Bill Meltzers Heros Of The Past

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Pelle Lindbergh #31

Article by Bill Meltzer

If ever a person were born to play hockey, it was Per-Erik "Pelle" Lindbergh. The third child and first son of Sigge and Anna-Lise Lindbergh, Per-Erik was born on May 24, 1959. When he was an infant, his father signed him up as a member of the local Hammarby IF athletic association. Growing up in a working class neighborhood on the south side of Stockholm, it did not take the boy long to figure out that his favorite place to be was the hockey rink. Pelle was only four years old when he started playing hockey and, at five, received his first goalie equipment as a Christmas present. One of Lindbergh's most vivid childhood memories was watching the World Championships on television. "I remember a Canadian goalie named Seth Martin and especially liked his mask," recalled Lindbergh years later. "After watching him play, I said to myself, 'that's what I want to do.' From the age of ten on, it was my goal to become a professional goaltender."

In 1969, Pelle began play for Hammarby's organized boys team. An early influence on the young goaltender was Curt Lindström (the former national team coach of Sweden and, later, Finland). Lindström told the twelve year old Per-Erik that he could be destined for greatness. It was also Lindström who showed Lindbergh a film of Flyers goaltending great Bernie Parent in action during the 1975 Stanley Cup finals against the Buffalo Sabres. From that point on, Parent became Lindbergh's hockey idol.

Pelle wore a mask identical to Parent's, studied Bernie's stand-up positioning, and even copied many of Parent's after-the-whistle mannerisms. Because of his affinity for Parent, Lindbergh adopted the Flyers as his favorite NHL team. In a time when the fondest dream of most Swedish players was to suit up for the national team (landslaget), Pelle had his sights set on playing in the NHL.

In 1977, Pelle made his debut for the Swedish junior national team, winning the European Junior Championships and winning recognition as the best goalie in the tournament. After one year in Division One hockey, Pelle was forced to change clubs in order to reach his goal of becoming a pro goalie. In 1979, he joined AIK in Elitserien (the Swedish Elite League). He was 20 years of age at the start of the season. AIK, a club with a storied past, had fallen on hard times by the late 1970s. Several of their up-and-coming stars, including Thomas Gradin and Kent Nilsson, chose to follow the path of Börje Salming, Inge Hammarström, Anders Hedberg, and Ulf Nilsson. They opted to leave Sweden and play in North America. As a result, the fortunes of AIK began to fall. Coming off a disastrous ninth place finish in 1978-79, the team did modestly better during Lindbergh's one season for the Solna hockey team. They finished 5th. Lindbergh played in 31 games, recording 2 shutouts. That year, he starred in the World Junior Championships and was selected the best goaltender in the tournament.

Unaware that the Philadelphia Flyers were scouting him, Lindbergh was stunned and thrilled when the Flyers made him their second round selection in the 1979 entry draft (after Brian Propp, another player who went on to become a crucial force on the Flyers during the 1980s). Lindbergh went on to play a fine tournament in the 1980 Winter Olympics, during which time his Swedish club was the lone team that the "Miracle on Ice" Team USA squad did not defeat in the tournament, settling for a tie. Pelle and the Swedes won a bronze at Lake Placid. Lindbergh showed so much promise that Sweden's Sportradio chose Pelle as their Swedish athlete of the month for February, 1980, selecting Lindbergh over several other prominent Swedish athletes, including legendary slalom skiier Ingemar Stenmark.

Joining the Flyers organization before the 1980-1981 season, Lindbergh, in his youthful exuberance, did not realize that there were still significant obstacles in front of him before he could become a regular goalie in the NHL. The first and foremost roadblock was that, although there were by this point quite a few position players who had become at least regular starters in the NHL, there had not yet been a single European goaltender who had successfully staked down a regular NHL job. Previous top Swedish goaltenders, such Leif "Honken" Holmqvist (also an AIK goalie) and Christer Abrahamsson, were never seriously considered for NHL jobs. Instead, they took their shots at North American hockey in the renegade World Hockey Association. Hardy Åström got a brief look-see with the New York Rangers and then became a split-time starter for the awful Colorado Rockies, for whom he won a total of 15 games in two years (against 42 losses and 12 ties). So, while Lindbergh's talents were undeniable, he and the Flyers would have to be trendsetters if Pelle were to become the Flyers goaltender of the future. The process would not prove to be as rapid as Lindbergh initially expected.

Lindbergh spent the entire 1980-81 season and most of the 1981-82 season with the Flyers affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Maine Mariners. In 1980-81, Lindbergh won the Calder Cup (AHL championship) and the AHL's MVP award. The following season, he made his NHL debut, getting into 8 games for the Flyers. Finally, in 1982-83, Lindbergh got an extended shot with the Flyers and outplayed Rick St. Croix to claim the starter's job. From his first full season, Lindbergh showed frequent flashes of the brilliance that lay ahead, although there were missteps along the way. Pelle and the entire Flyers team stumbled badly in the 1983 postseason, going out quickly in the first round to the New York Rangers. The following year, Lindbergh struggled with his timing and confidence for much of the season, and the Flyers went out in the first round once again.

