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Star-studded Icebreakers return for a good cause

by Bill Meltzer
Now in its eighth year, the charity fundraising series of games played each August by the Icebreakers team has become an annual reminder that NHL training camps and the start of the European hockey season are right around the corner. The brainchild of longtime NHL stars Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, the Icebreakers team is operated by The Hockey Pros Foundation, which raises money for children's charities and hospitals throughout the players' home region (Västernorrland) in Sweden.

In addition to the efforts of its founders, a host of current and former NHL players from Sweden contribute money to the foundation and their time to the Icebreakers. Besides the exhibition games the team plays, the players on the squad visit local hospitals and youth centers catering to sick and disabled children.

The 2010 edition of the Icebreakers series kicked off earlier this week in the small Swedish town of Ramsele. Opposed by a team representing the region of Ångermanland, the star-studded Icebreakers squad cruised to a 10-1 victory. In addition to Forsberg and Naslund, the Icebreakers' forward lineup included reigning Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin, Nicklas Backstrom, Samuel Pahlsson, Fredrik Modin, New York Rangers rookie Mats Zuccarello Aasen, former NHL player Per Svartvadet and MODO power forward Per-Age Skroder. The blue line consisted of the likes of Victor Hedman, Tobias Enstrom and former NHL defensemen Mattias Timander and Hans Jonsson. Top Florida Panthers prospect Jacob Markstrom manned the goal. Originally slated to play but unable to attend were forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson and Alexander Steen, defenseman Anton Stralman and injured Philadelphia Flyers goaltender Johan Backlund.

Ramsele is a tiny community, consisting of 850 residents. But a crowd of 1,180 people packed the stands of the small local rink (Rafnahallen), with many standing elbow to elbow to watch the parade of Swedish NHLers of the present and recent past. As has typically been the case in recent years, much of the focus was on how the chronically injured Forsberg felt during and after the game.

Forsberg, 37, has been unable to play in the NHL the last two seasons and has been limited to a combined 26 games for his Elitserien team, MODO Hockey Örnsköldsvik, because of a chronic foot problem. After being disappointed with his showing in the Olympics and with MODO missing the playoffs last spring, Forsberg expressed doubts whether he would continue playing hockey. He noted at the time that his foot problems had returned after a brief period of relief. Forsberg later revealed that he turned down a contract offer from one of his former NHL teams, the Philadelphia Flyers, to assist the club in the final games of the regular season.

Forsberg opted to undergo yet another round of surgery on his foot and began rehab. While he wouldn't commit to whether he intends to play this season (either for MODO or in another bid to return to the NHL and to play for Team Sweden), he said via a press release in the week leading up to the Icebreakers game that he "still feels hungry to play hockey" and was practicing in Örnsköldsvik with MODO. He called the Icebreakers games a "final test" to see if he'd make a full-blown effort to play this season.

In the non-checking environment of the exhibition match in Ramsele, Forsberg put on a show. He assisted on a Backstrom goal on his first shift of the game. Later in the first period, he scored a pair of goals to send his team off to the first intermission with a 3-1 lead. The other Icebreakers took care of the rest, piling on seven more goals over the remaining 40 minutes without any additional points from "Foppa."

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