The best hockey player outside the NHL skates for MoDo, a team in Sweden named after a company that builds wastepaper-recycling plants. There's rich felicity in that: Peter Forsberg, the 20-year-old center who will lead the Swedish team that is a favorite to win a medal in Lillehammer, has a knack for turning a trashed play into a tidy scoring opportunity. At 6' 1" and 192 pounds, he's too strong to be knocked off the puck, but he's no lumbering garbage man, either. In fact, when Forsberg joins the Quebec Nordiques in April, he could become the finest Swede to play in North America since Ulf Sterner broke in with the New York Rangers almost 30 years ago.
Though Forsberg was the sixth overall pick in the first round of the 1991 draft, he was somewhat overlooked in the chaos of the June 1992 deal that saw the Nordiques trade the rights to a reluctant Eric Lindros, the first player picked in '91. To get Lindros, the Philadelphia Flyers gave up a litter of starting players and high draft picks, plus the rights to Forsberg. Then, in January 1993, NHL scouts were astonished by Forsberg's playmaking and speed in the World Junior Championships in Gävle, Sweden. In seven games Forsberg had 24 assists, while his line scored 14 power-play goals. Sweden finished as the tournament runner-up having lost once, 5-4 to Canada, despite Forsberg's one goal and three assists in that game.
"Even before the junior worlds, we were being told by Swedish hockey observers, who can be very conservative in their assessments of young players, that this was the best player ever to come out of Sweden," says Pierre Page, the Nordiques' coach and general manager. "I won't say Peter will be a Lindros, but I don't think this franchise is ever going to kick itself for making the trade."
After the junior worlds Forsberg returned to the MoDo team and dominated the Swedish Elite League, that country's equivalent to the NHL, as no player ever had—and he was still a junior. Never before had a teenager even come close to winning the league MVP award, yet in the voting Forsberg beat out 33-year-old Hakan Loob, a former Calgary Flame, to win the honors.
In a country that looks scornfully on rugged hockey, Forsberg uses his bulk willingly. During his first three years with MoDo, he became something of an outcast in the Elite League for all the scrapes he got into as he doled out punishment belying his years. To opposing veterans this was like getting sucker-punched by some punk, and they responded with vigilante justice. But by last spring, the end of his fourth season, Forsberg commanded a wary respect. Now when they hook and hold him, foes are trying to stop him, not provoke him.
Winnipeg-based agent Don Baizley spent three months working out the terms of Forsberg's contract with Quebec, insisting on and ultimately winning the right for his client not only to play in the Games but also to finish out the season with MoDo after the Olympics. The parties settled on a $5 million deal for four full seasons plus whatever Stanley Cup play the Nordiques can use him in this spring. That's a good bit more than the $80,000 or so he made annually in Sweden, and a sum that hasn't gone unnoticed in the Quebec clubhouse. "Of course I care about how they react to me," says Forsberg of his future teammates. "But if they were me, they would do the same. I'm told [the Nordique players] should be glad I signed a big contract, because next time they could sign one too." Alas, for Team USA, Forsberg is waiting until April to find out just what that reaction will be.