There is something genteel about the sabbatical, with its overtones of hying off to read a great book or write a novel or see the world. But not necessarily. That was the perverse beauty of the leave of absence that center Peter Forsberg took from the Colorado Avalanche at the beginning of the 2001-02 season. He swears he did not read a single book that he'd always wanted to. He wrote no epics. Except for a week spent hanging around his house in Spain, he didn't travel. Instead, Forsberg literally chilled in his hometown of �rnsk�ldsvik, Sweden, a dreary seaport roughly midway between Stockholm and the Arctic Circle, working out twice a day and occasionally sitting in the stands to watch MoDo, his former Swedish Elite League team.
His playoff-leading 27 points for the Avalanche through Monday is the best argument that the unexamined life is worth living. Forsberg needed the sabbatical to recover physically and psychologically from having his spleen removed last May and also to heal his chronically injured ankles. (He had surgery to relieve the pain from inflamed bursa sacs.) He returned for the first game of the 2002 playoffs the same player he was when he exited: one of the game's top clutch performers. "I like the playoffs," says the 28-year-old Forsberg. "It's all about the hockey, winning the Stanley Cup. Yes, you play as hard as you can in the regular season, but the playoffs are when it really counts, when you have to be really good."
Forsberg would be called a money player except there is little money for NHL players come postseason. For two months of the kind of braveheart hockey being played in the superb Avalanche-Detroit Red Wings Western Conference finals—Colorado had a 3-2 series lead after a 2-1 road overtime victory on Monday night in which Forsberg scored the winner—each player on the Stanley Cup champion will earn about $85,000, or roughly half of what an NBA titlist would get. Forsberg is the man of the hour, not the man of the hourly wage. By at least one measuring stick, Forsberg, who has never scored more than 30 goals in any of his seven regular seasons, qualifies as the top playoff performer among active NHL players with at least 100 postseason games. During the regular season over his career he has averaged .3627 goals per game, but through 113 career playoff matches, when the neutral zone is a briar patch and defensemen hang on elite forwards like Christmas ornaments, Forsberg has scored .4513 per game. The differential is extraordinary, the second greatest in NHL history (behind perennial playoff pest Esa Tikkanen).
Forsberg has made his place among the game's postseason money players. Membership in this fraternity is earned over time. An unlikely candidate, for example, would be a wonder like Carolina Hurricanes second-year defenseman Niclas Wallin (whose team had a 3-2 series lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference finals as of Monday). Wallin stunned everyone by scoring two playoff overtime goals this spring after scoring just one goal in the 2001-02 season. But he is a playoff curio, a footnote to the real hockey history written by players such as Maurice (Rocket) Richard. The Rocket, the 544-goal legend who won eight Cups with the Montreal Canadiens from 1942-43 through '59-60, was an even more prolific scorer in the playoffs. The money player often builds his reputation on something memorable, like the hat trick Mark Messier scored to underwrite his guarantee of victory by the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the titanic 1994 semifinals against the New Jersey Devils. ( Messier is fourth all-time in the differential between regular-season and playoff scoring among skaters with at least 100 postseason games.)
Brett Hull of the Red Wings once had the reputation of being a playoff performer who didn't have his best moments in the clutch. That dissipated in the wee hours of June 19, 1999, when his goal in triple overtime in Game 6 ousted the Buffalo Sabres and gave the Cup to the Dallas Stars. For years Hull was bad-mouthed by hockey observers as a selfish player who would never be on a winner, but that perception has changed, and he is now the epitome of a money player. In 179 playoff matches through Monday, Hull had 22 game-winning goals, second alltime behind Wayne Gretzky's 24.
The money player takes the most sphincter-tightening moments and turns them into larks. Colorado goalie Patrick Roy won 10 straight postseason overtime games in 1993 with the Canadiens and had a 40-16 career record in playoff sudden death. "It comes down to pride," says Roy, the three-time postseason MVP who holds the records for most playoff games (238), victories (148) and shutouts (22). The undisputed Mr. April-To-June withdrew from Olympic consideration for Canada last November because he did not want to compromise a shot at a fifth Stanley Cup, which would leave him one behind Ken Dryden and Jacques Plante, who share the record for goalies. "I don't know if it's because when I was a kid, I would see the Canadiens go down St. Catherine Street with the Stanley Cup all the time," says Roy, who grew up in Quebec City. "That was something special. Every year after watching that, we'd go out and play hockey in the street, and every game would be Game 7. Now, when the season starts, that's what I'm preparing for."
Chris Drury, Colorado's second-line center, has always been prepared for the big games. He had scored 26 goals in four playoff seasons, and an astounding 11 of those had been game-winners, ranking him 11th among active players in that category. Drury usually rides shotgun for Forsberg, who either sets up goals, as he did with the delicate chip pass that Drury ticked by goalie Dominik Hasek for the winner in the Avalanche's 3-2 victory in Game 4 last Saturday, or creates so much space that Drury can make his own news. Drury has what 41-year-old Red Wings center Igor Larionov, hockey's Obi-Wan, calls the "instinct in your soul," a knack for squeezing the most from his abilities at the most important times. Drury passed his metaphysical early in the Game 2 overtime at Detroit on May 20. Hasek was down, and Drury, after a nifty passing play initiated by Forsberg, could have fired on net. Instead, he held the puck, deked wide, put Hasek out on Jefferson Avenue and slid the puck into the yawning net. Drury then celebrated like a man who had scored the first goal on a late October night in Nashville.
"I'm not a nervous guy," says the 25-year-old Drury. "They're different worlds, but being on that stage in front of 40,000 people when I was 12 years old"—Drury was the winning pitcher for the 1989 Little League World Series champions from Trumbull, Conn.—"has had a calming influence on me. Some people might tense up, white knuckles on the stick. I go the other way. I'm not trying to be arrogant, but I feel very calm at that time of game. Getting ready to go out for that overtime [in Game 2], guys were screaming and yelling to get fired up, but I was relaxed. On that goal Hasek was down, and I could have shot. If a guy isn't calm, maybe he shoots it as hard as he can, hoping it goes in, but maybe it misses the net or hits the post or gets saved. I just made the extra move."
Not every money player has the preternatural calm of Drury. Rod Brind'Amour of the Hurricanes, another among the select group who scores at a higher rate in the playoffs than in the regular season, is a clenched fist. He lobbies incessantly for his opportunities. "He wants to be on the ice all the time," says Carolina coach Paul Maurice. "If he played only 20 minutes, I'd be getting the fish eye all night." Roy has so many nervous tics that he makes Richard Simmons look like a yogi. But from the fierce to the focused, the common trait among money players is an ability to concentrate on the game and not on the implications of the game. As Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, a former playoff MVP, says, "If anyone comes into the dressing room thinking he's had a great game, he'll realize he wasn't thinking about it but just playing. He wasn't uptight because he was wrapped up in the game."
The prime-time player has the physical gifts to be more effective when the pace and the intensity of the game increase, but he also has a clear head, able to focus on the details that night and not on the headlines the next morning. He welcomes the spring like Forsberg, who didn't write the Great Swedish Novel on his sabbatical but who is now adding another chapter to the saga of the money player.