Remembering Pelle: Personal thoughts on the tragedy and its impact 25 years later

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 the last part of the series.

I really don’t know how to begin, so I’ll lead with this: YouTube is one of the many modern-day technological miracles.

If it didn’t exist, I’d have had to produce this entire series from memory, archival reports, microfiche and whatever skill I possess as a writer. It certainly wouldn’t be this long, over 1,000 words for each section, and wouldn’t be so intricately detailed.

Still, there it is, old VHS recordings uploaded for public use, waiting for things like this to be written, so that its depths can be explored. Things you think you know, YouTube can verify or refute with a couple of mouse clicks.

Watching the quarter-century-old clips that have popped up online in the last year or two has brought back a flood of images once thought lost, and amplified ones that still remained hidden.

In essence, the endless loop between my own ears and behind my own eyes of what I vaguely recall, now plays out with total certainty in the real world. It’s a daunting thing to come to grips with, especially since Pelle Lindbergh was my first real sports hero.

Baseball was actually the first sport I played, and I attended a Philadelphia Stars USFL game before all other major pro sports. I was taught by my dad that Mike Schmidt was the one great player to watch on a wretched club, because he led the team to the World Series not too long before.

Along with these lessons came the requisite teasing. My dad never passed up a chance to needle me by saying “Mike Schmidt got traded to the White Sox” or something to the effect, whenever he felt like getting a rise out of me. He did it enough times when I was young enough to remember, that on the afternoon of November 10, 1985, I had no reason to believe it was for real when he told me that Pelle Lindbergh had been in a car accident.

I remember that day well. We were moving from the house I was born in, to one a block and a half away, where we took up residence on the second and third floors above where his old office now sits. I managed to help move some small stuff, and being the typical energetic second-grader, was quickly told to go out and play to give my parents a break.

I spent most of that afternoon playing touch football at the schoolyard across the street, and as daylight faded, resorted to practicing punts that bounced off the 20-foot-high cyclone fence that separated the yard from the pavement.

Once I came in, my dad hit me with the news. I wasn’t buying it. I didn’t buy it until I saw Channel 6’s Don Tollefson and Scott Palmer reporting the grim story. We didn’t have cable then, like most of South Philly, so the local news was the place to go. I had no solid recollection of the broadcasts until someone posted clips on the web.

I didn’t fully grasp what really occurred, and neither did most people for that matter (because there was no 24-hour news cycle) until the next morning, with the Monday edition of the Philadelphia Daily News. That’s when I saw the six words that still haunt me to this day: on the back page it screamed PELLE BRAIN-DEAD, and on the front page…

I don’t care if it’s a parent, grandparent, sibling, relative, friend, or beloved sports figure who passes away, nobody should ever know what “brain-dead” means at seven years old. It’s too cold, clinical, and heart-wrenching a thing to give up innocence in order to know the grisly details.

But that’s the way I was told, because my father was a doctor and he didn’t try to dumb it down.

I wouldn’t consider myself blessed by any stretch of the imagination because of it, but from Pelle’s death in 1985 until my grandmother’s passing in 2008, nobody I truly cared about had passed away. This is what happens in a small family whose members aren’t close.

And when she did, because of the way that Pelle’s death was described to me at such a young age, I felt guilty about not letting go of a lot of emotion. Surely, the difference in age and maturity and life experience between seven and 30 has a lot to do with it, but it still feels strange that I wasn’t able to grieve immediately and without reservation for someone I loved so much. I knew all the facts about the finality of death too far ahead of time.

About 15 years ago, at a sports memorabilia show in Wildwood, someone had the full paper on display and for sale at the ridiculous price of $100. I was so outraged, I considered making an act of civil disobedience to snatch it right off the table. To this day, it strikes me as crude, crass and disgusting that a price tag could be put on such a tragedy.

Though I didn’t attend the game, I somehow came into possession of the card given out prior to his memorial on November 14 –  twenty-five years ago Sunday. I kept it, and his last Topps hockey card, nestled inside my bedroom mirror for many years. The latter remains with all my childhood collectibles, but I’ll be damned if I remember what happened to the former.

I still have the videotape of the Flyers-Oilers game with Pelle’s memorial service at the start. I intend to pass that down to my own children, and with the exception of eventually getting it transferred to DVD, it will never leave my possession.

Watching the tape as I do every year on the anniversary, I pause at Bernie Parent’s quote located early in his stirring tribute speech, delivered in a voice that wavered with every word: “When death defeats greatness, we mourn. But when death defeats youth, we mourn even more.” It’s mind-blowing to think he’d be 51 years old this year – not too much younger than our parents.

Every time I pass by the small picture of Pelle on the wall at Downey’s on 2nd Street, I give it a pat. I honor him now with my Twitter handle: pelle31lives. One day, I hope to visit Scandinavia and see his resting place in person. There’s a lot I want to say.

All of this really started to kick into gear about five years ago, when I had a ton of off-hours at Temple University. Using the basement of its huge library, I was able to print out hundreds of pages of box scores within the Philadelphia Inquirer from the Mike Keenan era. It brought back a flood of memory and emotion, particularly to re-read the articles during those five painful days.

At the five-year mark, I was 12 and the Flyers were in a down period. For the 10-year, I was 17 and on a spiritual retreat but reveling in the start of the Legion of Doom era. At 15 years, it was refreshing to start looking back as Comcast replayed Game 6 of the 1985 Wales Conference Finals against Quebec, a 3-0 Pelle shutout which sent the Flyers into the Stanley Cup Finals.

For 20 and now, 25 years on, there’s been enough time passed that you can start looking at how painful the whole picture is. Pelle’s death altered the course of the franchise forever.

What will never be altered as far as I’m concerned, is the picture I have of him in my mind, and the echoes of his chant bouncing off the walls. It was my second-ever hockey game at the Spectrum, March 17, 1985, where I saw Pelle start in person.

The New York Islanders had been to five straight championship rounds, and won four in a row but neared the end of their dynasty. They buzzed around the Flyers’ net, Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, John Tonelli, Pat LaFontaine, Denis Potvin, and the rest. Pelle never wilted, and ended up with 25 saves in a 5-3 win as the crowd bellowed his name on more than one occasion.

It was the only time I was able to witness that greatness in person.

No matter how many years pass, I’m not going to forget Pelle Lindbergh. He gave me the keys to the kingdom when I was a child, and I thank the hockey gods the Flyers were so good when I was old enough to be interested in the game that I stuck with the team  through all the lean years and their missteps when they got good again.

Wherever you are, Per-Erik, I hope you’re listening.