A northbound plane waits in a blizzard in Stockholm, long after darkness has fallen. The 40-seat prop has rattled out to the runway, where it sits and shivers. The pilot makes an announcement in Swedish, and the stewardess -- in knee-high boots -- translates: “We’re going to be held out here awhile,” she says. “Because the engine is not warm enough yet. Also, be prepared for some heavy turbulence, because it’s very windy. And where we’re going, it’s very, very cold.”
Where we’re going is Örnsköldsvik, Sweden -- about as close to the North Pole as civilization gets. December temperatures hover around 0°. Winds howl and sting and numb. The winter sun rises after 10 a.m., inches slightly into the gloomy sky, stops and drops out of sight by 2 p.m. A few towns north of there, nearer still to the Arctic Circle, the sun will not rise at all today.
There is little to do in Örnsköldsvik on a late-December weekend. Few dare go outside. Some stores have shut for the holidays. And somewhere in the icy town of 55,000, we hear, the greatest hockey player in the world is hiding out.
On Sept. 15, Peter Forsberg vanished. He waved off his $11 million salary, telling the Colorado Avalanche that at age 28 he didn’t have “the desire, strength and mental toughness” to compete. Of all people. Here’s a guy who led his team to a playoff series-clinching victory last May while bleeding internally. A man who landed in the emergency room hours later to have his spleen removed.
Maybe he grew weary of the swelled ankles that forced him through 46 pairs of skates in recent years. But Forsberg had played through searing pain before. Why stop now? And why would a rich man who could rest and rehab anywhere in the world go to a place some might consider hell frozen over? It is time to find Forsberg.
Bjorn, the cab driver, revs his Peugeot and fishtails out of the Örnsköldsvik airport parking lot. No buildings or street lights anywhere. The moon hangs low and feeble. The road ahead, narrow and precarious, remains coated with black ice. It is so quiet that the driver’s rhythmic breathing can be heard from the passenger seat. Bjorn turns a corner, and there are the smoke- belching pulp factories of Örnsköldsvik (urn-shulds-VEEK), Forsberg’s hometown. Bjorn pulls up to the First Hotel, which has only 20 guests tonight. Yes, he’s seen Forsberg around. But no, not recently.
Is he in town? Anders Melinder might know. He’s watched Forsberg since Peter was a kid. Melinder schooled the young star and stood behind the bench when Forsberg scored the gold medal-winning goal for Team Sweden in the 1994 Olympics. Hockey is taken seriously up here, Melinder explains, but no one took the sport as seriously as Peter. “He would drop his stick and fight his best friends to win,” Melinder says, huffing over his cell phone from outside a rink in the south of Sweden. “It was life and death. Some people play hockey; he fought hockey.”
So where is he? “He is in Örnsköldsvik, I am sure,” Melinder says. “There are six rinks in town.” He pauses. “But there is only one where he would skate.”
Kempehallen may just be the coldest rink on earth. It is the rickety old home to legendary MoDo, a pro team sponsored by a paper products company formerly of the same name. They used to play outdoor hockey here, somehow, but the town added a roof and some red wooden seats in the ’60s. Still, many of the 5,500 fans who pack the barn for each game stand in parkas, scarves and mittens. Forsberg played here from 1989 until ’94.
The rink is empty. MoDo has finished practice for the day. In the team offices, marketing director Frederik Östman bears a welcoming smile and a potbelly. Forsberg? “Everyone thinks he’s here,” Östman says with a shrug, “but he isn’t.” He walks quickly out to the rink, to the seat from which Forsberg watches MoDo games when he’s in town. Östman ducks down a corridor lined with MoDo team pictures. There’s Forsberg grinning in ’89, ’90, ’91, and so on. Östman motions toward a life-size picture of Forsberg on the wall. The local hero is raising his arms and stick over his head with a smile as pure as a child’s. This moment, Östman insists, was as important to Forsberg as winning Olympic gold. Because the hero is still haunted by what happened next.
MoDo barely made the playoffs that ’94 season. But the 20-year-old Forsberg brought the team to its first final since 1979. Sixteen minutes into the second overtime of Game 2 against Malmö, Forsberg scored to put MoDo one win from gold. Some say they’ve never seen Forsberg so happy -- before or since.
Then Forsberg came down with a flulike illness. Though he continued playing, MoDo lost Game 3 badly, and then Game 4 at home. One more chance: a deciding fifth game -- and likely Forsberg’s last in Sweden. The phenom planned to leave the country for the NHL that summer. Fans caravanned from hundreds of miles north, Östman remembers. Forsberg skated furiously until the clock expired, but in vain. MoDo lost 3-1. Forsberg picked up his stick, grabbed it from both ends and snapped it over his knee.
