Commentary

Forsberg is back in Denver, so what now?

Updated: March 7, 2008, 2:17 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

At lunch on Tuesday at Dixon's, in Denver's LoDo district and within walking distance of both the Pepsi Center and Coors Field, bartender Matt Raia handed over the "Specials" sheet.

There was only one item on the sheet.

For $6.99 (or roughly 43 Swedish Krona), I could order "Forsbergers" -- four Swedish meatball sliders -- with "an Avalanche" of homemade potato chips.

At the time, Peter Forsberg -- troubled foot, ankle and all -- was a few hours away from playing his first game in his return to the Colorado Avalanche.

Fortunately, King Carl Gustaf didn't abdicate this week, because given the pack tracking Forsberg in Denver, there couldn't have been many reporters left back in Sweden to cover it.

And in Denver itself?

The coverage has been monumental. The public reaction has been clamorous. Forsberg's return in a 2-1 Avalanche victory over Vancouver on Tuesday, when he didn't have a point but played nearly 20 minutes, didn't sell out. But after it was known he was back in the lineup, the Avalanche's 1-0 victory over Anaheim Thursday was Colorado's eighth sellout of the season, and the box office has been doing brisk business for "Stretch Packages" since he re-signed.

How do you explain Forsberg seemingly eclipsing all but John Elway in star power in Denver's athletic history -- and gaining popularity in his absence?

You don't. You just accept that it happened.

Joe Sakic has been the franchise's captain since -- or, actually before -- the Nordiques landed in town, has won a Hart Trophy and accepted the Stanley Cup twice in handoffs from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. As respected as Sakic is, and that's a lot, he has never generated this sort of rock-star fervor. Maybe if he had left and come back, he wouldn't be as taken for granted.

But there's just something about Forsberg, both on his own and as a representation of the halcyon hockey years in Denver, when the Pepsi Center was sold out every game, when the players' parade from the parking lot to the dressing room at times could seem like a roll call of Hall of Fame candidates.

It all seems to have gone downhill, or at least been a chilling and unwelcome introduction to the real (hockey) world, since the introduction of the salary cap in 2005 led the Avalanche to make half-hearted offers to Forsberg and Adam Foote, all but guaranteeing their departures.

And now, Forsberg is in the Avalanche sweater again, along with Foote, acquired at the trade deadline from Columbus last week.

"It's not just having them back and around," Sakic said. "They're going to help our hockey club. … We know [Forsberg] missed a whole year [2001-02] and came back for the playoffs and was unbelievable. So as long as he's healthy and his foot's fine, we expect a lot of great things from him. And Adam has already made his impact."

Said Forsberg: "It feels like it was yesterday I left here. These guys [Sakic and Foote] are still flying around. Even if they're a couple of years older than I am, they look great out there. Seems like they haven't missed a beat."

In this political year, with the Democratic convention ticketed to play the Pepsi Center in August, I'm reminded of a scene at the end of the landmark film, "The Candidate." The newly elected Robert Redford, who has gone from idealistic, straight-shooting neophyte to something resembling a conventional politician in the space of about 90 minutes, asks his staff, "What do we do now?"

[+] EnlargePeter Forsberg
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesThe media has been swarming around Peter Forsberg since he arrived in Denver last week.

So what now for this team?

First of all, could this season get any more strange? Certainly, this is not the first team in NHL history to suffer injuries, but Sakic, Paul Stastny and Ryan Smyth were all out at the same time until recently, and now Smyth is out again for at least a short time with a concussion and minor shoulder injury. He was hurt in the same game last Saturday against the Kings in which Colorado's leading goal-scorer, Marek Svatos, suffered a season-ending knee injury. Defenseman Brett Clark, the steady journeyman whose poise and unflappability made him more valuable in the post-lockout game, is out for the season with a shoulder injury.

"I wasn't around for three months, so I'm just one of the guys trying to get back in," said Sakic, who missed 38 games because of a hernia. "It's been pretty tough to get a feel for the chemistry with all the guys being out, sometimes at the same time, sometimes at different times. The guys have hung in there pretty good to stay in the race, and now the acquisitions are going to help us down the stretch. It's going to be a fun finish."

Stastny, 22, has been playing in Denver since 2004, when he enrolled as a freshman at the University of Denver. "I was a senior in high school when Peter last played here," he said with a smile. "So I think it's pretty cool to see him here. I don't think he missed a beat [against the Canucks] at all. He's still the two-way player he's always been. He's a very important ingredient to add to our team and we'll take it."

The Avalanche, riding a five-game winning streak and currently in seventh place in the West, could rally and win the Northwest Division, claim the conference's No. 3 seed, and be a bona fide playoff threat. They could also miss the playoffs altogether for the second straight season.

The additions of Foote and Ruslan Salei, who came from Florida for Karlis Skrastins and a draft choice at the deadline, add toughness and a physical edge on the blue line, especially in the wake of Clark's absence. John-Michael Liles has been playing the last week as if the weight of the world is off his shoulders, helping the previously inept power play temporarily get out of the league's No. 30 (as in NHL-worst) spot until St. Louis climbed back out of the cellar Wednesday.

"Ruslan's been great," Sakic said. "With Footie and Pete, they came in here and it's not really an adjustment, so it's almost like getting a couple of injured guys back."

The key issues include how long it will take Smyth to return to the lineup, how effective Forsberg can be at age 34 after taking so much time off and battling the foot and ankle problems, and whether goalie Jose Theodore continues his remarkable turnaround down the stretch of this contract season.

After his shutout of the Ducks, Theodore had a 1.37 goals-against average and a .950 saves percentage in the Avalanche's five-game streak. His figures in the 2008 calendar year -- especially his .927 saves percentage --are reminiscent of his prime at Montreal. "I've got more experience with the things I've gone through in the last couple of years," he said. "I've got more confidence and need to keep building on things."

In his Hart Trophy season, 2001-02, before the anti-obstruction standards opened up the game a bit, Theodore's full-season numbers were 2.11 and .931, so he at least is in that same realm since the New Year.

I'm still suspicious about whether Forsberg lowered his own standards to return, and doing it with Colorado in part because he knew he would be cut more slack in Denver than anywhere else. And it's reasonable to wonder just how much box-office concerns drove this signing, given the Avalanche's lackluster attendance this season in an arena with some of the highest ticket prices in the league.

He has looked rusty, but certainly not out of place, in his first two games, both pointless, playing left wing on a line with Sakic and Milan Hejduk.

"Right now, I feel OK," he said after the game Thursday. "First period, I felt the last game a little bit. But when you get into it, it's OK and it's just great to be out there playing. The more games I play, the better it's going to go."

Since he arrived in Colorado last week, he has emphasized the issue now is conditioning and not so much the condition of his foot.

"There's nothing else I can do about it now," he said. "It's been getting better and so I don't think it should be a problem."

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."