Remembering Pelle: Why Pelle won’t have his number retired

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 three of the series.

Let’s face the facts, shall we?

Pelle screwed up. He screwed up royally.

He drove drunk. He drove fast. He turned a beautiful red Porsche into a mangled accordion-like mess.

Even worse, he killed himself and almost killed two other people that night – a lady who knew and dated several of the younger Flyers and the son of a real-estate agent who helped players find housing in South Jersey.

Pelle was 26. His two other passengers were both in their 20’s, all three of them young and feeling invincible. It was the 80’s after all, but it also was the product of a night and early morning of alcohol intake.

With the high-octane sports car finally removed from its horrible wedge between a retaining wall and the steps of Somerdale Elementary, and Pelle on life support, blood tests were taken on the young goaltender.

The news was shocking – Pelle’s blood-alcohol level was 0.24 – nearly 2 ½ times the legal limit in New Jersey at the time. A second test taken later didn’t soften the shock, as it came up .017 – still well above legal.

Drunk-driving was the cause du jour throughout much of the middle 1980s, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD) getting a ton of face time on television.

Pelle’s accident came in the midst of this anti-drinking crusade, and he took a ton of heat for it, and deservedly so.

Even when the furor died down, the fact remains that Pelle Lindbergh committed an illegal act when he chose to get behind the wheel in the early morning hours of November 10, 1985. He paid the ultimate price. It’s a stunning reminder that no matter how heroic a man may seem in his chosen profession, you have to distinguish the public persona from the private person.

It was a mistake, sure. But it was one hell of a mistake. Something permanent, that no amount of apologies, should he have lived, could really ever make up for. The fact that he died and two others lived out the aftermath is particularly galling.

While his position was never publicly stated on the matter, I’m certain that those connected to the higher levels of the franchise know this too. That’s why the Flyers organization will never retire his number.

The cold reality remains: Pelle drove drunk, killed himself and almost took other lives as well. He committed a criminal, and terminal, act.

It doesn’t matter that he injected a spirit of pride and fun into a team struggling for a new identity. Doesn’t matter how many smiles or handshakes, or autographs he gave out. Nor how many pucks he stopped, wins he accumulated, or cheers he earned. Pelle died in the commission of a felony and in the image-conscious world Snider crafted for the Flyers over three decades, you simply can’t reward such a thing.

Alcohol is a way of life for players reared in the North American system. Anyone who reads the new Bob Probert book will get an extreme picture of the way it went largely unaddressed in the 1980s, but the fact is that teenagers, playing far from home in small towns miles from anywhere, have little recourse but to drink in order to stave off boredom and bond with teammates. That culture extends to the pros, albeit with more at stake.

There are so many stories about kids in juniors with money and time to burn getting into trouble with booze and cars that it’s almost cliché. This was and is apparently not the case in Europe.

Pelle Lindbergh, for all his hero status, was shamed in Sweden when the facts came out. I recall one story told about the incident likened the stigma attached to drunk driving as akin to social suicide. People over there, I guess, are taught to know better, to have a keener sense of overall awareness and concern for the greater good.

Pelle seemed to skip over that, in the midst of his exuberance for everything hockey and everything North America had to offer. He just never thought of the consequences, and when the consequences caught up to him, it was far too late to admit his error and change his ways.

Nevertheless, his Number 31 will never be worn. It is a testament to the unbelievable player he was at a crucial time in the franchise’s history. It will never be on a banner either, and that will forever serve as a tacit reminder of his legacy that is forever tainted.

Realistically, you can make a case for that denial based on several fronts:

1)  Pelle only played parts of four seasons in the NHL, and only put together one great season without winning a title.

2)  Many more players from the Golden Era of the 1970s didn’t have theirs retired because others who have worn that number were equally memorable in their own playing days.

3)  In 43 years, the club has only honored four other players by retiring numbers with three of them having been key cogs in two Stanley Cups; Barry Ashbee also died, but his career was cut short by a freak accident and he was taken by leukemia, what was then an incurable disease.

