were invited to Sweden's World Championship camp.

"We were called the worst national team ever, before we got to the medal round," Forsberg said, referencing public opinion.

Sweden won gold, beating rival Finland in the final.

"The thing I remember from the tournament is that even though we were in the middle of a World Championship tournament, Peter talked about how hard he'd work out in the summer," said Roger Hansson, Forsberg's roommate during the tournament.

"As long as Markus had been at the camp (and Forsberg's roommate), the two of them had been eating egg whites and bananas, because they were determined to gain weight. That, too, turned into a competition."

Two months after Lillehammer, Forsberg carried Modo to the Swedish final; it qualified for the playoffs as the eighth seed. Ornskoldsvik was delirious with happiness. Kempehallen, the arena, was sold out, and people took time off work to stand in line for tickets.

At the edge of town, signs welcoming people to "Foppaland" popped up, and Forsberg's street also got a new sign, "Foppavagen."

Modo went up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series, Forsberg scored the OT goal in Game 2, but Malmo won three straight and the championship.

Right after the final game, Forsberg broke his sticks across his knee, and then expressed his disappointment to the referee.

"He was so awful, I'd want to give him a smack in the face. And that's the truth," Forsberg said. "The whole town was behind us, we were underdogs and had several local boys on the team. It was a special team. I'm still in touch with several of the players on it."

Naslund left Modo for the NHL earlier that year, which threw Forsberg alone into the limelight.

"He was so nervous when we had made our breakthrough and had started to get media's attention. Peter didn't like doing interviews at all, so I had to answer to questions for both of us," Naslund said. "He's a pretty shy guy. Or at least used to be."

Breaking sticks and wanting to smack referees were a part of growing up for Forsberg. He was always hitting everything and everybody, trash talking, slashing. In 1993, he was tied for second in league goal-scoring and had the second-most penalty minutes. He promised to calm down.

In 1994, he finished third in scoring and second in penalties.

"It's that fire that made him the player he was, but it was also counterproductive because we couldn't have him on the ice," said Naslund, who was Modo general manager from 2011-14, with Forsberg as his assistant. "I think he may miss that drive now that he's not playing. It can be difficult for him to understand why people don't get angry when they're losing a game."

Ornskoldsvik remains Foppaland to this day. Ask New York Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello. He played for Modo in 2009-10, on the same team with Forsberg and Naslund, each back from their NHL adventures.

"I remember hanging out with [Forsberg] and getting so many parking tickets. I didn't understand why but I also didn't check them any closer, so I paid them," Zuccarello said. "But then I realized that every time we went to lunch, he'd park his car wherever he wanted and would always leave first and put the parking ticket on my car. So I paid for all his parking tickets for a year there. What am I going to do, it's Peter Forsberg. But he was just a nice guy though."

Forsberg won his first World Championship at 18, an Olympic gold at 20, and a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche at 22.

"Everything happened so fast," Forsberg said. "Winning those three titles was fantastic, of course, but the fourth one was also so close. Anyway, I didn't think about it then, I just wanted to win everything."

The Philadelphia Flyers drafted Forsberg in 1991 and then traded him to the Quebec Nordiques as part of the package for Eric Lindros.

By the time Forsberg made his NHL debut to start the 1994-95 season, he had won the World Championship, Olympic gold, and set a scoring record at the 1993 World Junior Championship when he scored 31 points in seven games.

"That record will never be broken," said Naslund, one of his linemates.

The other, Niklas Sundstrom, said, "He could do whatever he wanted on the ice. He's such a winner, and so tough on himself, and everybody else."

In 1993, Forsberg decided to play another season with Modo. In an unprecedented deal between the Nordiques, Modo and the Swedish federation, Forsberg was allowed to sign a contract with Quebec but join the Nordiques after his season in Sweden, provided the Nordiques were still playing, which turned out not to be the case.

Though stars are made in the NHL, for Europeans, heroes are made with the national team.

Mats Sundin led Sweden to a World Championship in 1991 and became a hero. Forsberg and Sundin were on the 1992 Worlds team, and Forsberg put his stamp on the 1994 team.

Peter Forsberg was Sweden's flag bearer at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo: Getty Images)

Though he kept on winning in the NHL -- Calder Trophy in 1995, the Stanley Cup in 1996 -- it's his play for the national team that speaks to the hearts of fans in Sweden.

The head always understands the greatness of the NHL players, but the heart doesn't always feel it. Success in the NHL will earn you respect, but not love; exhibit A: Nicklas Lidstrom, the Detroit Red Wings star defenseman.

Forsberg always understood this dynamic and played for the national team whenever possible.

In 1998, he played in the World Championship despite Sweden's disappointing showing in the Nagano Olympics (the first Olympic tournament to allow NHL players to compete) and the first-round Stanley Cup Playoff loss by the Avalanche. Surely the fact Forsberg's father was the coach helped make the decision, but Peter likely would have played anyway.

Sweden defeated Finland 1-0 on aggregate in a two-game final. Forsberg won the tournament scoring title and was voted Best Forward and onto the All-Star team.

In 2001, Forsberg won his second Stanley Cup, and after the disastrous Olympic tournament in Salt Lake City in 2002, Sweden found its way to another World Championship final in 2003, thanks in large part to Forsberg.

During that NHL season, Forsberg won the Art Ross Trophy, scoring three points in the final game of the regular season to pass Naslund. Forsberg also won the Hart Trophy as League MVP.

