OTTAWA — There was a time when Anton Forsberg was terrified at the thought of playing goal.
Of course, he was just a child, then. And the game wasn’t hockey, but ice bandy, played on expansive frozen fields in Sweden, using a very hard rubber or plastic ball.
“I refused to be a goalie, I was actually scared of the balls,” Forsberg once told the Chicago Tribune, while with the Blackhawks on one of this well-travelled goalie’s many hockey stops.
“But I wasn’t scared of the pucks,” he added. “Go figure.”
Now 29, Forsberg’s long and winding journey brought him to this moment – as the Ottawa Senators nominee for the 2022 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” Masterton was a forward with the Minnesota North Stars who died in 1968 after suffering a head injury in a game. He was also 29.
Goaltenders historically take longer than position players to get established in the NHL, but Forsberg is shaping up to be a legitimate late bloomer, like former Senators starter Craig Anderson, who won the 2017 Masterton Trophy.
On Saturday, firmly established as the Senators fall-from-the-sky starter, Forsberg made his 100th NHL regular season appearance, and won his 35th career game, a wild 6-4 victory over the Montreal Canadiens. This was what we are coming to know as vintage “Forsy,” facing a 48-shot siege and surviving (he is 6-2-1 in games where he faces 40 or more shots). Of his 44 saves versus the Habs, several stemmed from furious goalmouth scrambles, with Forsberg holding his ground, making rapid-fire stops.
He is the six-foot-three, 195-pound rock upon which Ottawa victories are built.
On a team with a losing record (31-41-7), Forsberg’s personal mark is 20-17-4, with a 2.82 goals-against average and .917 save percentage. Pencilled in as Matt Murray’s backup to start the season, and a likely trade deadline chip, Forsberg has now appeared in 44 games, a career-high in the NHL and the most since he played 51 games for the AHL Cleveland Monsters in 2016-17.
You will find Forsberg’s story under the file: Ottawa’s great, pleasant surprise of 2021-22.
How did Forsberg get here? Buckle up. It’s quite a ride.
A strong junior goalie with Modo in Sweden, Forsberg was drafted by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the seventh round, 188th overall, in 2011. Columbus came to be just the first of five organizations Forsberg would come to know over the next 10 years, playing mostly in the minors, other than a 35-game NHL season with Chicago in 2017-18.
Forsberg, who at times grew visibly frustrated at his inability to stick with one team, credits his father, Per-Arne, for keeping him calm when Forsberg was about to give up on the game.
“I’m really close with my dad, he’s the one in the family who’s involved with hockey (a former Division 2 player in Sweden) and there’s a lot of times I called home and kind of said – I’m done, this is my last year with everything going on, moving up and down (from the minors),” Forsberg says. “He’s always the positive one, the one that taught me to work hard and keep my head up and be a good teammate and all that.
“Good things will come. I guess he was right.”
Last year was especially tough, Forsberg said, having moved around in the Carolina Hurricanes, Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets organizations – all in one season – before being claimed on waivers by the Senators in March of 2021. How was he to know he was about to settle in for a while? He was busy feeling guilty about his suitcase lifestyle and its impact on his family.
“When I was by myself, it was easy to move around,” he says. “You basically take your bag and go to the next place,” Forsberg said, in a recent media session with Ottawa reporters. "But now, it’s more like a family decision.”
A father of two, Forsberg says his son has “been in four different daycares and he’s three years old.” Forsberg’s partner is Jessica and their children, Ben and Stella, are three and two. The family recently bought a house in Ottawa. Finally, a little root of permanence has sprouted in the family Forsberg. A three-year deal and then a new house.
How else does a young family celebrate a security contract for dad? Jessica bought a box of donuts to mark the occasion.
“I’m here to play hockey and I’m living my dream, they’re kind of following me around,” Forsberg says. “So, it’s a lot of credit to them for everything they’ve gone through for me to fulfill my dream.”
That dream seemed like a nightmare when Forsberg got put on waivers by Edmonton, claimed by Winnipeg, only to hear that Oilers starter Mike Smith was injured the very next day.
It was at this moment that words of encouragement from Forsberg’s father were desperately needed.
“I’ve always wanted to be a starting goalie in the NHL and to just give up because of one small thing, it’s stupid,” Forsberg says. “He (my dad) has been really big for me the whole time.”
Forsberg feels as though he has finally found a hockey home in Ottawa. From the outset, he says, there has been a feeling of trust. He played well last season when Murray got injured, and followed up with a breakout season in 2021-22 as Murray was again sidelined on numerous occasions for injury or illness reasons.
While Ottawa initially expected to move Forsberg, a pending UFA, at the trade deadline, instead, general manager Pierre Dorion wisely signed him to a three-year, $8.25-million contract.
“Anton brought a lot of stability to our net this year,” said Dorion, at the time. “We're over .500 when Anton’s in the net.”
Forsberg must have thought about going to market in the summer, but opted for keeping it rolling with the Sens.
“For me it was a no-brainer to sign the extension... because it was a good group of guys and a strong leadership group,” Forsberg says. “I felt it was somewhere I felt comfortable and could get my game going.”
Forsberg also made a good connection with goalie coach Zac Bierk.
“I think he’s been a really important part of my journey here, so far,” Forsberg says. “And I feel like my game has gotten better and better for the most part this year. That’s the way it should be.”
He couldn’t have foreseen any of this a year ago, when he was coming off waiver wire hell and unsure where his next stop would be. To be honest, he still looked a little shell-shocked during his first media availability with Ottawa in March of 2021.
“The last few years, It’s kind of been a year by year thing,” he says. “Obviously, I always thought I would be able to play at this level in this league. It just took some time for me to get used to it. I put in the work and now I’m getting some success with it – I’m really happy it’s turned out.”
There’s no reason Forsberg can’t be a late bloomer like Craig Anderson.
A long line of NHL goalies made breakthroughs in their late 20s and early 30s.
Forsberg is just the latest of the late bloomers.