|Monday, September 17
Forsberg suddenly soft? Something must be wrong
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
When the Colorado Avalanche arrived back in Denver on a chartered plane Monday morning, their hearts were heavier than when they departed for Sweden last week. The Avalanche has only four U.S.-born players -- Shjon Podein, Chris Drury, Dan Hinote and Scott Parker -- but these days, grief is not confined to those carrying passports with the eagle embosssed on the front.
The major-league and major-college games did not go on, as they shouldn't have. As warped as our perspectives can be in this business, the reality is that most Americans DO understand what sports are -- diversion -- and don't need to be condescendingly and sanctimoniously reminded of that each time tragedy strikes.
Beginning Monday, sport resumed. The Avalanche landed, and -- amid both the American grief and the steely determination -- pondered the issue of possibly playing the entire season without Peter Forsberg.
Sounds trivial, doesn't it? As we already were at war with terror, a hockey team was dealing with a Swedish superstar's surprising announcement that he wants to step away from the NHL for at least the near future. And perhaps even forever.
But from here on, the assumptions are these: By discussing sports, we are not trivializing issues of far more importance. Intelligent sports fans -- note the qualification, that excludes those of you who have nothing else in your life -- have known that all along.
On Saturday in Stockholm, about 300 miles south of his native Ornskoldsvik, Forsberg made his surprising announcement. His body was sending a message to his mind, he said. Time to leave the game for at least a while, he said.
Disingenuousness is neither a Scandinavian trait nor what we have come to expect from Forsberg.
So he probably is telling us the truth about his reasons. The truth, as far as it goes. He is banged up. He has had a myriad of surgeries over the past few years, including ankle surgery this summer. He was hurting when he worked out with the Avalanche last week.
But it doesn't completely add up.
His declaration that he won't seek or accept payment from the Avalanche during his absence is admirable and refreshing on the surface.
Yet it also implies the spiritual and mental elements in his decision-making are more significant than we were led to believe from his statements Saturday in Stockholm.
He could play. In pain, obviously. At less than 100 percent, apparently. But he could play.
He doesn't want to.
It seems we haven't heard all the reasons why.
He said the injuries and surgeries have left him hurting and drained of fire. His sense of perfectionism and pride prevent him from playing at less than the peak of his game, particularly when the standard is that steely mental determination of a champion.
One of the toughest players in hockey isn't tough enough to fight through this?
And now he's not gritty enough to persevere through this?
There isn't an NHL player who doesn't wince in pain at some point when putting on the pads before a game. Perhaps this sounds in line with the archaic North American code that at times still hurts more than it helps the game, but Forsberg -- in his own fashion, one of the toughest athletes on the ice and on the planet -- seems to be saying he can't take it. Or he can't play through it.
Don't we know better than that?
"It's not my intention to get paid, no," Forsberg said Saturday in response to my question. "I understand the situation here. It's not like I broke the leg and I'm going to get paid. I understand the problem, I need to heal my body. But it's not a specific thing.
"Of course, when you have a problem with your body, and I don't feel like I should be out there playing, it's a mental thing, too. I'm not ready to go out there and play and do the things I have to do to be successful on the ice.
"It's not my intention to get money on anything. That's not why I'm playing, and I want to be fair."
But fairness would have been reciprocal. If Forsberg had gone to Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke and general manager Pierre Lacroix and said, sure, he could play at less than 100 percent, but it would be better for him to rest and recuperate and come back strong at some point in the near future, do you think the Avs would have balked at paying him?
If the cumulative effect of injuries caused by events on the ice were rendering Forsberg too damaged to play effectively, and in need of a rehabilitation process, no arbitrator would have endorsed an attempt to withhold salary. The Avs wouldn't do that, at least not to a player of Forsberg's caliber, so that's brought up only as a means of demonstrating Forsberg's determination not to be paid is an indication there must be far more to this than hockey injuries.
Significantly, if Forsberg said it simply was a case of needing to further recuperate from on-ice injuries, the Avs rightfully would have requested Forsberg's recuperation and rehabilitation be subject to monitoring by the team.
The precedent of a player saying he is too banged up to play, then heading off on his own to attempt to recharge and rehabilitate, would have been daunting. They might even have hoped that he be around to practice with the organization, or at least go through treatments at the team facility.
Clearly, Forsberg does not want to do that. He wants to get completely away. For at least a while. He wants to get away from hockey. In this case, while he stays in Sweden, it means he will be away from Colorado and the extensive NHL travel.
Forsberg told his teammates he probably would miss the entire season, but that's hard to imagine.
Forsberg also said if he wasn't playing for the Avalanche, he wouldn't play for the Swedish Olympic team in the Salt Lake Olympics in February. He will be under immense pressure to play for his homeland, and it's difficult to picture him sitting out the Winter Games.
The guess is, he'll be back in a Colorado uniform by Christmas. But that's all it is -- a guess -- because unless Forsberg suddenly lost the toughness that made him great, we don't yet know the whole story.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback email address is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.