Things changed in a big way for the Flyers in 1984-85. Ed Snider began phasing himself out and phasing in his son, Jay, as the team president. Longtime general manager Keith Allen was moved upstairs. Bob Clarke retired as a player and became the new general manager. Finally, Clarke hired a fiery young junior coach, Mike Keenan, to coach what was the youngest team in the NHL. Through all this upheaval, a young goaltender named Per-Erik Lindbergh emerged as the best keeper in the NHL.

Lindbergh was nothing short of brilliant during the 1984-85 season. The young Flyers were an exciting and gritty team, always playing on the raw edge of emotion. As a result, however, outside of a few key players (most notably, Mark Howe, Dave Poulin, and Tim Kerr), they were also a bunch that was prone to losing its composure. Lindbergh was the glue that held the team together, getting them through 2-on-1 rushes caused by offensive anxiousness and 5-on-3 shorthanded straits caused by undisciplined penalties. Viewed by current standards, Lindbergh's Vezina Trophy winning statistics (3.02 GAA, .899 save percentage) from 1984-85 might seem unimpressive. Realize, however, that this was in the middle of the highest scoring era in hockey. It is probable that the scoring levels attained during the offensive explosion of the 1980s, led by the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers, will not be seen again for many years. To properly compare mid-1980s NHL goaltending stats to those of the current era, shave off about 1.00 to 1.25 goals against per game and add a bare minimum of one and a half tenths of a point to save percentage statistics. Lindbergh's Vezina season numbers would translate today to about a 2.00 GAA and a .920 save percentage. More important than raw stats, though, were all the key saves that Lindbergh made that year. He gave the team a chance to win almost every night.

As great as he was in the regular season, Lindbergh cranked up his game even further in the 1985 playoffs. He was the number one reason the Flyers broke free from their playoff doldrums and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, stealing game one against the otherworldly Oilers squad before succumbing to their superior talent. After the season, Lindbergh received two special honors. On June 13, 1985 at the Metro Convention Center in Toronto, Pelle was announced as the winner of the Vezina Trophy. The trophy was presented to him by boyhood idol, Bernie Parent (himself a two time Vezina winner). Parent, the Flyers goaltending coach, had become not just a mentor to Lindbergh, but a close friend. Upon accepting the award, Lindbergh dedicated the honor to Parent. Lindbergh was also named to the post-season NHL All-Star team, becoming the second Swede to be so honored (Börje Salming was the first).

Pelle Lindbergh was on top of the world in the summer of 1985. He was one of the most popular players on the Flyers, among the fans, media and his teammates alike. Even his hockey rivals liked him as a person and, more importantly, had the utmost respect for his abilities on the ice. Kudos poured in from around the hockey world. Glen Sather, coach of Stanley Cup champion Edmonton, admitted that he was impressed by the young goaltender. Shortly after the 1985 Cup Finals, Sather said, "Philadelphia has a lot of good young players, but Lindbergh is the guy who gives them their edge. If he stays healthy, Philadelphia is going to have many more trips to the Cup finals in their future. That kid is just a sensational goalie. Don't get me wrong. There are many good goalies in the league, but Pelle and Grant [Fuhr] are the cream of the crop. They are going to be neck-and-neck for the Vezina for a long time to come."

Lindbergh spent the summer of 1985 entertaining friends and basking in the limelight. He also remained dedicated to his profession. Despite his hectic off-ice schedule, Lindbergh reported to the Flyers 1985-86 training camp in the best shape of his career, having shed some of the baby fat that led his teammates to affectionately nickname him "Gumper" [after diminutive, roly poly Hall-of-Fame goaltender "Gump" Worsley].

Lindbergh got off to a fine start in the 1985-86 season, playing brilliantly in six of his first eight starts. On November 6, 1985, Lindbergh performed well in a 6-2 Flyers victory over Chicago. Nobody knew it at the time, but it would turn out to be his last game.

On Saturday, November 9, the Flyers had a game against the Boston Bruins. Because Lindbergh had played a number of consecutive games, Keenan gave him the night off. Backup goaltender Bob Froese backstopped the Flyers to a 5-3 victory. After the game, Lindbergh drove his sedan home to King's Grant in Marlton, New Jersey. He soon received a phone call, inviting him to join a team party over at the restaurant/bar adjacent to the Flyers practice facility. Not only were many of his Flyers teammates present, so too was a man named Ed Parvin, who was a friend of many players on the team (his father was the real estate agent who sold many of the players' their homes). Parvin had visited Pelle in Stockholm the previous summer. Lindbergh kissed his girlfriend, Kerstin Pietzsh, goodbye and told her that he was going to the Coliseum for a while.