4)  Other great players, like Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach, have curiously been distant from the franchise for decades. Both have had public (at least in the hockey world) battles with alcohol that affected their careers.

In a very real sense, the Pelle Lindbergh experiment was a failure.

It was a referendum on whether or not players from the other side of the world could deal with the pace of life, the pace of the game, and the trappings of success the National Hockey League provided.

I admire the people who have recently gotten behind the “Retire Pelle’s Jersey” thing, but I wonder if they realize that, even if it’s a serious endeavor beyond a mere Facebook group, they’re going to be ignored.

The lingering issue with athletes who were taken before their time or endured a freak occurrence to end their careers, is that as time passes we tend to elevate the positives to mythic levels. Pelle’s ascent was so quick, and his descent so shocking, that I’m not sure the magnitude of either really registers properly.

Maybe it’s a state of denial, that fans of a certain age want to forget his transgressions so badly that they deify his successes. That’s a bad path to be led down. All you have to do to see a parallel is examine the post-baseball careers of key members of the 1993 Phillies.

Lenny Dykstra, once a badass leadoff hitter who literally ran into concrete is now in debt for millions. He and Darren Daulton almost killed themselves early in the 1991 season, driving home drunk from John Kruk’s bachelor party. Daulton is twice divorced, twice convicted of DUIs, once thought the world was going to end in 2012. All that’s left between him and Matt Foley is 25 more pounds, one more divorce and the van down by the river. Dave Hollins, Pete Incaviglia and Danny Jackson all have the smear of retroactively suspicious steroid use hanging over their reputations.

Still, they’re loved for who they were between the lines, in spite of their personal histories. No matter how badly they misbehaved, they didn’t kill anyone, and they’re all very much alive and willing to tell their stories, warts and all.

Pelle receives similar adulation all these years later, and I guess it’s a freak of happenstance that he didn’t live long enough to see his spiral continue downward. But he’s not here to man up for his mistakes. I’d like to think if he had survived, that beaming smile and irrepressible soul would have been muted, flush with a harsh lesson life often provides.

But he’s not. And nothing is going to wipe away the stigma attached to his untimely end. That is very unfortunate, a truth perhaps a little too close to home to want to remember.

Pelle screwed up. He screwed up royally. We shouldn’t ever forget that.

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  • Jean Pennie

    A hard pill to take, but a necessary reminder all the same.

  • Jean Pennie

    A hard pill to take, but a necessary reminder all the same.

  • Ronnie

    First of all, Lindbergh was hardly the only Flyer who drove drunk that night. So there were a lot of “felons” on the team, and throughout the entire NHL. In fact, if you know anything about Lindbergh, what he did was out of character for him, at least in terms of the drinking (he did drive way too fast). One of the biggest things that his teammates had to deal with after his death was their own sudden realization of mortality — because they had done the same thing Pelle had done but lived to tell about it.

    Second, the team has already retired the number of an admitted alcoholic (Bernie Parent) and the current GM is himself a recovering alcoholic who has been arrested for DUIs before getting help.

    Third, Lindbergh’s career was skyrocketing at the time of his death. First pro season, he wins every award there is to win in the AHL. Second year, he makes his NHL debut. Third year, he makes the NHL All-Rookie team and plays in the All-Star Game. It was only a broken wrist that slowed him down. The next year was a disaster, no doubt about it. His third NHL season he’s the Vezina Trophy winner and leads the youngest team in the NHL to the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he’s off to another great start when the accident happened.

    Yeah, that was a real “failure” of an “experiment.” His death had nothing to do with being a player from Europe who couldn’t handle success or the league, as you suggest.

