Whether or not Forsberg returns, league needs to address sabbaticals
Updated: December 23, 2008, 1:01 PM ETBy Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com
Peter Forsberg, 35, is hoping to begin skating again in January and ultimately pronounce himself -- or more specifically, his balky foot and ankle -- in good enough shape to sign before the trading deadline and be eligible for the playoffs. Stay tuned for the periodic Foppa updates to come.
Forsberg skated! Forsberg looked good! Oops, a Forsberg setback! Sources say this, sources say that! (Even if the sources are an Ornskoldsvik carpenter's brother-in-law who works for the Forsberg family; or even if the sources are entirely fabricated by those prone to throw 314 darts at the wall before crowing when one finally sticks.) Forsberg's back on track! Eventually, the news will come down. One way or another. If Forsberg returns, there are a lot of reasons it most likely would be with the Colorado Avalanche. Among them: • He has long-time ties to the Quebec/Colorado franchise, for which he has played 589 of his 706 regular-season games and for which he took a similar late-season turn and playoff gig earlier this year. • He still owns a loft in downtown Denver (albeit rented out now). • His Canadian-born girlfriend, Michelle Wallace, has been attending graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. • Two years after the end of the franchise's 487-game sellout streak, the Avalanche rank among the bottom third in NHL attendance and Forsberg remains one of the most popular athletes ever to play for a Denver-based franchise. It may be hard for some to understand, but even more so than Joe Sakic, Forsberg is the bridge between the casual sports fan and the sizable hockey-first constituency in Colorado. Toss out the nicknames "Burnaby Joe" and "Foppa" in a crowded Denver sports bar, or even the supermarket line, and you'd think you were in Stockholm, judging from the reaction. Based on full-season figures, the Avalanche have more than $5 million in cap space -- and potentially more if Sakic is deemed to have played his last game, a realistic possibility as he attempts to recover from a back problem, plus broken fingers and tendon damage suffered in a snowblower accident. Even the fact the two players share an agent, Don Baizley, could come into play as Sakic tries to make it back by the projected mid-March target date. In his latest public comments, made to the Swedish television program "Hockeynight," Forsberg said he was "hopeful" of returning to the NHL this season and said if he can't pull that off, he will "call it quits." Avalanche general manager Francois Giguere's posture is there's nothing concrete to comment on until Forsberg deems himself capable of playing, so he won't be drawn into a discussion of Colorado's potential interest. There are other catches, too. The longer Forsberg takes to decide, the more possible it is the Avalanche will be in trouble in their quest for a Western Conference playoff spot. As Christmas approaches, there's a huge logjam from the No. 7 spot on down, and the Avalanche are in it, fighting for the right to play Detroit or San Jose in the first round. If one of the goals is for Forsberg to play just enough during the regular season to be ready for the playoffs, the picture changes if Colorado's postseason chances take a turn for the worse in the coming weeks. He could be characterized as riding in on a white horse, but there is risk there. If another passionate attempt to recover leads to only a cameo stretch run and Forsberg's season ends on April 12, what good does that do anyone? Not much.
Michael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesPeter Forsberg could help the Colorado Avalanche, among other NHL clubs. But his health and the timing of his return are potential sticking points.
And then there's the fact nobody -- not even Forsberg, and almost certainly not the Avalanche -- would be willing to accept a reprise of his run with the Avalanche last season. He played his first game on March 4, and then was in and out of the lineup from that point on. Down the stretch it was: play three, sit four, play one, sit two, play three, sit one, play two. Forsberg was in for all six playoff games against Minnesota in the first round, but he played only one in the four-game wipeout at the hands of Detroit in the conference semifinals. Forsberg delivered some absolutely electric moments, and not only because he was wearing a battery pack that could deliver a stimulus to his foot. Some argued the Avalanche wouldn't have made the playoffs without him, but the uncertainty surrounding his status was a distraction. Any team considering signing him would have to weigh the positives and potential negatives, whether that's the Flyers or Predators -- Forsberg's other former teams -- or anyone else. They'll all remember that after Colorado exited the playoffs last season, Forsberg was adamant that he needed to get the foot and ankle problems under control if he was going to try it again. Since then, he has undergone another surgery, putting himself in the hands of surgeon Bertil Romanus, and announced he is making another run at a comeback. Avalanche defenseman Adam Foote, a longtime Foppa teammate, said he hasn't talked to Forsberg since October. "He knew he was going to have another operation and take another run and see how his feet felt," Foote said. "But it's like when Joe was thinking about retiring: I don't want to bug him." That said, Foote said he is rooting for a Forsberg return. "We saw him play last year, even with the foot problems, and he was pretty good," Foote said. "If he decides to come back, I'll do everything I can to make him feel welcome if they do decide to have him back, even if he plays less than he used to." "It all depends on how he feels," said center Paul Stastny, Colorado's best player and Sakic's heir apparent as the face of the franchise. "He's still at a good age for hockey, and you could see last year that he can still play. You just hope his foot gets better. You don't want to see him make a run for it and get hurt and have further damage. But as long as he's healthy and he can play again without having anything happen to affect him long term, you have to pull for him." Unfairly, Forsberg has been lumped in with Sundin, Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne during the discussion about whether the NHL needs to put an end to the sabbatical phenomenon. It is an affront to the league, and even potentially a circumvention of the salary cap, to allow veterans to say of the first half (or more) of the regular season, What's the big deal? Well, the big deal is season-ticket holders are paying $104 for that Tuesday night game in November. And the theoretical level-the-ice effect of the cap system, while ultimately figured on a day-to-day and prorated basis, is easier to distort as the season approaches its final days. But there's a difference in Forsberg's case. He isn't trying to decide if he wants to play. He's trying to decide if he can. Forsberg's situation is different now than it was in 2001-02, when he decided during training camp he wasn't physically up to playing, announced he was stepping away from the game (and his salary), and ultimately tried to come back in January before discovering he needed additional surgery. He was under contract with Colorado at the time, and that was before the cap. He also wound up returning for the playoffs and had a terrific run, with nine goals and 27 points in 20 games. Selanne and Sundin also were unrestricted free agents when they took their sabbaticals, and it's not a knock on them or Forsberg to point out that this raises a flaw in the system. They took advantage of it, but it needs to be fixed. If you're not under contract before Dec. 1, you shouldn't be able to play that season. 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."
AP Photo/David Zalubowski, fileForsberg punctuated a late-season comeback in 2007-08 with a dazzling playoff run, but ankle and foot problems have plagued him.
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