Soon enough, Filip Forsberg will be a household name in hockey circles, if all goes according to plan. Forsberg is here as part of Sweden’s team in the world junior hockey championship, and will be playing for the gold medal Thursday against either Canada or Russia.
As the No. 1-ranked European prospect for the 2012 NHL entry draft, there is extra cachet attached to his presence on a very good – and occasionally very lucky – Swedish team, which tied its game against Finland late and then won in a shootout.
Sweden has all kinds of talent here – from Max Friberg, who seems to score all the big goals, to Sebastien Collberg, the other under-ager on the team, who seems to come through in all the shootouts. But Forsberg is a special talent, a player that coach Roger Ronnberg says is mature beyond his years. If he is, and if he is selected in the top five of the 2012 NHL entry draft, it usually means a quick transition to the NHL.
More than ever, youth is in vogue in these days in professional hockey and Forsberg is just the latest in a long line of newish Swedish prospects – think Gabriel Landeskog, think Erik Karlsson, think Adam Larsson – making an early mark in the professional ranks.
But no, to answer the question that immediately pops into your head, Forsberg is not related to that Forsberg, Peter, the future Hall of Famer who won two Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche, a scoring title and with apologies to Mats Sundin and Markus Naslund, was the dominant Swede of his generation. Peter Forsberg hailed from Modo, Filip is from Leksand. Peter Forsberg was a dynamic all-around player, with an unexpected physical edge to his game. The scouts compare Filip more to fellow Swede Daniel Alfredsson, who in his prime, was a top-flight goal-scorer, and recently made it 400 for his NHL career.
Sweden’s hockey program has undergone a renaissance of sorts these past half-dozen years. During the time the Sedins were coming up, it was them, and nobody else. There was concern that soccer, tennis and other sports were funnelling off the best athletes and that hockey was a lot of people’s second choice.
But in the same way that Russia keeps pumping out players, even if many of them are staying home to play in the KHL, Sweden is becoming a hotbed again – and Swedish players almost always choose the NHL option, making them a far more attractive commodity for teams looking for immediate help. The Sedins are at the top of the scoring charts again; Henrik Lundqvist stars in goal for the New York Rangers and many will argue that Nicklas Lidstrom is one of the greatest defenceman in hockey history. And if one can make a politically incorrect generalization, they are – as a group – among the most low-maintenance players, another quality in high demand.
Ronnberg describes Forsberg as a player with “a unique attitude and character. He can look at himself from the outside, if that is the right way to say it in English. The way he approaches the game is fantastic. He loves to play. It doesn’t matter if we are here in the practice rink or if we’re playing Canada in the Rexall Centre, he’s the same kid. He’s just competing – chasing the puck.”
Since arriving for the world junior tournament, Forsberg has deflected many questions about his famous surname, noting that though they are not related, Peter The Great was his favourite player growing up, and the most influential on his career. Ronnberg sees that, too.
“The most important part of Peter’s game is the way he was competing,” Ronnberg said in an interview. “He was always competing – doing everything it takes to win a hockey game. And Filip is the same, the same character. Then they have differences in the way they play. But it’s a good comparison.”
During Peter Forsberg’s Colorado Avalanche heyday, Filip Forsberg didn’t get much of a chance to watch him play. The games were on too late, most nights. “But national teams, those games I have seen, and I have seen his tributes many times on the YouTube too,” Forsberg said.
Sweden knocked off Canada in exhibition play and soon after it defeated Finland on Tuesday, the possibility of a rematch against the hometown Canadians was floated. The Swedes have spent the week positioning themselves as underdogs and that will not change, no matter who they face in the final.
“The Russians are good and so is Canada, so maybe we are a little bit of an underdog – and I like it that way too.” Forsberg actually said that a few days ago, before the possibility of a game against one or the other became a reality.
Ronnberg saw it the same way: “If we play our best hockey in the right games, sure, we can take it. It’s just coming down to one or two games in the end – and we are really humble about that.”