Mike Milbury distilled the dilemma to these words: "Who are you
going to check?"
Eight hours before a recent game between the New York Islanders
and the Colorado Avalanche, Milbury, the Islanders' coach and
general manager, pinpointed the predicament in which Colorado's
opponents find themselves: If, like most teams, you have one
checking line, whom do you try to shut down, Joe Sakic or Peter
Pick your poison. Sakic, 27, the center on the Avalanche's first
line, is slick, quick and equipped with the most lethal wrist
shot in hockey. He releases it in stride, from odd angles, with
no windup and no warning. The 23-year-old Forsberg, the center
on Colorado's second line, plays with dazzling creativity and
against type--he's a Swede with a mean streak.
Who is better? Milbury gives the edge to Forsberg, whom he calls
"the best player in the league right now, no question."
December 9, 1996
Who's the second-best player? "Probably the guy on the same
team," Milbury adds.
The last time two young centers this talented played on the same
team, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier were Edmonton Oilers. If
you think Tori Spelling is spoiled, check out Colorado hockey
fans. One year they have no NHL team, the next year the
Avalanche--the former Quebec Nordiques, who were sold and moved
to Denver in June 1995--come to town and win the Stanley Cup.
Colorado has Patrick Roy, a Hall of Fame goalie who talks trash
(and backs it up) in two languages, a platoon of hulking, mobile
defensemen and Forsberg and Sakic. At week's end Forsberg and
Sakic were the top two scorers in the NHL, tied with 36 points.
Last Saturday's 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils ran the
Avalanche's record to 16-6-4, the best mark in the Western
Conference. Colorado has fallen only twice in its last 17 games,
since a 5-1 road loss to the Calgary Flames on Oct. 22. That
defeat spurred Sakic, the Avalanche's soft-spoken captain, to do
something he rarely does: address the team. "I told them we had
to get our focus back and get on a roll," he says. Sakic hasn't
had to give a speech since. That suits him just fine. He's a
quiet leader, someone who leads by example. When asked to
provide a sample of a typical Sakic dressing room oration,
former Colorado defenseman Craig Wolanin, who now plays for the
Tampa Bay Lightning, came up with two: 1) "O.K., boys, bus is
leaving at noon." 2) "O.K., boys, bus is leaving at six."
"He's a little better than that," Avalanche coach Marc Crawford
says. Indeed, teammates report that Sakic more than holds his
own in the exchange of verbal abuse that is the staple of
dressing room life. He needles left wing Eric Lacroix, whose
father, Pierre, is the Colorado general manager, by calling him
G.M.'s Boy, and he seldom misses an opportunity to tweak right
wing Adam Deadmarsh for his "bowling pin" physique.
Nor does Sakic spare the equally laconic Forsberg, riding him
for his allegedly lackadaisical off-season workout regimen,
which, according to Sakic, consists of this: "He goes home,
plays a round of golf in the morning, another round in the
afternoon, gets hammered, then plays another round. The sun
stays up over there till three in the morning."
Though Forsberg insists that Sakic grossly misrepresents how he
spends his summer vacations--"I work out a lot," Forsberg
says--he regretfully reports that he played no midnight golf
last summer. Between the Stanley Cup finals, which ended on June
10, and training camp for the World Cup, which began on Aug. 11,
he was off the ice for less than three weeks.
Two days before Sweden's first World Cup game, on Aug. 26, the
Stanley Cup arrived at Forsberg's house in Ornskoldsvik, 300
miles north of Stockholm. It was a big deal--the Cup had never
been on Swedish soil. One catches a tinge of regret as Forsberg
reports that he celebrated not with a bacchanalia but with a
sedate picnic. "I couldn't drink," he says. "The World Cup is a
big thing. I had to be in shape. If I'd got hammered, it
would've been in the paper: 'Forsberg couldn't even walk two
days before the game.'"
For Sweden's answer to Michael Jordan, that would have
constituted a scandal. Forsberg became a household name in his
country two years ago by scoring the so-called stamp goal--his
shoot-out score against Canada at the Lillehammer Olympics
clinched the gold medal for Sweden and was commemorated on a
postage stamp. He has not always drawn such positive notice at
home. In 1991, during his second year with MoDo of the Swedish
Elite league, an article decrying the rough play of Forsberg and
linemate Markus Naslund, who now plays for the Vancouver
Canucks, appeared in the Swedish national newspaper Aftonbladet.
While Sakic, who hails from Burnaby, B.C., played his junior
hockey in the rugged Western Hockey League, it's Forsberg who
plays the aggressive North American style. "Peter always played
with older guys, and he wanted to show them he could give a hit
and take a hit," says Kent Forsberg, Peter's father and the
coach of the Swedish national team. "Sometimes, he was a little
Forsberg was drafted in 1991 by the Philadelphia Flyers, who
traded him--plus five players, two draft picks and $15
million--to the Nordiques for the rights to superstar-to-be Eric
Lindros. At the time Quebec's management was pilloried.
