25 years later, loss of Lindbergh still painful

NHLHS Philadelphia Flyers correspondent David Strehle remembers back to that fateful day in November, 1985, when one of the most popular players to ever wear the Orange-and-Black passed away.

It has been said that time heals all wounds, and to some extent, that statement is true.  But for anyone who has ever lost a family member, there will always be a certain amount of pain that will forever remain.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usHockey breeds a very close knit community for the rink rats and die hards.  And as we grow with our favorite teams and players, it does feel somewhat like a family atmosphere.

And if tragedy ever strikes a team, the reverberations are felt throughout the hockey community.

That was the case 25 years ago today, when Philadelphia Flyers’ netminder Pelle Lindbergh was fatally injured in an automobile accident.

It was November 10, 1985.  The Flyers had beaten the Boston Bruins at the Spectrum the previous night, running their win streak to 10 games.  Lindbergh had been given the night off by head coach Mike Keenan, watching as backup Bob Froese helped keep Philly on the winning track.

With a rare long break in the schedule, the team had gone out after the game to let off some steam.  With the next game not being for another five nights, everyone was looking forward to the rematch of the previous year’s Stanley Cup Finals with the Edmonton Oilers coming up on Thursday, November 14th.

Lindbergh had consumed several alcoholic beverages that Saturday night and into Sunday morning, and shouldn’t have been driving.

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Instead of making it home, Lindbergh’s customized red Porsche 930 Turbo would come to rest against a cement wall in front of an elementary school in Voorhees, New Jersey.

Lindbergh had a love for life, and a love of driving his Porsche at high rates of speed.  Unfortunately, that need for speed, mixed with the alcohol, would lead to Pelle’s ultimate demise.

In a time when cable television was in it’s infancy and no such things as the internet, hockeyheads had to rely on the radio and ESPN for any breaking hockey news.  

I can still remember staying next to a radio all day long, waiting for any updates.  The early reports were that Lindbergh had been in an accident, but nothing else was know.  I remember thinking that it was probably just a minor accident and news would be coming at any moment to say that Pelle was fine.

As the morning progressed it was learned that this was no ordinary accident, and Pelle had been severely injured.  Reports then trickled in that doctors were actually working feverishly to save Lindbergh’s life.

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It was almost surreal when the words came across the airwaves in the latter stages of that Sunday morning:  ”We have a report that Pelle Lindbergh is…(pause)…brain dead“.

He was just 26 years old.

There were issues with his blood alcohol level that morning.  There is no doubt that he was legally intoxicated, but there were reports that Lindbergh was in excess of four times the legal limit.  Some even suggested that he might have died even if he hadn’t been in an accident.  These reports do not sound consistent with eye witness accounts.  There were also reports that Lindbergh’s blood alcohol was taken after emergency rescue crews worked on him at the scene, using tremendous amounts of alcohol to attempt to clean Pelle’s massive wounds.

As far as the Flyers were concerned, the loss was beyond devastating.

Keenan was only in his second year as coach of the young squad, and it almost defies comprehension how he was able to keep his club focused mentally and emotionally on hockey for the rest of the season.  Especially when you consider the stories that have been told about “Iron Mike” through the years.  He will never be known as the most compassionate of men.  Not even close.

The 1985-86 club would go on to win 53 games, tying the team record that was set the previous season.  But after the emotional rollercoaster that they went through, the Flyers fell in the first round of the playoffs to their perennial torturers, the New York Rangers.

The arrival of another young netminder the next season helped to keep the players’ minds off  of the tragic loss.  

The spotlight created by the fiery Ron Hextall and the controversy surrounding Keenan’s decision to start “Hexy” over Froese, who demanded a trade, was a much-needed distraction.  As the team rallied around the combative goaltender, they were once again able to concentrate on playing the game.   

This situation also brings up the question as to what the clubs’ goaltending situation would have looked like had Lindbergh not passed away.  Would a Lindbergh-Hextall tandem have worked, or would one of them been moved to accommodate one as the true starting netminder?

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Even though he left us far too early, Lindbergh still left behind quite a legacy in Philadelphia.

He finished 40-17-7 and won the Vezina Trophy in the 1984-85 season,  eventually backstopping the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals that year.  Only the mighty Edmonton Oilers could beat Philly in the postseason and deprived Lindbergh and the Flyers of a Cup victory.

Lindbergh ended up with an 87-49-15 career record.  But he left an indelible print on the franchise, as well as the hearts of Flyers’ fans, that was far more encompassing than just wins and losses.

Pelle’s passion and true joy of being able to do something that he loved so much exuded from his very being, and was always evident to anyone that had the pleasure of meeting him.

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It was almost as if Pelle had been put on this earth to patrol the crease for the Flyers. 

He had grown up in Sweden as a fan of both the Flyers and their legendary netminder, Bernie Parent.  Lindbergh’s all white mask was even patterned after Parent’s.

It seemed that it was his destiny to play goal for Philadelphia, and he got to live out his childhood dream.  

Along the way, he formed a close bond with Parent.  It was a touching moment when Lindbergh thanked his childhood idol as he accepted the 1985 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender:  ”And I would like to say thank you to the man that taught me how to play hockey in America, Bernie Parent.  Thank you, Bernie.”

Lindbergh gave us many great moments to hold on to with his play on the ice.  In death, he also gave.  Lindbergh’s organs were donated so that others may live. 

If time does indeed heal all wounds, it’s the good memories of Lindbergh that brings a smile to our faces and puts an ease to our troubled spirits.  

I have mentioned many times how much the current Philadelphia starting goaltender reminds me so much of Pelle.  Russian rookie sensation Sergei Bobrovsky has the same rare lateral quickness and athleticism that Lindbergh possessed. 

On some occasions after an especially acrobatic Bobrovsky save, I find myself drifting off and reminiscing at just how much the save resembled something that Pelle would have done.  And the smile reappears.

But for the sadness that still lingers, it is an Orange-and-Black scar that will be a constant reminder of a loss that will never fully fade. 

And as is the case with the loss of any family member, it is an ache that will never completely disappear.  No matter how much time passes.

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usDavid Strehle
NHLHS Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent
Twitter: @PhilaDAVEia