Leaving the sedan at home, Pelle went off to meet his teammates and friends in his beloved, custom-made Porsche 930 Turbo. Lindbergh's main vice in life was a love of fast cars and boats. He owned a speed boat, which he loved to race around the Stockholm coast during the summer. When he got behind the wheel of his 565 horsepower Porsche, which had cost him almost one million SEK (roughly $125,000), he tried to test it to the limit. Even when driving his sedan, he had a tendency to drive way too fast, much to the consternation of both Kerstin and his mother.

With the Flyers off to a fine early season start and with the team having the next five days off, there was an especially jovial and relaxed mood at the Coliseum that night. Most everyone stayed longer- and drank more- than they typically would. The party went on well into early Sunday morning. Parvin and a female companion, Kathy McNeal, had gotten a ride to the Coliseum and did not have any transportation home. Lindbergh offered to drive them back.

With a blood alcohol level nearly double the legal limit, Lindbergh got behind the wheel of the Porsche and sped off. Parvin was seated on the passenger side of the two-seat car. McNeal squeezed in the middle, atop the console. A little more than 10 minutes later, at 5:30 am, Lindbergh's impaired judgment, slowed reflexes, and tendency to push the pedal to the metal, combined to have tragic consequences. The Porsche failed to negotiate a steep curve and slammed into a retaining wall in front of a school in Sommerdale, New Jersey. The collision was so violent that the entire hood of the car was pushed into the driver's side.

Lindbergh suffered a badly broken leg, a broken hip, a broken jaw, and most seriously of all, brain injuries. The brain stem, which among other things, controls the flow of oxygen in the body, was injured so badly that he stopped breathing 15 minutes before the ambulance personnel arrived on the scene of the accident. After the accident, Lindbergh was rushed to the John F Kennedy Hospital in Stratford, New Jersey. During the rescue work that took place in the ambulance, Pelle's heart stopped beating but the EMTs succeeded in bringing him in alive to the hospital, where he has later declared braindead. Parvin was taken to another hospital, where he was treated for his own critical injuries, while McNeal's condition was stable. She was treated at the hospital in Stratford. Both Parvin and McNeal survived the accident

. Lindbergh's mother Anna-Lise (who was visiting her son's home at the time), Kerstin, many of his teammates, Keenan, and Flyers announcer Gene Hart assembled at the hospital and awaited word from the doctors. The bad news came swiftly. Lindbergh was breathing with the help of a respirator but was braindead. There was no hope of any sort of recovery.

The respirator was left on until Pelle's father could be flown in from Sweden. Then, after saying their final farewell to Pelle at the hospital, his relatives decided to have the respirator turned off and to donate Pelle's organs (heart, liver, kidneys and corneas). The transplanted organs ended up saving the lives of several gravely ill people. As Keenan later said, it was "Pelle's final- and greatest- save."

Lindbergh's death left his teammates, the city of Philadelphia, and the nation of Sweden (hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike), stunned and devastated. It was not just that Lindbergh was arguably the best goaltender in the world at the time of his death. He was, above all, a good person. One of the most friendly and accommodating people in the entire sports world, he was almost impossible to dislike. It was a Herculean task for the Flyers to pick up the pieces and get their minds back on hockey after Lindbergh died.

Pelle's American funeral was held at the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in Philadelphia on Thursday, November 14, 1985. The next night, the Flyers held a special tribute to Lindbergh before their game against the Edmonton Oilers. Gene Hart delivered an eloquent and soothing memorial speech. After the game, Sigge Lindbergh, who could not speak English, conveyed his feelings by going around to every one associated with the team, looking them in the eyes and shaking their hands. Lindbergh's locker space was left empty for the rest of the season, a small Swedish flag placed atop it.

Back home in Sweden, there were also moments of special tribute around the Swedish Elite League and arrangements had been made before the next Hammarby game to announce the establishment of a memorial fund for Pelle. Immediately after the Philadelphia funeral, Lindbergh's remains were returned to Sweden for a second funeral and burial.

Pelle was eulogized at Sofia church in the south of Stockholm, where he and Kerstin had planned to get married in the summer of 1986. Apart from Lindbergh's parents, relatives, Kerstin, and representatives from the Swedish hockey community, there were five Flyers representatives at the funeral, including teammate Thomas Eriksson. The church was filled to capacity and about 200 to 300 people who couldn't find space in the church followed the funeral proceedings from outside. At the funeral, Vicki Benkert sang Lindbergh's favorite song, a tune by Elton John.

Pelle Lindbergh is buried in Södra Skogkyrkagården, a cemetery in southern Stockholm.

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