Forsberg had won gold as a junior, in the World Championships and in the Olympics. But he left Sweden having never won gold for his beloved MoDo. A few weeks later, he took his soft hands and hard elbows to North America, where he would win NHL Rookie of the Year honors, invitations to six All-Star games, two Stanley Cups and a reputation as the league’s fiercest two-way player. But that one loss gnawed. Forsberg promised Sweden that he would one day make another run at MoDo gold.
They believe him. Peter Forsberg finishes every rush, every check, every shift. How could he walk away from hockey with so much left undone?
It’s almost 2 p.m. and the sun is setting. Lunch break. Östman walks out to the parking lot and unplugs his car. (Temperatures are so low here that drivers need to hook their vehicles up to electrical outlets to keep engines from freezing -- and, in some cases, cracking.) He skids into town, talking still about the ’94 heartbreaker. “It was like time stopped that night,” Östman says “Ever since that moment, we’ve been just waiting for him to come back.”
So where is he now? Östman turns a corner and then points a finger. “There’s a place called Mammamia’s up there on the right. That’s where all the hockey players go to eat. Ask for Giordano.” Giordano Sternad, with his Davy Jones hair and wire-rim glasses, runs a candlelit pizza place down by the water. Inside, he’s built a hockey shrine to all the national heroes: Markus Naslund, Mats Sundin, the Sedin twins. But for Forsberg, Giordano has set aside an entire glass case of jerseys from MoDo, Team Sweden, Quebec and Colorado.
Giordano has known Forsberg since he was born. Forsberg ate here just the other day, in fact. And Giordano knows something else. “He’s training from 8 in the morning,” Giordano says. “I tell you, I’ve never seen him so well. He looks so fresh and happy.”
Now Giordano leans in close. MoDo has an exhibition game tonight, he says. Peter’s best friend will be playing for the opposition. Peter’s father will be there too. Giordano’s voice drops to a whisper: “You should go down there.”
Out on the frozen streets, locals file slowly out of stores and fill the air with steamy exhales. Seven-branch candelabras glow from every window. Small flames flicker from makeshift candles in tin cans placed carefully along the icy sidewalks for light. A single horse clops along with a portly Santa sitting in a carriage in tow. Everyone is ready for hockey.
Down at Kempehallen, MoDo readies for ÖSK, an opponent from a weaker division. Before the game starts, MoDo has spotted the visitors a 6-0 lead even as Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girl” welcomes the teams onto the ice. Henrik Gradin, Forsberg’s buddy, wears No.15 for ÖSK. The puck drops. Peter Forsberg’s seat remains empty.
At the end of the first period, a gray-bearded man in a leather jacket enters the building and leans over a balcony at one end of the rink. Immediately, he is immersed in the game below, dropping his head with every error. It is Peter’s father, Kent Forsberg, who coached MoDo from ’91 to ’94. Kent gave Peter his no-excuses drive. “Cold enough for you?” he asks an out-of-towner. “You know, there is no such thing as bad weather. Just bad clothes.”
Is Peter in town? Will he talk? Kent hears the question, but doesn’t answer directly. “I think he will come back,” the elder Forsberg says. “I’m worried he’ll go back and get injured again. It scares me what’s happened with Lindros. Peter’s had three or four concussions. One more and I’d advise him to finish.”
But Kent Forsberg wouldn’t have left the game the way his son did. It’s not his way. “It’s easy to take a break, but difficult to come back. Lots of stars try to come back but don’t,” he says. Kent makes a chart in the air with his finger, indicating that those who leave the game and come back usually falter. But Kent insists he supports his son’s decision. “I hope he comes back to hockey,” Kent says. “Hockey is his life.”
Is it still? Only two men know for sure: Peter himself and his best friend. Henrik Gradin, with his deep-set eyes, short blond hair and sculpted jawline, has spoken to Forsberg every day since the superstar left for America seven years ago. Gradin made four trips to Denver last season to help Forsberg fine-tune his skates and cope with his pain. Only Gradin can testify how frustrated -- and depleted -- Forsberg became.
“He wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t absolutely necessary,” Gradin would say later that evening at a dark hotel bar. “If he doesn’t feel his best, he’s not going to play. He started saying things like, ‘I don’t give a s--- about this.’ Having his spleen removed was just too much.”