  • Ronnie

    First of all, Lindbergh was hardly the only Flyer who drove drunk that night. So there were a lot of “felons” on the team, and throughout the entire NHL. In fact, if you know anything about Lindbergh, what he did was out of character for him, at least in terms of the drinking (he did drive way too fast). One of the biggest things that his teammates had to deal with after his death was their own sudden realization of mortality — because they had done the same thing Pelle had done but lived to tell about it.

    Second, the team has already retired the number of an admitted alcoholic (Bernie Parent) and the current GM is himself a recovering alcoholic who has been arrested for DUIs before getting help.

    Third, Lindbergh’s career was skyrocketing at the time of his death. First pro season, he wins every award there is to win in the AHL. Second year, he makes his NHL debut. Third year, he makes the NHL All-Rookie team and plays in the All-Star Game. It was only a broken wrist that slowed him down. The next year was a disaster, no doubt about it. His third NHL season he’s the Vezina Trophy winner and leads the youngest team in the NHL to the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he’s off to another great start when the accident happened.

    Yeah, that was a real “failure” of an “experiment.” His death had nothing to do with being a player from Europe who couldn’t handle success or the league, as you suggest.

  • It’s Not a Puck

    Vick the dick dog killer, he and A-rod for using steroids should never be in the hall of fame either they committed crimes too.

  • It’s Not a Puck

    Vick the dick dog killer, he and A-rod for using steroids should never be in the hall of fame either they committed crimes too.

  • Jimmy

    This certainly is a scathing article. We all know the reality of the tragedy that occured, but the fact is that watching athletes and the sports they play provides your average american Joe an escpape from their own reality. The athlete’s career and private life off the field, and ice, are separate things. This artice blends both, and while factual(and opinionated to the extreme)tries to convince the reader to ignore on the ice accomplishments. It was the farthest thing from a “failed experiment”. The author is either an idiot, or has lost someone to drunk driving. I hope it is the former.

  • Jimmy

    This certainly is a scathing article. We all know the reality of the tragedy that occured, but the fact is that watching athletes and the sports they play provides your average american Joe an escpape from their own reality. The athlete’s career and private life off the field, and ice, are separate things. This artice blends both, and while factual(and opinionated to the extreme)tries to convince the reader to ignore on the ice accomplishments. It was the farthest thing from a “failed experiment”. The author is either an idiot, or has lost someone to drunk driving. I hope it is the former.

  • Bob H

    @Jimmy – it’s not an article, it’s an opinion piece. It’s just one of five aspects of the tragedy I chose to explore, and I chose to explore it in a scathing, brutal manner. Check out my other four pieces to get a better idea of how I feel for Pelle as a whole.

    @Ronnie – I love your passion for the subject, man. Out of character or not for him, or whether it’s in step with other players who did the same thing, the fact remains he drank, he drove, and he died while almost killing two others. That’s the harsh flipside to all the good he accumulated. The experiment failed simply because he failed to make a choice that enabled him to keep living and keep racking up the honors. Wouldn’t you call that a failure in your own life or looking at anyone elses?

    Daryl Stanley wrecked a car while driving under the influence the year before if I recall and it was kept quiet. It’s a shame I wasn’t older when this happened so I don’t have a clear first-hand account.

  • Bob H

    @Jimmy – it’s not an article, it’s an opinion piece. It’s just one of five aspects of the tragedy I chose to explore, and I chose to explore it in a scathing, brutal manner. Check out my other four pieces to get a better idea of how I feel for Pelle as a whole.

    @Ronnie – I love your passion for the subject, man. Out of character or not for him, or whether it’s in step with other players who did the same thing, the fact remains he drank, he drove, and he died while almost killing two others. That’s the harsh flipside to all the good he accumulated. The experiment failed simply because he failed to make a choice that enabled him to keep living and keep racking up the honors. Wouldn’t you call that a failure in your own life or looking at anyone elses?

    Daryl Stanley wrecked a car while driving under the influence the year before if I recall and it was kept quiet. It’s a shame I wasn’t older when this happened so I don’t have a clear first-hand account.