Things could not have been going any better for the Philadelphia Flyers. They had advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals the previous year. After a little bit of a slow start to start to the 1985-86 season, the Flyers had reeled off 1o straight wins and were the most dominant team in the league. They were first in the league in every statistical category except for goals scored and even in that category they were only a few goals behind the offensive powerhouse Oilers. After defeating a very good Boston Bruins team on November 9, Flyers owner Ed Snider said to his wife Martha as he was walking out of the Spectrum, “This is the greatest Flyers team ever assembled, including the Cup teams”. And then it happened…
Pelle Lindbergh was born May 24, 1959 in Stockholm, Sweden. As a kid, he grew up a huge Philadelphia Flyers fan because he came to admire the play of the Flyers goaltender at the time, Bernie Parent. His dream was to one day play goalie for the Flyers just like his idol. He told anyone who would listen that he would one day play in the NHL for the Flyers. He started his career playing for the Hammarby team in Sweden. He then played for the AIK team in the Swedish elite league. It was while playing for AIK that Lindbergh caught the attention of Flyers scouts which led them to draft Lindbergh in the second round of the 1979 NHL entry draft, 35th overall.
It was in the 1980 Olympics that I first saw Lindbergh play. I was a big hockey fan but, since I was only 10 at the time, I didn’t live and breathe it the way I do now. I wasn’t up on who was in the Flyers system or who the Flyers had drafted the previous year. While watching the United States hockey team in the first game of the Olympic tournament, I had no idea that Lindbergh was Philadelphia Flyers property. I remember watching in amazement as Lindbergh made one incredible save after another. His reflexes were off the charts. Even though the United States dominated most of the game, Sweden held a one goal lead until the United States tied it up with less than a minute to go in the game. Lindbergh was the main reason why the Swedes were able to come out of the game with a tie. Sweden was the only team in that Olympic tournament who didn’t lose to the United States during their improbable run to a gold medal win. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was watching the next great Flyers goaltender as he was making his way to the top.
In the late 70s and early 80s, it was unheard of for European goalies to come across the pond and make an impact in the NHL. Even though Lindbergh was a supremely confident athlete, even he had his doubts about making it big in the NHL. In an interview Lindbergh gave after the 1984-85 season, he said he would come over to North America and give himself three years to make it in the NHL. If things didn’t work out he would return home to Sweden. For this reason Lindbergh was a trailblazer. Lindbergh was the first European goalie to win the Veizna Trophy, awarded to the best goalie in the NHL, for the 1984-85 season. The moment was made even more special by the fact that Lindbergh’s boyhood hero, Bernie Parent, was the presenter at the awards ceremony who announced that Lindbergh had won the award.
Lindbergh started his professional career in the 1980-81 season with the Flyers AHL affiliate at the time the Maine Mariners. He was briefly called up to the Flyers in the 1980-81 season but then finished the year in the AHL. Lindbergh finally made his impact at the NHL level during the 1982-83 season where he made his first NHL All-Star team and was also named the goalie for the NHL’s All-Rookie team. He faltered a little bit in the 1983-84 season but finally broke out in a big way in the 1984-85 season. He led the league in wins with 40, had a 3.02 goals against average which during the wide open era of the 1980’s was an outstanding GAA, and he led the Flyers, a team who at the beginning of the 1984-85 season most experts didn’t even think would make the playoffs, all the way to the Stanley Cup finals where they eventually lost to the Edmonton Oilers. With the Flyers having a roster that had the youngest average age in the NHL, the future couldn’t have been more bright for the club.
Perhaps as a result of the Stanley Cup Finals hangover, the Flyers and Lindbergh faltered a little bit to start the 1985-86 season. They lost the season opener to a very bad New Jersey Devil team 6-5 and were only 2-2 after the first four games of the year. Hardly the start that was expected of a team with such lofty expectations. That all changed after the Flyers defeated the Minnesota North Stars 7-3. That was to be the start of a 13-game winning streak for the Flyers. Not a 13-game unbeaten streak like today’s NHL where you still get rewarded a point for an overtime loss but 13 straight regulation wins.
Lindbergh was off to a slow start personally as well. He wasn’t the same goalie that ended the 84-85 season. Like the rest of the team, his game seemed to be a little sluggish. He wasn’t the same cat quick goalie that Flyer fans were used to seeing the previous year. His game even faltered to the point where back up goalie Bob Froese started to see a little more time than expected. During a game against the Chicago Blackhawks on November 7, that all changed though. The image will be forever embedded in my mind until the day I die. Lindbergh had to go hard to his left and made an amazing pad save on Chicago forward (and now TV announcer) Ed Olczyk. It was a trademark Lindbergh save. As a fan watching this the thought that occurred to me was, “He’s back… ” The Flyers went on to beat the Blackhawks in dominating fashion 6-2 for their ninth straight win. All systems were now go. The Flyers and their star goalie had shaken off the cobwebs and were playing the most dominant hockey I personally have ever seen any Flyers team play. They were completely dismantling teams with ease. They were winning games five and six to two on a nightly basis.
