Remembering Pelle is a five part series honoring the memory of former Flyers’ goaltender, Pelle Lindbergh, whose life was tragically cut short on November 11, 1985. A new article will run each day over the course of five days. This is part one of the series.
Perhaps no other singular sports figure is so universally beloved, compared to his tenure in this city, as Pelle Lindbergh. And despite the fact that he graced us with his presence for such a brief time, his story rivals any other sports figure who remained for five times as long.
It’s been more than 25 years since he played his last game in a Flyers uniform but his impact, particularly on the older hockey fans in Philadelphia, cannot be understated.
Pelle was at the top of his game, and at the top of his profession, on the morning of November 10, 1985. He had the love of the fans, respect of his teammates and coaches, and the hopes of his home nation of Sweden to carry him along on a swift ascent into the elite of the National Hockey League.
And then it was over.
The 26-year-old was fatally injured in a single-car crash near the Flyers’ former training facility in Voorhees, New Jersey early that morning. He paid dearly for a mistake many of us have made at one time or another in our lives – getting into a vehicle and driving when he had enough to drink to impair his senses.
The how and the why, the what and the where, burning questions in the immediate aftermath, have faded from view after so much time.
All that’s left is the legacy of the man in uniform: a boyish smiling face, a lightning-fast pad stop, a hug at an awards ceremony, and fading memories for thousands of fans who were lucky enough to witness it all.
Born and raised in Stockholm, Pelle Lindbergh was the second-round pick of Philadelphia in the 1979 NHL draft. It was the fulfillment of a dream the young man had all along, ever since he laid eyes on the distinct Flyer logo and saw legendary goalie Bernie Parent patrol the nets in the mid-1970’s from a continent away.
He spent less than two seasons with the Flyers’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Maine Mariners, but left a vapor trail of awards when he was called up for his pro debut on November 1, 1981 in Buffalo. He lost by a 6-2 count, but played well enough in other starts to stick with the big club for the remainder of the season. All told, he was 2-4-2 with a 4.38 goals-against average in eight appearances.
The following season proved to be the one which introduced him to the hockey world at large.
Starting as the back-up to Rick St. Croix, Lindbergh won the number one slot by the time the Flyers got hot in December, finishing the year 23-13-3 with a 2.98 GAA and three shutouts – hefty numbers in an era which saw teams routinely average more than three goals per game. In the latter half of the campaign, Lindbergh paired with fellow rookie Bob Froese in one of the most formidable goaltending tandems in the league.
All wasn’t sunshine and roses for the young man, despite the hot start.
He suffered a broken wrist in an early January exhibition game against the Soviets that put an end to his team rookie record seven straight wins around Christmas, then had to endure a brutal rookie hazing at the All-Star Game when his fellow teammates butchered his hair so badly he had to hide it with a series of hats.
If that wasn’t enough, the jovial kid was blitzed during his one period in net, giving up six goals (four to Wayne Gretzky) as the Campbell Conference came away with a convincing 9-3 victory over his Wales Conference at Nassau Coliseum.
In the 1983 playoffs, Lindbergh, who hadn’t been playoff tested at a high level, was also hung out to dry by a Flyers team that was too old and too young at the same time. His final indignity was being left in for the bulk of a Game 3 loss on the road to the Rangers, a 9-3 decision which wrapped up an opening-round sweep for New York.
More trouble followed the next season, as Froese wrested the starting job with solid play in a year when goals were being pumped in across the league faster than gas under a dollar a gallon. On one particular mid-February evening, after allowing two bad goals in a 6-5 home loss to Vancouver, then-head coach Bob McCammon, as revealed in Jay Greenberg’s “Full Spectrum,” told the media that there was a plane bound for Sweden at midnight, but they weren’t going to be that cruel.
Things got so bad that Pelle was soon shipped down to the AHL, for a brief tour with Springfield, before being allowed to return to the Flyers. In his second full NHL season, his line read 16-13-3, 4.05 GAA with one shutout. He was on the bench for most of a three-game first-round loss to Washington.
His situation improved drastically, and permanently for the good, under head coach Mike Keenan, who took the reins for the 1984-85 season.
Having in Keenan’s estimation won the job during an early-season rotation with Froese, Lindbergh at one time started 24 consecutive games from December to February. The maturing goaltender lifted his teammates play and their collective spirits during a 16-4-4 start to the year which sunk into an 11-point hole behind the Capitals just prior to the All-Star break.
As the Flyers rose to a franchise-record 53 wins and 113 points that season, Lindbergh led the way with play that left many writers, coaches and fans speechless – save for a one-word chant that bounced off the walls of the Spectrum. Where once the faithful called out “Bernie, Bernie” they now exhorted “Pelle, Pelle” with the same awe and volume.
