VANCOUVER - Peter Forsberg carried Sweden's flag into the Olympic opening ceremony last weekend. It is an honor accorded to the most distinguished and accomplished members of a national team.
In other words, it's for the old guys. And Forsberg, the Hall of Fame-bound superstar who made a brief and enigmatic end-of-career stop with the Flyers, is one of the old guys. His level of play has receded with every year and with every debilitating injury.
"I always want to play better," Forsberg said after Sweden's white-knuckle 4-2 victory over Belarus yesterday. "I'm 36. I don't think it's going to get much better. To be honest, I'd rather be in my prime than like this."
There was resignation in his voice as well as his piercing blue eyes. For the last couple years, since he withdrew from NHL competition because of a chronic foot problem, there are periodic reports that Forsberg might return. He is hockey's Sasquatch, Loch Ness monster and D.B. Cooper all rolled into one.
"I would say [he's been asked] at least 100 times," Forsberg said, and that has to be a conservative estimate. "I tried to come back in Colorado, but I wasn't playing at the level I want."
Guess what? Forget it. Forsberg said he will finish the season with the Swedish League team he plays with, but that will likely be it for his stellar career.
Indeed, when he looks back with the benefit of hindsight, he can see that his efforts to play with the foot injury were futile.
"I thought I've been done a couple of times, to be honest," Forsberg said. "I've done surgeries most summers. I don't think the foot is ever going to be 100 percent. ... I've tried for six years to get it right. If I knew the script back in 2003, I would have retired right then."
That would have changed the course of recent Flyers' history. After going to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals in 2004 - then losing a year to labor strife - the Flyers came back in 2005 with Stanley Cup aspirations. They had added one of the best players in the world: Peter the Great.
He was a joy to watch when he played. But that perplexing foot issue had him in and out of the lineup, creating uncertainty and disrupting chemistry all season. Then, after all that, Forsberg played for Sweden's gold-medal winning team at the Turin Olympics.
The Flyers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, a deeply disappointing season. The next year, desperate to retool, the Flyers traded Forsberg to Nashville. He played in just 26 more NHL games.
So it was surprising when Forsberg decided to return to Team Sweden for these Games.
"I was scared coming here," Forsberg said. "I was playing in the Swedish League and it's smaller ice. The ice is a little bigger and better here. You don't have much time to get used to going faster here. I love playing hockey. Every time you get a chance to play in and Olympics, you should take it."
Along with winning two Stanley Cups in Denver, Forsberg was a star on Sweden's two gold-medal winning teams. In 1994, he became a national hero, beating Canada with a shootout goal in the gold medal game. The play was immortalized on a Swedish postage stamp. In 2006, Forsberg and the greatest generation of Swedes won again in Turin.
That felt like the coda to Forsberg's career except that, well, he's back. So are Nicklas Lidstrom (39), Daniel Alfredsson (37) and Fredrik Modin (35). Forsberg isn't exactly the oldest guy.
But he isn't the star any more, either.
"I think it is a different role," Forsberg said. "I'm not 25 and the guys like [Henrik] Sedin are taking over. But I'm happy to be here. If I play on the fourth line, it doesn't really matter. I played a big part in two Olympic gold medals. This time around, I'm not a top six forward. I just do my job and bring some experience."
The Swedes struggled against Belarus, the team that infamously eliminated them in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow, they play Finland as part of a spectacular day of hockey rivals. The U.S. plays Canada and Russia takes on its former unwilling satellite nation, the Czech Republic.
Canada and Russia are considered huge medal favorites, but it would be foolish to write off the Swedes. It is a mark of how good they are with forwards like Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Backstrom that Forsberg is a role player.
"I'm just going to take every opportunity to play," Forsberg said. "I don't think there's going to be too many more of these."
His days as a hero are likely behind him. He isn't Peter the Great. Not anymore.
But at least he was.