Saturday November 9, 1985. The Flyers were set to face off against the Adams Division leading Boston Bruins. As luck would have it, Me, my Dad and my brother had tickets for the game. Lindbergh was not the starting goaltender though. Coach Mike Keenan decided to go with back up netminder Froese. It was later learned that the reason that Froese was playing was because the Flyers were in the process of working on a deal to trade Froese to the Los Angeles Kings for a defensman. The Flyers wanted to showcase Froese one more time before pulling the trigger on a deal. The Bruins were able to muster a little more of a fight than most teams in the NHL that had gone up against the Flyers but still fell 5-3. Tim Kerr scored a hat trick giving him 16 goals in 13 games. The Flyers had just won their 10th game in a row and their record was 10-2-2. Another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals and perhaps even a Stanley Cup seemed to be in the Flyers future. The Flyers would now have five days off before facing the Oilers in a rematch of the previous year’s final.
With the ten straight wins and with five days off before their next game and Mike Keenan having already told the team they would have the day off that Sunday, the Flyers were in the mood to celebrate. Most of the team went to a Bennigans on Route 73 in New Jersey. Lindbergh decided to just go home and be with his fiance Kierstan. After being at home for a while, Lindbergh decided he should at least go out to be with his teammates for a little while. His plan was to go out for about an hour just to be social and then return home. He met his teammates at Bennigans but then decided to go to the Flyers practice facility in Voorhees, New Jersey to celebrate with the rest of the team.
According to most reports, Lindbergh had two beers at the Bennigans, Rick Tocchet had said he remembered buying him two beers at the bar in Voorhees and Lindbergh had at least two mixed drinks at the Coliseum. Lindbergh’s blood alcohol level was found to be at .24 when a test was taken of just the blood serum and then at .17 when his whole blood level was taken. Dave Poulin, who saw Lindbergh get in his car that night said that Lindbergh was by no means falling down drunk. But with a BAC well over the legal limit, Lindbergh definitely made a mistake getting in the car that night.
This of course has led people to believe that Lindbergh was an irresponsible drunk. This actually wasn’t the case. I read Lindbergh’s biography Behind the White Mask several years ago. Hockey players are notorious for having a work hard, play hard mentality. It’s no secret that they like their booze. When Lindbergh was asked about the subject, he revealed that although he drank in the offseason, he didn’t have a drop of liquor during the season. He didn’t want it to take away from his game. He also said that if he were getting behind the wheel, he wouldn’t even have one sip of alcohol. He didn’t want to jepordize such a promising career. It’s what makes Lindbergh’s death all the more tragic. Was this Lindbergh’s first time getting behind the wheel after having had too much to drink? One would guess probably not. But, at the same time, Lindbergh sounded like he was someone who was responsible when it came to drinking.
During the night of his death, Lindbergh was said to be seen several times without a drink in his hand. Bob Clarke, the Flyers GM at the time said it best, “He did something we all have done. He got behind the wheel when he shouldn’t have.” Murray Craven was driving behind Lindbergh when they left the Coliseum that night. He said Lindbergh took off so fast that the wheels of his car seemed to almost come up off the road. Witnesses said Lindbergh was driving in between 75 and 80 MPH. Lindbergh was driving on Somerdale Road which banks hard to the right about a mile after the Coliseum. Lindbergh was driving at such a high speed that instead of turning to the right he kept going straight and banged into the wall outside of a church. He was taken to JFK Hospital where he was pronounced brain dead. After his father arrived in the States from Sweden, a five-hour procedure was performed to harvest Lindbergh’s organs. He was then taken off of life support and pronounced dead on November 11.
I went to bed the night of November 9 on cloud nine. I awoke to a rude awakening. I remember my Mom shaking me awake, “Mike… Mike… Mike, Pelle Lindbergh is brain dead.” I remember snapping awake hoping that what I had just heard was some sort of weird dream only to find that the nightmare was true. I just stared at my Mom for about 3o seconds and said, “What did you just say?” When she said it again, I just sat there in stunned silence. Even though I already knew the answer I guess out of shock I still asked my Mom if he would be all right and of course her answer was no. It was a Sunday so all I did was watch the news coverage of the accident in stunned silence all day.
What a tragic end to what should have been an extraordinary life. Lindbergh was only 26 at the time of his death and had everything to live for only to have it cut short because of one bad decision. The absolute worst kind of tragedy.