"I played with Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay, and I think we were plus-52 or something," Forsberg said. "I switched skates about 10 games into the season, and in the last 60 games of that season, I was at my best. I had no injuries."

It was the last time he'd play without health issues. But even limited, as he was later that year, he could be a game-changer.

Halfway through a quarterfinal game against Finland, Sweden was down 5-1 but rallied to 5-4 by the end of the second period. With 12 minutes to go, Forsberg took the puck behind the Sweden net, skated it out of the zone, then through the neutral zone, then around the three Finland players in their zone, around the net, before shooting the puck toward the net, where it bounced in. Sweden tied the game and went on to win 6-5.

"My problems with the foot had begun, and if you watch the goal now, it's not like I'm moving fast, more like slow motion," he said.

All through the mid-1990s, and the first 10 years of the 2000s, there were two camps in Sweden. The divisive question was this: Who is the greatest Swedish hockey player, Forsberg or Sundin?

Forsberg had the keys to Triple Gold Club, winning Olympic gold, the World Championship and the Stanley Cup. Sundin had the World Championship and the captaincy of the Toronto Maple Leafs, an Original Six NHL team. Forsberg had the Hart; Sundin was the first European to be picked No. 1 in the NHL Draft. Sundin was the big man, the goal-scorer; Forsberg was the playmaker and the fighter.

Yet what many people forget is they played together many, many times for Swedish national teams.

Peter Forsberg vs. Mats Sundin

(Click to view full-size image)

They won gold in 1992, they scored memorable goals in the 1996 World Cup, wanted to forget Nagano, rallied from 5-1 to 6-5 against Finland and then lost to Canada in the final of the 2003 Worlds. In 2004, Sundin was 34, Forsberg was 31, and the Swedish federation advertised the upcoming World Cup of Hockey in Stockholm as "The Final Battle."

Had they won the World Cup, perhaps it would have been the final battle, but a quarterfinal loss to the Czechs wasn't the way to end a glorious national career for either player.

When the 2006 Turin Olympics approached, Forsberg had problems with his thigh and wasn't sure it was a good idea to play. He faced the unpleasant thought of missing back-to-back Olympic tournaments.

"I had called my Dad to tell him I wouldn't play, but [my agent] Don [Baizley] was in town and he told me that the Flyers had signed me because I was a winner, because I never give up, so if I told them I wanted to play in the Olympics because I wanted to win, they couldn't stop me," said Forsberg, who joined Philadelphia at the start of the 2005-06 season.

He did want to win, and Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson let him rest the first few games to make sure he was ready.

Sweden reached the goal-medal game, yet Forsberg said he wasn't good when he played.

Again in the Olympic final, Forsberg and Sundin stood side by side fighting for national pride. Forsberg was going for his second Olympic gold, Sundin for his first.

In the third period, Finland's Saku Koivu broke his stick on the opening faceoff against Sundin, and Forsberg picked up the puck.

"I just heard the big man yell, 'GOOOOOOOOOO!' I didn't know what had happened, I just heard Sundin yell," Forsberg said. "He obviously saw that Koivu went to get a new stick and that there was an opening.

"I dropped the puck to Sundin, and he dropped it to Lidstrom. I drove to the net and tried to deflect the puck but I was too slow. The shot was so hard."

Lidstrom beat goalie Antero Niittymaki with a slap shot from the point, and Sweden held Finland scoreless the rest of the way. Sundin had his gold, and Forsberg seemed almost happier about that than the medal around his own neck.

"Mats and I had been in so many battles together over the years, and it was fantastic that we won that Olympic gold together," Forsberg said. "It was a great team, with several NHL captains on it."

The first hockey memories for Forsberg are from the Modo team in 1979, vague images of winning the Swedish title. His idol was Loob, who's 13 years older, and when Forsberg was 10, Loob and Mats Naslund were the little big men of the Swedish league, on their way to the NHL.

The young Swedish NHL players of today had barely been born when Forsberg fooled Hirsch, and were just 10 or so when he won the Hart. He's been their idol, but for many, his prime went by a little too soon for them to witness.

"Everyone who's into hockey knows who Peter Forsberg is. I can't say they've seen him play, but they obviously recognize the name," said Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg, who was born in 1990.

Nashville Predators forward Filip Forsberg (no relation) was born six months after the Lillehammer final.

"He was my favorite player growing up. Obviously, I've been looking at a lot of stuff on YouTube about him," Filip said. "He was probably, if not the best, one of the top three best players we ever had over here. At his top, he was probably the best player in the league. He's really a big factor for Swedish hockey."

Sweden has a long tradition of NHL players, the longest of all the European countries. Even though there were several excellent Swedish players, and even stars, there was always a qualifier, a but.

Ulf Sterner was the first European-trained player but he played four NHL games. Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson won a Cup, but it was the Avco Cup, awarded to the best team in the World Hockey Association. Each of those players also went to the Stanley Cup Final, but didn't win. Johan Hedberg won the Masterton Trophy, and Pelle Lindbergh the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie, but mostly, Swedes had been simply good players in the NHL.

Then came Forsberg, the first to go all the way to the top of the tops, winning the scoring title, the Hart Trophy, the Stanley Cup and so much more. He was arguably the best in the world.

Melinder said, "It's like Roger Bannister running the 4-minute mile. Once he could do it, others could, and Peter showed kids in Ornskoldsvik and Sweden that they, too, could become the best in the world."

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