And so on Sept.14, Forsberg called Gradin from Stockholm, where he was touring with the Avalanche. “Can you come down?” Peter asked his friend. The next day, Forsberg told the world he was leaving hockey. He hopped into Gradin’s car for the six-hour ride home to Örnsköldsvik. The buddies chatted endlessly as they flew up the coast -- about cars, soccer, women … everything but hockey. “He was so happy,” Gradin says. “You could see he carried this weight for so long.” The pair arrived by evening, ate and watched soccer until they couldn’t keep their eyes open. The superhero finally traded in his cape and red boots. He retreated to his fortress near the North Pole. And to his own surprise, he felt at peace. Even hockey-crazed townies whom Forsberg expected to condemn him for quitting offered only congratulations for having the courage to walk away.
Kent says Peter plans to return to the Avalanche before the Olympics. What then? Will NHL fans once again see Forsberg the Ferocious -- the All-Star who played as if perfect was not quite good enough?
The final period begins, and MoDo grapples half-heartedly with an 8-1 deficit. Fans wait in their seats for some excitement. The main concourse grows quiet and vacant. The ticket-takers chat in their tiny booth, hoping for maybe one more customer to show. A concessionaire leans out from behind a dangling ketchup dispenser. “Seen him?” he asks.
Outside, the careful crunch of tires on packed snow breaks the silence of the night. Moments later, a door swings open and a rush of chilly air blows in. A large man in jeans and a baseball cap whisks inside and makes a hard left without looking at the rink. The game goes on below, but necks begin to crane. The man walks faster, then ducks underneath a chain blocking a dark corridor on the far end of the rink.
Then he reemerges in the last row of seats. The man stands taller than those around him. He wears a beard and no expression. He stares down at the rink, hands in pockets. Kent Forsberg takes his eyes off the game. He looks across the crowd at the man.
Is that Peter?
Kent tilts his head forward to peer over the rims of his glasses. His eyes widen.
Up close, Peter Forsberg indeed seems serene and rested. He shakes hands and signs autographs. He looks bigger -- ready to lace ’em up -- but he does not watch the game with the same laser glare as his father. And, when asked to talk hockey, he refuses. “I’m leaving,” he says politely.
Forsberg does not leave. Instead, he watches MoDo mount a furious comeback, which began almost the minute its greatest hero entered the building. The boys put up six goals in the third and nearly tie the game in the waning seconds. The teams leave the ice, the fans head out into the cold and the overhead lights are dimmed. Peter Forsberg stands alone, staring at the empty rink, deep in thought.
The next day, at 2 p.m., as the sun sets on Örnsköldsvik, Peter Forsberg breaks his long silence. He really shouldn’t; he must be brief. No talk about his comeback -- he hadn’t even skated yet with a puck. But from Henrik’s home, on Henrik’s cell phone, he speaks on the record to a North American journalist for the first time since his disappearance.
At first, he sounds like the old Peter -- Kent’s son talking. “If you do something, you’d better do it right,” Forsberg says. “If you get on the ice, you’d better win.” Yes, he is still a bad loser. Yes, he wants that ’94 loss to Malmö back. Yes, he also wants those two Game 7’s with Dallas back. Yes, he wants to win another gold and another Cup. Yes, he plans to finish his career in MoDo red, with that missing medal around his neck. And what does he want from the rest of his career?
Forsberg answers with one word: “Win.”
But then, as the conversation creeps on, the new Peter surfaces. Looking back on his wild days with MoDo, he admits, “I was feistier then than now. I took the game so seriously. I got really mad. That’s not the best way to win.” He came up here, away from the game and the media and the pressure, because he wanted time to think. “You can relax up here,” he says. “Nobody cares who you are.”
Why did he leave the game he loves? “I miss hockey,” Forsberg says. “But when you have surgery like that, you learn life is more important. I could have died if they hadn’t taken my spleen out.”
What has he learned in Örnsköldsvik, away from the glare of fame and NHL arenas, passing this dark season lit by candles in tin cans?
“Sometimes you live for hockey,” Forsberg says. “Sometimes, you don’t.”
That is the balance Forsberg seeks. He has reached a crossroads familiar to driven men. Life as a fire-breathing hockey god who would pummel his own friends for a win brought him silver and gold. But it also brought him unimaginable physical agony and emotional burnout. Perfect was never good enough for Forsberg. Now he must give up perfectionism as well. We finally find Peter Forsberg, only to discover Peter Forsberg has been trying to find himself.
Forsberg has to go now. It’s snowing heavily in Örnsköldsvik, and the greatest hockey player on the planet is trying to get to the airport, trying to get a flight to Stockholm, trying to leave home once again.
This article appears in the January 21 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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