At Christmastime, we North Americans have our egg nog. Nordic countries have their glogg (pronounced “gloog,” with a heavy accent on the ‘oo’). You could say that in Sweden they love to glug their glogg, a sweet, high-octane mulled wine that is served warm so as to raise the temperature of the mouth and stomach, thereby pushing the blood to the skin to create an all-round glow, warming the body and the soul from the inside out. Swedes like to spend all Christmas Day sitting around drinking glogg and watching Donald Duck cartoons. Anyway, it was only a couple sleeps before Christmas and the Presidents’ Trophy-contending Nashville Predators found themselves with a rare day off. Now, Filip Forsberg and Mattias Ekholm could have spent their off-day concocting a brew of wine, brandy, cardamom, orange peels and cinnamon sticks themselves. Yeah, that’s what a couple of guys in their 20s could have done. But that wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun as taking a road trip to Ikea to pick up some glogg themselves. The only problem is Nashville got itself an NHL team 16 years ago, but sadly still has no Ikea store. Atlanta, on the other hand, lost its team, but can take solace in the fact its residents can buy reasonably priced particle board furniture with names like ‘Kottebo’ and ‘Riffla’ that they have to assemble themselves to their hearts’ content. So it was on this December day when Forsberg and Ekholm decided to jump into Ekholm’s 2015 Audi SQ5 SUV and take the I-24 past Chattanooga to the I-75 into Atlanta, which accounts for a drive of about three-and-a-half hours. Then they got their brew and a little taste of home at the local Ikea outlet and promptly turned around and drove back.
“We needed some Christmas stuff there, too, furniture and stuff,” said Forsberg in a twang that sounds more Lethbridge than Leksand. “We got some Swedish hams, too. It was worth the drive. Ekholm’s family came in for Christmas, so they cooked food for all of us. It was great, for sure.”
Great doesn’t begin to describe how things are going for Forsberg this season. It’s better than great that he’s leading all rookie scorers and is an odds-on favorite to become just the second Forsberg in NHL history to win the Calder Trophy. It’s outstanding that he’s a shoo-in to add $700,000 to his $925,000 salary in performance bonuses. It’s spectacular that he’s so comfortable in his skin, in no small part because of the bond he’s built with fellow Swedish Predators Ekholm and Calle Jarnkrok. The three live in the same condominium building, one that is walking distance to the team’s practice rink. But they have to drive to the Bridgestone Arena for the games. And to get groceries. And for the occasional road trip to Atlanta. So all three pile into Ekholm’s SUV because – get this – he’s the only one of the three who owns a vehicle. What isn’t so great is that he’s been asked probably a few hundred times in the last couple of years whether he’s any relation to Peter Forsberg. For the record, they are not blood relatives in any way, shape or form, and he’s starting to get a little annoyed that Peter Forsberg is going around making it out like they are. Forsberg, it turns out, is a fairly common name in Sweden, not quite as common as Anderson, but right up there. He is, however, directly related to Fredrik Forsberg, his younger brother who plays in Sweden and, having just turned 18, has a chance to be a late-round pick in the NHL draft next summer. “I guess there are worse names you could have,” Forsberg said. That Forsberg is the leading contender for the Calder is due to a conspiring of circumstances that traces its roots way back to when the Washington Capitals traded Semyon Varlamov to the Colorado Avalanche almost four years ago. The Avs gave up a first-round pick in that deal, and the Capitals got the 11th pick of the 2012 draft, which they used to take Forsberg. Then, less than two years later, with the Predators out of the playoff race and the Capitals looking for some secondary scoring, Forsberg’s rights were sent to Nashville in exchange for Martin Erat and Michael Latta. (No need to remind the Capitals that Erat was a bust who is now playing in Arizona and Latta is a fourth-liner, but we’ll do so anyway.) Forsberg would have had to bide his time in Washington, but in Nashville he found himself this season earning his way to playing on the top line with playmaker extraordinaire Mike Ribeiro and trigger man James Neal – since injured and replaced on the top line by Craig Smith – and with a new coach whose bent for offense and puck possession was a perfect fit. So much of gaining confidence as a young player has to do with being placed in situations where you can succeed, and Forsberg has been given that this season. More importantly, after a rookie pro season in which he found himself in the minors and dealing with a couple injuries, he earned his spot on the top line. Since then, Forsberg has scored at a point-per-game pace and proven to be the kind of player the Predators have only seen for short bursts in their existence – an almost-homegrown talent with the ability to be a natural creator of offense. Alexander Radulov was probably the first and only player who ever fit that mold, and we all know how that worked out. The original plan was for Forsberg to play for the Predators last season. But he came in as a 19-year-old, struggled playing both sides of the puck and didn’t produce much of anything under former coach Barry Trotz. “Looking back, it was probably a little too overwhelming for him,” said Predators GM David Poile. “It was too much