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Spectrum Memories: Lindbergh Memorial

by Bill Meltzer / Philadelphia Flyers

Even before the 1985-86 season started, many Philadelphia Flyers players circled the November 14 meeting with the Edmonton Oilers on their calendars. The game at the Spectrum marked a rematch from the 1985 Stanley Cup Final, and would be a measuring-stick game for the Flyers. Anticipation built even higher as Philadelphia compiled a 10-game winning streak heading into a four-day break before the showdown with Edmonton.

PRISM open/Keenan interview
Hart speech
Parent speech
Lindbergh speaks

By the time the game finally rolled around, however, its meaning had dramatically changed. At 5:45 a.m. on November 10, following a celebration after 5-3 Flyers victory over the Boston Bruins, goaltender Pelle Lindbergh crashed his custom-built Porsche 930 Turbo into a wall at the juncture of Somerdale Road and Ogg Avenue in Somerdale, New Jersey. The 26-year-old Lindbergh was rendered brain dead, and his two passengers were seriously injured in the crash.

The crash was caused both by the fact that Lindbergh had been drinking and his predilection for speeding. Ironically, Lindbergh rarely consumed any alcohol during the hockey season, but relaxed his usual routine because of the long layoff between the Bruins game (in which he was rested in favor of backup Bob Froese) and the upcoming Oilers game. The Flyers had canceled practice for the next two days and Lindbergh had planned to attend a boat show in Atlantic City the next day.

At the time of the accident, Lindbergh's mother, Anna-Lisa, and brother-in-law, Göran Hornestam, were staying in the Kings Grant home that Pelle shared with his fiancée, Kerstin Pietzsch. Lindbergh remained on life support until his father, the late Sigge Lindbergh, could fly in from Sweden to say his final goodbyes to his son.

Lindbergh's death left the entire Flyers family, fans of the team and the city of Philadelphia utterly devastated. The loss was incalculable.

In hockey terms, the Flyers suddenly found themselves without the NHL's premier goaltender. Lindbergh's career path saw him win the American Hockey League's MVP, top goaltender and Rookie of the Year award his first season in North America. Two years later, as an NHL rookie, he played in the NHL All-Star Game and was chosen to the league's All-Rookie team.
Gene Hart is the first to speak in the pregame memorial service for goaltender Pelle Lindbergh on November 14, 1985. (Flyers Archives)

After a sophomore slump, Lindbergh won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender (the first European keeper to win the coveted award) and led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final. He was well on his way to contending for a second straight Vezina at the time of his fatal crash.

But the impact of Lindbergh's death went far beyond what it meant to the team on the ice. He was an immensely popular player, among his teammates, the fans and the hockey world as a whole. Fun-loving, free-spirited, kind, generous and laid-back, Lindbergh had a special gift for making friends and drawing a crowd wherever he went.  Moreover, he had planned to get married in the 1986 offseason.  In the blink of an eye, he was gone.

A born Flyer meets his idol

There has never been a player in team history - before or since - for whom the Philadelphia Flyers had deeper meaning than for Pelle Lindbergh. His life story sounds like a fairy tale (or a fanciful PR creation), but he really did grow up dreaming of playing not only in the NHL, but specifically for the Flyers.

When Lindbergh grew up in Stockholm, few young Swedish players followed the NHL, much less cared about an expansion team like the Flyers. But Lindbergh's love for the Flyers started by his 10th birthday, and grew steadily over the years.

At first, Lindbergh took to the Flyers because he liked the team's logo. The restless youngster, for whom hockey was a 24-hour-a-day obsession, sometimes doodled Philadelphia's "flying P" logo in his composition book at school rather than pay attention to the lesson in class. Years later, he wrote on a school paper, "This is meaningless. I'm going to be the goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers."

In 1971, a 12-year-old Lindbergh and the other members of his Hammarby youth hockey team took a trip to Canada to play a series of games against Canadian boys' teams. During the trip, the Swedish boys visited Toronto to see a Maple Leafs game. They also stopped by a local hockey shop. All of the Swedish kids but one bought Toronto Maple Leafs' t-shirts or jerseys. Pelle Lindbergh picked out a Flyers jersey instead.

Lindbergh's preoccupation with the Flyers did not truly crystallize, however, until he was 16 years old. That was when Lindbergh's Hammarby coach Curt Lindström (who later became the head coach of the Swedish and Finnish national teams) showed the boys a video of the deciding game of the 1975 Stanley Cup Finals.

Lindbergh was mesmerized by Flyers goaltender Bernie Parent. He soon had his family purchase films of the 1974 and 1975 Cup Finals, and watched them over and over again in his bedroom in the years to come. From that point forward, Lindbergh idolized Parent.
Pelle soon took to wearing Flyers logos on his mask. The mask itself was a replica of Parent's, and Lindbergh even started wearing uniform number 1 in honor of his idol. 

In August 1979, Lindbergh received a phone call from Flyers scout Jerry Melnyk, informing him that Philadelphia had chosen him in the second round of the NHL draft. In reply, Lindbergh screamed the most enthusiastic response Melnyk had ever heard from a just-drafted prospect.

"Mama! Papa! The Flyers! The Flyers! The Flyers!"  he shouted repeatedly.

