The Wackness: Pelle’s death and the odd start to the 1985-86 season

Courtesy of Gunning Sports

For the third straight year, Flyers Faithful will honor the memory and impact of Pelle Lindbergh with a piece dedicated in his honor.

This time around, a reflection on the odd set of circumstances that surrounded the start to the 1985-86 season and how Pelle’s accident and death contributed to the surreal feel of what should have been a triumphant return to form in Mike Keenan’s second year at the helm.

The front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer on Monday, November 11, 1985 announced the simple, but chilling news: “Flyers star ‘brain-dead’ after crash.”

Below that, the first sentence in the shocking story authored by staff writers Marc Duvoisin and Tom Torok, along with hockey beat writer Al Morganti: “Pelle Lindbergh, the Philadelphia Flyers’ Most Valuable Player last season, was declared brain-dead yesterday after his red, turbocharged Porsche ran off a Camden County road and smashed into a concrete wall.”

In a season that was just 14 games old, this was the most unexpected, horrifying, stupefying, unbelievable thing to happen bar none.

You might think the defending Patrick Division champions and banner-holders for the Wales Conference would have had an easy path towards a continuing renaissance as the calendar in 1985 turned from Summer to Fall. But it was not to be. An unseen hand held sway over the club from the outset of their title defense in 1985-86.

After a year off to rehabilitate a knee injury, Bill Barber finally called it quits in August after 12 successful NHL seasons. Then, promising rookie forward Todd Bergen refused to report to training camp as a result of a personality clash between he and head coach Mike Keenan. Then, their 54-goal scorer, Tim Kerr, was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and missed the entire exhibition schedule.

Then, Voice of the Flyers Gene Hart — only 54 years old — underwent life-saving heart bypass surgery and missed almost the whole first month of the regular season while recuperating.

Once the Flyers suited up for meaningful games, the weirdness didn’t stop. They squandered leads of 3-0 and 4-2 on opening night, October 10, at the Spectrum, losing a 6-5 heartbreaker to the New Jersey Devils. Paul Gagne tallied three of Jersey’s four third-period scores to steal some thunder from a sellout crowd. By the time the Flyers had won their 10th straight contest, a 5-3 decision over the Boston Bruins on November 9, they were 12-2-0, with both losses coming on home ice. The other defeat was a herculean 42-save effort by Richard Sevigny of the Quebec Nordiques on October 17 which left them 0-for-2 at home to start a season for the first time in franchise history.

The front page of the Inquirer on Wednesday, November 13 featured a center-aligned headline, “In memory of a goalie” with the Flyers locker room in focus, Lindbergh’s empty locker offset to the right. Below that, another blunt, terrible lede: “Lindbergh organs removed; life support is switched off.”

And from Duvoisin, another crushing introductory paragraph in the continuation of a sad story: “A team of specialists yesterday removed vital organs from the body of Pelle Lindbergh, ending an agonizing vigil by the parents of the star goaltender for the Philadelphia Flyers, who consented to end their son’s existence.”

This was impossible to comprehend.

One year ago, the lightning-quick Swede and his teammates were on top of the world after having halted the Edmonton Oilers’ season-opening 15-game unbeaten streak at the Spectrum. Despite having given up all five goals on 26 shots in a 7-5 decision, it was the 80′s, and so, any victory over a team famous for pumping home more than five-per-game was cause for celebration. Doing it against the defending Stanley Cup champions, and stopping both Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri on first-period breakaways, had to have made it extra sweet.

Six months prior, Lindbergh stared down questions from the media throng following a 5-3 loss to Quebec in Game 4 of the Wales Conference Finals — in which he whiffed at a Dale Hunter chance from the blue line to open the scoring and stopped only 16 of 21 shots by the visitors — and brushed it all off. It was a loss that tied the series at two games apiece, with Game 5 scheduled for Le Colisee in Quebec City.

Thanks to the Attic Trunk

“You can’t be great every night,” he said. “You guys made it sound like I gave up 20 goals.”

He only gave up one over the next two games to help the Flyers come away with the Wales Conference title, including a 30-save performance in the pivotal contest and 15 more in an easy Game 6 shutout decision.

As a matter of fact, Lindbergh gave up more than four goals only once until his untimely death, in that weird season-opener against New Jersey the following October.

Four days later, as the NHL schedule dictated, the Flyers were back on the ice with a sellout crowd watching. Their opponent? The defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers. Another weird coincidence was what you see in the above photo, Lindbergh’s picture on the game ticket.

They weren’t supposed to do it again, but an 11th straight win was in the offing, thanks to the sturdy work of rookie goaltender Darren Jensen, who, by all accounts should have never been in that position if it weren’t for another freak occurrence. Nonetheless, as the Inky sports page blared the next day, it was a concise, appropriate “Tribute to a fallen hero.”

Funny how winning cures all ills, and here it was taking the sting out of death and providing punctuation to an otherwise cruel joke.

One day earlier in practice, Froese, now the starter under the most dire of circumstances, took a puck to the jock by forward Lindsay Carson. He finished the session (saying “I was an idiot to stay in there”) and managed to grit his way through a private memorial service for Lindbergh at Old Swedes Church on Delaware Avenue, but passed blood when he got home. More weirdness: this was one day after Bob Clarke apparently had a deal in place to swap Froese to the Los Angeles Kings for Jay Wells, but which eventually fell through.

So Jensen, with all of one game of NHL experience which did not go well, got the call. His backup, the lesser-known Mike Bloski, who was recalled from Kalamazoo of the International Hockey League.

And so the second “franchise goalie” in Flyers history was gone, but his teammates refused to let the tragedy affect their on-ice performance. Win #12 came two nights later in Hartford, and Lucky 13, a new (and still standing) team record happened one night later at the Spectrum.

Down 3-0 and 4-1 in the second period against the New York Islanders, the hosts roared back to win on Murray’ Craven’s prayer from behind the goal line that deflected off Billy Smith’s stick and hit the back of the net with 68 seconds left in overtime.

Kerr tallied twice before the end of the second period, then Pelle Eklund and Dave Poulin scored to send the game beyond regulation. Perhaps out of hyperbolic headlines given the bombastic news of the last week, on Monday, November 18, the sports section simply declared “Flyers win No. 13 in overtime” as if this string of sadness in life and magic on ice was the new normal.

The following night in Uniondale, the Islanders got their revenge, but it didn’t come without a fight. New York won by an 8-6 count, but had to hold on for dear life. It took a 3-1 lead after one and was up 5-1 less than a minute into the second, before two power-play scores from Kerr, one from Rick Tocchet, an even-strength marker from Sinisalo and Ed Hospodar’s second of the night (and lone two-goal effort in a Flyers uniform, BTW) caused a panic. Only Bryan Trottier’s last-second empty-netter sealed it.

It would be two more weeks before the Flyers slumped, losing three in a row to start off December. By then, they led the entire NHL with a 19-4-0 record — including an incredible 7-2-0 mark without their Swedish savior.