too soon.” But then a couple things happened. First, the Predators loaned him to the Swedish team for the world juniors, where he finished second in scoring to Teuvo Teravainen of Finland and was a tournament all-star, top forward and MVP. Excelling against the best players in his own age group gave Forsberg some of his confidence back and instead of going back to Sweden to play in the men’s league, he finished the season in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. “If you just give up,” Forsberg said of his decision to stay in North America and continue the learning curve, “that obviously says a lot about who you are as a player.” And Forsberg might not have realized it at the time, but it was the best thing for him. He played top-line minutes in Milwaukee and, although the offense didn’t come as easily as he would have liked, he learned to deal with the rigors of the pro game in North America. And after a summer in which he added some strength to his 6-foot-1 frame, Forsberg made it clear from the first day of the Predators rookie tournament that he was ready to make the jump to the NHL. Despite the fact the Predators loaded up on veteran players at forward – acquiring Ribeiro, Neal, Derek Roy (since dealt to Edmonton) and Olli Jokinen (dealt to Toronto) in an effort to give new coach Peter Laviolette some offensive tools – Forsberg continued to make his statement through camp and into the season. That Laviolette has a far more offensive bent than Trotz and has a history of developing talented young offensive players such as Eric Staal in Carolina and Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek in Philadelphia gave Forsberg an advantage he would have never had under Trotz. “The coaching change really benefitted some of our players, and it has really benefitted him a lot,” Poile said. “Our coach is open-minded, and he wanted to push the envelope a bit more on the offense. And Filip was scoring every game in the rookie camp and in pre-season, so he got moved to the front of the line pretty quickly.” It helps that Forsberg is a self-motivated, low-maintenance player who, like his countrymen, is not all that impressed with himself. He’s confident, though, without coming off as cocky or arrogant. His Swedish agent, Claes Elefalk, refers to Forsberg as, “a hockey nerd,” the kind of guy who will play roller hockey on the street of his Leksand neighborhood with all the kids or simply show up for shinny hockey at the local arena that is less than a mile from the home in which he grew up. “He is quite special, I must say,” Elefalk said. “He is quite mature. From the first day I met him, I could tell he was very mature, very determined, very calm and always thinking about what he wants to do. Very, very smart.” Forsberg finished high school while playing in the First Division, which is one below the men’s elite league in Sweden, and was fully fluent in English in his early teens. That isn’t unique for Swedish teenagers who have designs on playing in the NHL, but Forsberg has almost no hint of an accent. He didn’t turn 18 until about two months after he was drafted in 2012, but Elefalk had NHL teams calling him that year and telling him not to bother prepping his client for his draft interviews because they could see by talking to him that he was fully prepared to handle them himself. In fact, in his last year in Sweden, he did color commentary of Leksand’s junior games for fasthockey, a website that provides worldwide live streams of amateur games. “He got lots of people complimenting him on the job he did,” Elefalk said. The comments on Forsberg now as a player are just as glowing. Along with Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers, Forsberg will undoubtedly figure prominently in the Calder Trophy race. And with Pekka Rinne as a leading candidate for the Vezina, Shea Weber making his annual bid for the Norris and Laviolette carving out a Jack Adams Award-type season, it could make for a special year in Nashville. Forsberg, meanwhile, is adjusting to life in the NHL and, as the mid-season approached, was showing encouraging signs of picking up his scoring pace instead of slowing down. The fear of a young player “hitting the wall” in the second half of the season has been buffered by the fact Forsberg has already accustomed himself to the rigors of pro hockey by playing in the AHL last season Off the ice, he may be a strange man in a strange land, Sweden and country music might seem a curious mix. But even there, he has been lucky. Forsberg is represented by the Creative Artists Agency, which also has its tentacles in Hollywood and a headquarters in Nashville to serve its clients in the country music industry. John Huie, who runs the Nashville office and is a power in the industry, is a Predators season ticket holder and has given Forsberg his introduction to country music. “John has tried to adopt Filip,” Elefalk said. So when Forsberg finally does decide to get a car of his own, perhaps Huie will be able to hook him up. Until then, Forsberg and his condo neighbors are more than content to travel together and live a pretty simple life, relatively speaking. “That might change pretty soon,” Forsberg said. He was talking about getting his own car when he said that, but he might very well have been talking about his career. With one more year left on his entry-level deal, Forsberg is setting himself up for a bonanza of a second contract if he keeps up his level of production. Yes, a lot might change for Filip Forsberg, even if he doesn’t. This is feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.