Keenan’s club finished the season on a mind-boggling 24-4-0 run which included a then-record 11 straight wins in March, and clinched the division with a 10-point edge. If the Presidents Trophy had been awarded then, the Flyers would have enjoyed home-ice throughout the entire playoffs.
Pelle was nothing short of brilliant, going 40-17-7 with a 3.00 goals-against and a pair of whitewashes. He posted the most wins of any goaltender in the league that season, and added to his growing legend during the Flyers’ surprise run to the Finals, ending up 12-6 with a 2.50 goals-against and three shutouts as Philly downed the Rangers, Islanders and Quebec Nordiques before losing to Edmonton.
For his efforts, Pelle was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie. The man who presented the award to him was his hero and mentor, Bernie Parent. Their embrace behind the podium after the award presentation is an iconic image for fans who remember that period, and is immortalized in video form as well as in the 1985-86 team calendar.
Even greater acclaim was lavished on the son of working-class parents, as he was elevated to hero in his home country as the first European-trained goaltender to achieve any success in the NHL.
More so than his actual athletic efforts, Pelle Lindbergh was admired for his willingness to open himself up to the fans and media alike. Though in some estimation a very confident, almost cocky individual on the ice, the Stockholm native was a bundle of joy off the ice, a person always willing to live each day to the maximum.
He’d patiently sign autographs before and after games; he often participated in street hockey games with kids in his Marlton, New Jersey neighborhood. Often bored when not involved with the game, Pelle was famous for taking off on innumerable day trips with family and friends.
New video exists of his interaction with Philly media personnel in the months leading up to his death, and in the wake of his tragic accident, the same video captures the depth of feeling from his fans and broadcasters alike upon hearing the tragic news.
Part of that passion for life was a need for speed, personified in a top-of-the-line sports car, the Porsche Carrera 930 which was bought for $52,000 and souped-up with more than $40,000 worth of upgrades, according to Greenberg’s book. The car would prove to be a key part of his downfall, but not before sending off warning signs to everyone who took at least one ride in the turbo-charged dream machine.
Still, it was hard for them not to forgive a young man availing himself of all the wonders of his new surroundings.
The good vibes that surrounded the Flyers in the early stages of 1985 continued into the latter part of the calendar. Lindbergh was 6-2-0 with a shutout of Hartford in his first eight games of the 1985-86 season. He put together an 18-save performance on November 7 in a 6-2 home win against Chicago before a well-earned rest.
On November 9, Bob Froese got the start in a 5-3 Flyers win over Boston which elevated the club to a 12-2-0 record following a 10-game win streak. Chairman Ed Snider boasted as he left the arena that night: “This is the best team we’ve ever had.”
It was the last time the public was able to see Number 31 alive.
Late that night, with a five-day rest before a prime-time matchup with Edmonton at home, Pelle went out with his teammates for well-deserved of relaxation. He did not return safely home. With two other inebriated passengers in his Porsche despite a long stretch of celebrating, the man who could see the whole world ahead of him failed to navigate a bend in a road just off of Route 30 in South Jersey.
That mistake cost him his life, and nearly caused the death of both his passengers.
The details of that night, early morning and day after I will leave up to you the reader to find in “Full Spectrum” and the new book released late last year,“Behind the White Mask” by Thomas Tynander and Bill Meltzer.
Suffice to say that less than 48 hours later, the career of one of the greatest players in franchise history officially came to an end. Two days after that, a solemn ceremony celebrating Pelle’s life and influence preceded an emotional 5-3 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Oilers.
The devastation of Pelle’s death lingered but did not seem affect the team until it simply ran out of gas in a five-game first-round exit to the hated Rangers the following April. That season, the Flyers again won 53 games and piled up 110 points, but fell victim to the slow effects of an unexplainable and improbable loss.
All told, in a mere 157 games of NHL experience, Lindbergh was 87-49-15 with a 3.30 GAA and seven shutouts. He also went 12-10 in 23 playoff games over three seasons.
He left behind a fiancée, dozens of grieving teammates, coaches, friends and colleagues, but also managed to spark the fires of love for the game in countless thousands of fans across all age groups. Particularly here in the Delaware Valley, after one generation it’s apparent see how many rabid fans were born and budding media careers started because he and the team re-ignited interest in the Flyers organization.
Still, all that’s left are memories, the clarity and emotion wavering, but ever-present in the back of the collective consciousness. It takes a special kind of fool to revisit them, but I realize that there are now two whole generations of hockey fans, if they have been told at all, who may view Pelle Lindbergh in the same light as people do for King Tut in the scope of world history.
There are valuable lessons to be mined about life, spirit, confidence, drinking, success, ego, love and loss from Pelle’s story, and countless more possibilities of what could have been.
Over the course of the week, I will try to examine the far-ranging ramifications of that one single night as it has affected the Flyers franchise and the club’s fandom ever since.