Hindsight shows that the deal brought the Nordiques the nucleus
of a Stanley Cup winner.
Upon arriving in the NHL for the 1994-95 season, Forsberg, then
21, showed the older guys he could give and take a hit--and also
make plays and score. Despite a lockout-shortened schedule, he
had 15 goals and 35 assists in 47 games and won the Calder
Memorial Trophy as the league's best rookie. In his second
season Forsberg had 116 points, fifth highest in the NHL. His 10
playoff goals included the most eye-popping of the postseason.
In Game 6 of the Western Conference finals against the Detroit
Red Wings, Forsberg, in the parlance of soccer, "nutmegged" Red
Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, sliding the puck between his
legs, taking it back and then sliding the disk between the legs
of Detroit goalie Chris Osgood.
"This kid makes plays no one else can imagine," says Lacroix,
the general manager, who sees a dash of Gordie Howe in Forsberg.
Unlike Mr. Hockey, however, Forsberg wears a visor and will not
drop his gloves in anger. "I'm not used to fistfights," Forsberg
says. "If I fought guys over here, I'd probably get my ass
There are other ways to punish an opponent. On Oct. 5 defenseman
Derian Hatcher of the Dallas Stars bloodied Forsberg's mouth
with a vicious elbow and was assessed a five-minute penalty.
Forsberg missed one shift before returning to set up a
power-play goal, scored by Sakic. Just over eight minutes
thereafter, Forsberg lowered his shoulder into Stars center Joe
Nieuwendyk, who suffered a concussion and a bruised chest. The
crunching check, which was legal, knocked Nieuwendyk out for 12
"Peter likes the rough-going," says Sakic, admiringly.
Speaking of rough-going, listen to this "dialogue," which the
monosyllabic Sakic recently engaged in with a reporter.
"Joe, have people in Denver come up with a nickname for you? Are
they calling you anything special?"
Noticing the defeated look on the scribe's face, Sakic said
matter-of-factly and without malice, "You're not getting
anything out of me."
What Colorado is getting out of Sakic is the best hockey of his
career. He has picked up where he left off last season, when he
scored 51 regular-season goals and added 18 during the playoffs,
including six game-winners. For his prolific and clutch scoring,
Sakic was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player
in the postseason. Called upon last June 12 to address 450,000
fans who thronged downtown Denver to celebrate the Avalanche's
Stanley Cup sweep of the Florida Panthers, Sakic allowed himself
eight words: "Hey, Denver! We're a city of champions now!" The
crowd went wild.
Crawford described Sakic's 1995-96 season as a "coming-out"
party. It's true that Sakic averaged 94 points in the six full
seasons he played in Quebec. His brilliance, however, was that
of a silver dollar at the bottom of an outhouse well--for most
of his stay in Quebec, the Nordiques stunk.
If Coloradans didn't know who he was at the beginning of last
season, they do now. Born in Burnaby to Croatian immigrants,
Sakic spoke only Croatian at home until he got to kindergarten.
"I think that's why I was so shy," he says. At 17 he moved in
order to play for the Swift Current (Sask.) Broncos of the WHL.
Two events marked his first year away from home. The first
occurred in a corridor at Swift Current Comprehensive High,
where Sakic was finishing up his studies. Temporarily mastering
his bashfulness, he introduced himself to a comely 10th-grader
named Debbie. They were married two years ago. On Oct. 3 Debbie
gave birth to their first child, Mitchell.
The second happened on Dec. 30, 1986, when a bus taking the
Broncos to a road game hit a patch of black ice on an overpass
at 60 mph, went airborne and came crashing down on its right
side on the service road. Four players were killed; all Canada
Sakic landed on his feet--literally--and recalls the tragedy in
a passage which, for him, borders on a filibuster: "We stopped
skidding, the bus was on its side, and I was just standing
there. I don't know what happened. The front windows were gone,
and all I had to do was walk out. When something like that
happens, it makes you think about how precious life is."
That spring the Nordiques made Sakic the 15th pick in the entry
draft. Playing for a crummy team in a snowbound, Francophone
city seems like a prescription for misery, but Sakic was happy.
"To start out in a small market where nobody paid much attention
was the best thing for me," he says.
It was also good for his golf game. Until last season Sakic had
been to the playoffs only twice. Both times the Nordiques were
eliminated in the first round. While other guys were making
their reputations in the postseason, Sakic was making tee times.
Then he went and conducted his personal Sherman's March through
the 1996 playoffs and blew his cover for good. Sakic and
Forsberg will never lead the league in one-liners, but that's
O.K. As Avalanche fans know, there's nothing wrong with the
strong, silent types.