Remembering Pelle: What would have happened to the Flyers if Pelle lived?

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 four of the series.

Now that the Debbie Downer portion of the series is through, let’s get to the fun part.

What would have happened to the Flyers if Pelle Lindbergh never had his fatal accident?

All things being equal, there’s a huge case for Philadelphia to have experienced at least on Stanley Cup parade in the ensuing years. However, like the Butterfly Effect, the alteration of one small detail has untold ripples on future events.

Right off the bat, I know we wouldn’t be saying in 2010 “Wow, John Vanbiesbrouck won the Vezina Trophy in 1986 despite playing for a Rangers team that finished in fourth place and below .500.”

We wouldn’t be lamenting a five-game loss to the hated Blueshirts in the Patrick Division Semifinals, culminating in Vanbiesbrouck’s super-human performance in Game 5 at the Spectrum.

We wouldn’t hear Beezer include Pelle’s tragic death in his acceptance speech, alluding to the fact that he wouldn’t have been up there if Pelle had lived. We’d probably have a repeat performance from 1985, complete with another embrace between Lindbergh and Parent behind the podium.

Just looking at 1986 alone, I don’t know for sure if the Islanders lose to the Capitals. I don’t know if the Canadiens make it out of the Adams Division if Quebec doesn’t fall flat on its ass against Hartford. I don’t think Claude Lemieux becomes the hero by scoring in a Game 7 overtime to beat the Whalers. Patrick Roy’s legend most likely wouldn’t have seen its creation yet because the Habs gave up a lot of goals in the regular season that year.

Also, I have to think that the Oilers don’t go down to the Flames. Maybe Steve Smith still fouls up in front of a national audience and puts the puck into his own net in Game 7 in Edmonton, but maybe history will show that the two-time defending Cup champions use the following 14-plus minutes of the third period to tie the game and then win it.

Should all of this play out, I have no trouble saying the Flyers make the Stanley Cup Finals in 1986. In the regular season, they beat the Rangers six out of seven times, Washington five of seven, then split 1-1-1 with Quebec and beat Montreal two of three chances.

No emotional drain means more energy expended performing at a high level at the rink, and more energy to sustain that level of excellence.

And maybe the Oilers still don’t take it all too seriously despite having a scare thrown into them by Calgary. After all, getting out of the Smythe Division alive meant they had their pick of Chicago, Minnesota, St. Louis and Toronto to feast on in the Campbell Conference Finals. They get bored, complacent, and lose their edge by tinkering with lesser competition.

Mike Keenan being a well-prepared head coach to the point of obsession, would have used every bit of advantage he could, drawing on the loss the year before and utilizing a different game plan.

Edmonton would have home ice after winning the Presidents’ Trophy, but had to surrender three games in the middle of a 2-3-2 best-of-seven series. The Flyers lost two one-goal games at Northlands Coliseum that year (4-3 and 2-1 in OT), and were close to getting over the hump.

If it didn’t happen in 1986, it most likely happens in 1987. If you take a reversal of all the injury misfortune that actually occurred, and plugged it in as if everyone was healthy, there was probably no way the Oilers could pull off a third straight win over Philadelphia. Game 6 would be best remembered as the Cup-clincher where Brian Propp scored to tie the game and J.J. Daigneault won it.

Taking the long view of the franchise’s often desperate situation between the pipes:

With the way the goaltending situation was playing out, Lindbergh and Bob Froese would have still arguably have been the best one-two punch in the league. Maybe Edmonton (Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog), Washington (Pete Peeters and Al Jensen), and Buffalo (Tom Barrasso and Jacques Cloutier) could have been close, but nobody else.

Without the need to drown out the distraction of Pelle’s death, maybe the Flyers don’t win 13 in a row, and don’t beat the Oilers at home on November 14. I think, and Keenan has confirmed in the following years, that taking a few losses along the way was sure to relieve some pressure of being one of the top clubs.

Certainly, we don’t see Darren Jensen (15-9-1, 3.68 GAA, 2 SO) with the big club. And therefore, don’t later bear witness to his hair-replacement infomercial on Sunday mornings during the 1990s on SportsChannel.

Ron Hextall stays with the Hershey Bears for an undetermined period of time, and probably leads the team to a Calder Cup triumph or two with his personality that suited the tenor of the American Hockey League of that era. It was Keenan’s assessment in the wake of Pelle’s death that Froese wasn’t sharp enough to be a solid Number One that earned Hextall a tryout anyway.

Froese probably still wants a chance to prove himself, and might even have been dealt to a division rival if he pressured the club as he did in real life. If so, then Hextall still gets a call-up, but has time to absorb the game at the NHL level with Pelle taking the majority of the starts.

Again, with a potent goaltending tandem, the Flyers challenge for the Cup almost every season in the 1980s despite a roster turnover that tries to bring in fresh blood. There’s no embarrassing series loss to the Capitals ending in Dale Hunter’s overtime goal, and though there’s probably not any memorable 1989 playoff run, there won’t be a five-year period without the playoffs either.

Eventually, perhaps, like a significant of European talent did at the time, Pelle decides he’s proven all he can in the NHL and returns to Sweden set for life. Hextall might not have been the starter until 1989 or so, meaning that he skips over the tribulations of the early 90’s – including his suspensions, groin trouble, contract squabbles and eventual stops with the Nordiques and Islanders. He gets the reins anyway, and still finishes up a distinguished career before the turn of the Millennium.

To bring back the fans after the lockout in 1995, a long-overdue ceremony sees 31 go up to the rafters, along with 1, 4, 7 and 16.

  • Ronnie

    Froese wouldn’t have been a Flyer more than a few days longer if Pelle hadn’t died. According to several books — Full Spectrum, Behind the White Mask, Gene Hart’s Score — the Flyers had a deal all but ready to announce that would have sent Froese to the Kings for Jay Wells. So Jensen probably would have come up, anyway.

    • Bob H

      I’m aware of that, since I own all of the books you cited above. But I think that even if you bring Pelle back to life, there’s no guarantees that life goes on as it did. I think that was the point of this piece, not just that everything after changes, but things just before and during also might not come to fruition.

      That said, I don’t think it was a given Froese was gone – deals are backed out on quite a bit: the Flyers also had a trade in place to ship Brian Propp to Vancouver for Cam Neely in the Summer of 1986, but the Canucks’ contingent got cold feet at the last minute and we ended up swapping Dave Richter and Rich Sutter for J.J. Daigneault.

      Thanks for reading.

  • Ronnie

    Froese wouldn’t have been a Flyer more than a few days longer if Pelle hadn’t died. According to several books — Full Spectrum, Behind the White Mask, Gene Hart’s Score — the Flyers had a deal all but ready to announce that would have sent Froese to the Kings for Jay Wells. So Jensen probably would have come up, anyway.

    • Bob H

      I’m aware of that, since I own all of the books you cited above. But I think that even if you bring Pelle back to life, there’s no guarantees that life goes on as it did. I think that was the point of this piece, not just that everything after changes, but things just before and during also might not come to fruition.

      That said, I don’t think it was a given Froese was gone – deals are backed out on quite a bit: the Flyers also had a trade in place to ship Brian Propp to Vancouver for Cam Neely in the Summer of 1986, but the Canucks’ contingent got cold feet at the last minute and we ended up swapping Dave Richter and Rich Sutter for J.J. Daigneault.

      Thanks for reading.