Markus Naslund is the last guy who thought he’d be making a comeback.
After stepping away from the NHL in May, the 36-year-old rarely thought about hockey and was plenty busy with the construction of a new house in his hometown of Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.
But his plans started to change during a recent conversation with Peter Forsberg. The two old friends discussed the struggles of Modo, the local Swedish Elite League team, and felt compelled to try and help – by volunteering their services.
Just like that, Naslund was on the comeback trail.
“It might sound weird, but I haven’t missed playing,” Naslund told The Canadian Press on Sunday. “I still felt that I made the right choice in retiring. This was just a different scenario with coming back here and playing in my hometown because I’m helping the team.
“They were in dead last place and they were struggling financially. It’s just one of those things where both me and Peter felt that it was a good thing to do.”
Forsberg and Naslund were born 10 days apart in Ornskoldsvik and started playing for Modo as 17-year-olds. They spent three seasons together with the team before moving to North America and becoming stars in the NHL.
Now they’ll be bringing some star power back to Modo and they’re doing it for free. Neither man will collect a salary this season.
They each felt it was important to give back to the franchise that helped launch their careers and the town where they were raised. Ornskoldsvik has a population of roughly 30,000 – most of whom are passionate Modo followers.
“The hockey team means everything to this city,” said Naslund. “In everyday life, that’s the only real thing that they have here in this town as far as entertainment goes. Now when the team is not doing well, you can tell a lot of people are down here too.”
Naslund has begun practising with the team and figures it’ll be a couple weeks before he’s ready to play. Forsberg, meanwhile, has already been stellar – racking up six goals and 12 points through six games.
The last time Naslund played competitively was as a member of the New York Rangers in the spring. Shortly after the team was eliminated from the playoffs, he decided to opt out of the final season of his NHL contract, leaving US$4 million on the table in retirement.
It looked like the end of the line for him as a professional athlete.
“I worked out until maybe mid-June or so,” said Naslund. “I’ve been really busy with building a house here and I’ve been at the house site for full days the whole time.
“But it’s not like I’ve let myself go, I feel that it shouldn’t take me too long to get back into game shape.”
It’s been a busy couple weeks for Naslund.
Not only did he announce his comeback with Modo and move into a new home, he also joined the NHLPA’s Goals & Dreams anniversary tour. That program saw former NHLers hand out hockey equipment to children in 10 different countries over 10 days.
Naslund hosted the kickoff event in Ornskoldsvik before joining two former teammates on their stops – Jyrki Lumme in Helsinki and Pavel Bure in Moscow.
“I had a great few days there with the crew,” he said. “I’m very proud to be part of that whole thing. I see what it does to kids around the world, I think that’s what it’s all about.”
His focus now turns back to the ice.
One thing that didn’t motivate Naslund’s return is the prospect of playing at the Olympics in Vancouver, where he spent the majority of his career and was the longtime Canucks captain. He wasn’t included on the Swedish team’s long list of potential players and is ineligible for the Games.
There have been no shortage of chances to come back before now. In fact, Modo has been trying to lure him for some time.
“They’ve asked me throughout the summer and even in the fall when they’ve been struggling and I haven’t felt that it was even on the horizon for me to come back,” said Naslund. “And then a lot of things just happened at once there and I just decided to go ahead and do it. I had no intentions of playing at all when I left New York.
“It wasn’t in the back of my mind at all.”
Now that he’s made the commitment, he’s starting to get excited.
“It will be interesting to see what it feels like to play again,” said Naslund. “Hopefully, it will be something where we have some fun and are successful on the ice too.”