Ornskoldsvik, Sweden, is to hockey forwards what San Pedro de Macor�s, Dominican Republic, is to shortstops. Six active NHL players, almost 1% of the league, were born in the dreary seaport (pop. 31,040) located halfway between Stockholm and the Arctic Circle. To gauge the impact that this small city has on the league, consider that if Greater Boston produced as many players per capita, the NHL would have 114 skaters dropping their r's when they speak. This is instructive as the playoffs begin because the destination of the Stanley Cup parade may be determined by which �rnsk�ldsvik-born star, center Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche or left wing Markus Naslund of the Vancouver Canucks, is the most dominant over the next two months.
The wide-open road to the Cup still goes through Hockeytown, where the smart and balanced defending-champion Detroit Red Wings are the favorites to repeat (box, page 64), but the Wings will be challenged by several teams. Foremost among them are the Avalanche and the Canucks, clubs led by the NHL's two best players this season: 29-year-old franchise forwards who were born 10 days apart, grew up less than 10 miles from one another and have been friends since childhood.
Forsberg led the league with 106 points, two more than Naslund, who finished second. Forsberg, who has never scored more than 30 goals (he had 29 this season), was a gaudy +52; Naslund, who has scored at least 40 goals in each of the past three seasons (he had 48 in '02-03), had an NHL-best 12 game-winning goals but was only +6. The 6'1", 205-pound Forsberg created chances with uncanny vision and an unrivaled strength on his skates; the 6-foot, 195-pound Naslund haunted goalies with his wicked wrist shot.
"Not to take anything from Naslund, but I think Pete controls more of the game than anybody," Colorado defenseman Adam Foote says of his teammate. "He takes teams off their games and opens up the ice. No question he should win the Hart Trophy [as league MVP]. Of course, if I'm in the Vancouver room, I'd be saying some of the same things about Naslund."
The more significant hardware that Forsberg and Naslund have their eyes on is the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the playoff MVP, an award Forsberg almost won last year even though the Avalanche lost to Detroit in the riveting seven-game Western Conference finals. Returning from a nearly yearlong absence following the removal of his spleen and operations to repair ailments in both feet, Forsberg had nine goals and a playoff-high 27 points despite playing in only three rounds. His 1.35 points-per-game average was the best in the postseason since 1997.
Naslund has a slimmer spring portfolio than Forsberg, who has been on two Cup winners and has played in almost 10 times as many postseason games. In 12 playoff matches Naslund has two goals, and he scored only one last year when Vancouver collapsed in the first round after taking a 2-0 series lead against Detroit. Naslund and linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison were limited to three goals in six games, an understandable total considering that the Canucks were a one-line team playing a defensively strong opponent. Vancouver is modestly deeper now thanks to the ripening of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, 22-year-old twins from, yes, �rnsk�ldsvik. Still, the club remains top-heavy: Naslund's line accounted for 45% of the Canucks' 264 goals. "Markus is a passionate player," says coach Marc Crawford of his team captain. "The difference between him and most Swedes is that he's a scorer. He's got that positive selfishness. He understands he's the guy with the best chance to put the puck in."
Naslund grew up on the north side of �rnsk�ldsvik. For most of his youth he played organized hockey on outdoor ice in his neighborhood. Forsberg, a south sider, was affiliated with the town's premier club, MoDo, by the time he was six, benefiting from its indoor rink. Naslund's club would practice outside until the temperature dipped below -15�. If it began to snow, half the team would shovel the rink while the other half kept practicing. By the time they were seven, Naslund and Forsberg knew each other and sometimes would talk after games. But Naslund, who was more advanced, often played with older teams, something Forsberg did rarely.
When they were 14, Naslund and Forsberg became teammates on a regional all-star squad, but the marriage as linemates of the best goal scorer (Naslund) and the best playmaker ( Forsberg) in town was shaky. The next season, playing on the same team but on different lines, they won a national championship. The duo went on to attend one of the two high schools in Sweden at which academics and hockey development carry equal weight. "We were pretty good students," Forsberg says. "Markus would stir up things a lot. You look at him and think he's the quietest guy in the world, but let me put it this way: He wasn't the [teacher's pet] sitting in the front row."
The two were inseparable for a while, as classmates, as teammates on the MoDo Juniors and as roommates on the junior national team. When they were 18, they even worked together for a summer, clearing brush under power lines for the electric company that also employed Forsberg's father, Kent (who later became the Swedish national coach), and Naslund's mother, Ulla. "It was hard work," Forsberg says. "There are lots of trees in Sweden."
That year, 1991, there were lots of other promising junior players in Europe who were eligible for the NHL draft. Until then there never had been more than two Europeans selected in the first round, but that year five were chosen, including Forsberg, who went sixth to the Philadelphia Flyers, and Naslund, who was chosen 16th by the Pittsburgh Penguins. Forsberg remained with MoDo, and the next year the Flyers traded his rights, four other players, a No. 1 draft pick and $15 million to the Quebec Nordiques for the rights to 19-year-old Eric Lindros in one of the most ballyhooed deals in league history.