Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Ghost of Pelle

By: C.G. Morelli

He was the last piece of the puzzle for a team, and a city, that had their hearts set on hoisting another Stanley Cup.  He was a savage acrobat, a new-age Bernie Parent and, with his signature full-face hockey mask, he was a possible stunt double for Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th.  Tragically, it was on a drive home from the Flyers’ practice facility in Voorhees, NJ that ended it all for future star, Pelle Lindbergh.

Pelle was only five years old when he learned how to skate on an iced-over soccer field just south of Stockholm, Sweden.  By the time he was seven, his agility had already been recognized by Swedish National coach Curre Lindstrom, who urged Lindbergh to begin playing organized hockey in the Hammarby Youth League.  It was at this early stage that young Pelle began formulating a plan for himself.  And he wasn’t shy about it.  As a ten year old boy, he had already discovered his talent as a net-minder and vowed to his friends that someday he’d become the greatest goalie in the world.

By the time Pelle was 12 years old, he was playing for Hammarby’s traveling pee wee team, which routinely made trips to Leningrad and Moscow, and even to Canada.  It was on a trip to hockey Mecca in Toronto where Pelle further solidified his living blueprint.  While all his teammates were soaking in the classic confines of Maple Leaf Garden, wearing newly-purchased items all embroidered with the hallowed blue leaf, Pelle took the road less traveled.  He, instead, went to the souvenir shop and purchased a black and orange jersey with a curious insignia sewn to the front.  It was the first time he’d ever wear a Philadelphia Flyers jersey, but certainly not the last.

Pelle never played a game thereafter without the Flyers’ logo stamped somewhere on his helmet.  He wore it throughout the 70’s as he minded net for the Swedish Junior Nationals.  On this team, Pelle developed his characteristic quick glove playing alongside future NHLers Thomas Eriksson, Hakan Sodergren, and Mats Naslund.  In 1975, Pelle was named the best junior goalie in Sweden, and in 1978 he led his team, Smakrongorna, to the Junior League championship.  After the tournament, when asked why he wore a curious black and orange logo on his helmet, he told spectators simply, “I’m going to play for the Philadelphia Flyers.”

Of course, most people scoffed at Pelle’s early prediction.  It would be hard enough just to make it to the NHL, but it would take all kinds of luck to land on one of the league’s elite teams.  But that luck would come.  In the 1979 NHL Entry Draft, the Philadelphia Flyers selected a young, Swedish goaltender named Pelle Lindbergh to the surprise of many.  Pelle, of course, had known this would happen all along.

Before reporting to the Flyers, Pelle was selected to compete for Sweden at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, where he managed to bring home a bronze medal. The Swedes were the only squad who didn’t lose to the Miracle on Ice team.  That summer, Lindbergh reported to the Flyers training camp to begin learning the North American style of goaltending from his long-time idol, Bernie Parent.  With Parent’s tutelage, Pelle developed amazing quickness and led Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate from Portland, Maine, the Mariners, to the Calder Cup.  The team could not bring home the championship, but Lindbergh made a name for himself in a big way by bringing home an armful of hardware.  He had won the Red Garrett Award as rookie of the year, the Hap Holmes Award for the best goaltender, and the Les Cunningham award as the AHL’s most valuable player.

But for the next few years, Pelle was up and down between the big club and his AHL team.  He was inconsistent and struggled in net.  At one point he even asked to be traded from the team he once dreamed of playing for.

In 1985, however, his dream finally took shape.  The Flyers traded goalie Pete Peeters for defenseman Brad McCrimmon, officially paving the way for Lindbergh.  This time he made the most of his opportunity, leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals against Edmonton with a sparkling GAA of 3.02 and a record of 40-17-7.  The Flyers weren’t able to overcome the play of the great one, Wayne Gretzky, but the fans of Philadelphia were uplifted by the future promise of their team with Lindbergh at the helm.  At season’s end, Pelle was awarded the prestigious Vezina Trophy to go along with his first-team All-Star designation.  He had become one of the NHL’s biggest stars almost overnight.

In ‘85-’86, the Flyers picked up right where they left off.  They shot out to a 6-2 start.  Lindbergh was doing his best impression of Bernie Parent in goal, and the outlook was good for a team that was generally regarded as one of the tops in the NHL.  The quick start was reason enough for Coach Mike Keenan to reward his players with a rare, early-season night off. 

Pelle and a few others went out for the evening, eventually finishing off the night with a few drinks at a lounge inside the Coliseum, the Flyers’ Voorhees, NJ practice facility.  In the early hours of the morning, Pelle and two passengers set off in his new Porsche.  He never noticed the sharp, winding curve in the road which culminated in a set of concrete school house steps, until it was too late.  The two passengers survived the crash with minor injuries, but Pelle was not so lucky.  He was declared brain-dead a few hours later at John F. Kennedy Hospital in Somerdale, NJ.  Two days later, after seeing no change in their son’s condition, Anna-Lisa and Sigge Lindbergh were faced with the ultimate decision.  They elected to stop the respirator and spare Pelle any suffering.

And with that, the fortunes of a future NHL legend were erased…but not from the minds of his teammates, his favorite hockey club, or the millions of fans from the Philadelphia area who had quickly grown to love their adopted Swedish son.  To them, somewhere in the backs of their minds, there will always be a lightning fast goaltender in a Friday the 13th mask making heart-stopping glove saves.  To them, the memories of Pelle’s one shining season will never be lost. 

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