Over the course of the next six years, Lindbergh justified the Flyers' faith by blossoming into the NHL's best goaltender. He developed a bond with Parent (who became the Flyers' goaltending coach after retiring as a player) that went beyond a typical coach-player relationship. The two grew so close that Lindbergh often referred to Parent as "my dad in the USA."
The Philadelphia Daily News headline from November 11, 1985. (Flyers Archives)

In one of the most touching moments in hockey history, Parent presented the 1984-85 Vezina Trophy to his protégé, warmly embracing him and beaming as the young Swede accepted the award and basked in the spotlight. Five months later, Lindbergh was dead.

Coping with the pain

Lindbergh's family and the Flyers organization as a whole went through sheer hell in the days following his death. The already close-knit players leaned heavily on one another for support, but they were in agony. The Flyers channeled their grief into preparing to play hockey, but there were also several off-ice meetings where the players had a chance to express their anguish and feelings of loss.

In the aftermath of Lindbergh's crash, the Edmonton Oilers offered to postpone the upcoming game, but the Flyers decided to go ahead with the game and to hold a memorial ceremony for Lindbergh before the game.

One day before the game, the Flyers held a private memorial for Lindbergh at the Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church in Philadelphia. Team captain Dave Poulin, one of Lindbergh's closest friends on the squad, delivered an eloquent eulogy for his fallen comrade. That same day, goaltender Bob Froese suffered an injury at practice and was rendered unable to play against Edmonton.

The Flyers were forced to recall second-year pro Darren Jensen from the Hersey Bears and plug him in as the starter against the defending Stanley Cup champions.

The flags at the Spectrum hung at half mast on the week of the memorial game. In honor of Lindbergh, a Swedish flag was flown next to the American flag. The electronic message board outside the arena, which usually promotes upcoming events, simply said "Pelle 31."

Inside the building, workers carried and unpacked boxes containing postcards to be given to everyone in attendance that night. On the front side, there was a black-and-white photograph of Lindbergh. On the reverse, it said, "In Loving Memory of Pelle Lindbergh: Our Goalie, Our Friend." 

By happenstance, the tickets for the game featured a color photo of Lindbergh in goal. Each game had a different player pictured on the ticket, and every player on the opening night roster was featured at least once during the season. Lindbergh so happened to be the photo subject for the Edmonton game. 

Arena management asked the ticket-takers not to tear people's tickets as they walked through the turnstiles. Instead, they wrote a small X on the reverse of the ticket. Down at ice level, a work crew whitewashed the boards of all advertising. The message from the Flyers was clear: The game was about honoring the memory of the fallen goaltender, not about making money.

A night of tears and triumph

At 7:30 p.m., the lights were dimmed. Only the center ice area was illuminated, prominently featuring an orange floral tribute to Lindbergh arranged in the shape of the number 31.

Kerstin, Sigge, Anna-Lisa and Göran sat in the Snider family's private box in the stands. At ice level, Flyers announcer Gene Hart stood front and center with Bernie Parent, Ed and Jay Snider, Bob Clarke, Keith Allen, team chaplain John Casey and NHL president John Ziegler nearby.  The Flyers players were lined up on the ice, heads bowed.

A hush fell over the building as Hart began his speech.

“My good friends, what was to have been a shimmering evening of spectacular hockey, with the two greatest teams in the professional game, has become instead a deeply more personal occasion as we, the Flyers family, the team, the organization and especially you fans, gather to grieve the loss of one of our own.

“But, really, since Pelle Lindbergh’s entire existence exuded nothing but the positive things in life, what I’d like to do this evening is to make the theme of our ceremony not the mourning of his death but the celebration of a life that we in Philadelphia were privileged to share.”

Hart went on to assure the fans that their sorrows will ease over time and be replaced by happier memories. He then briefly recounts Lindbergh’s life story and career.

After Father Casey gave an invocation, Hart concluded by informing the crowd that Pelle’s family is at the game and thanking all of the fans on behalf of the team and the family for the outpouring of support and condolences.
Lindbergh was just as popular with his teammates as he was with the fans. (Flyers Archives)

It was now Parent’s turn to speak. Clad in a dark blue suit, white shirt and dark red tie, he approached the podium.  Several times, he had to pause to compose himself as he addressed the crowd.

Midway through the eulogy he said, “The papers have said that I was his hero. But I wish I could you tell you how much I admired him. I wish I could have only told him this – told him how much I admired him and how much I cared about him.”

Parent’s lip quivered and he brushed away a tear. The crowd cheered to give him strength. Parent took a deep breath and continued the eulogy:

“A goalie stands on a very lonely island, and I’m grateful that I was able to share some of that island with him, but for too brief a period. Pelle Lindbergh had become, without question, one of hockey’s greatest goalies. When death defeats greatness, we mourn. And when death defeats youth, we mourn even more.”

At the end of his speech, Parent could only manage to say a few words at a time as the emotions welled up inside him. In a low, staccato voice, he said, “Pelle, you will always live in our hearts. Pelle we miss you.”

Hart ended the ceremony by reciting the final stanza of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Many in the stands cried openly throughout the ceremony, and several Flyers players watching from the ice fought to hold back their emotions. At the conclusion, a loud and cathartic chant of “Pell-lee! Pell-lee! Pell-lee!” filled the building for one final time.

Hart introduced Hildegard Lindström, a singer the Swedish consulate recommended to the Flyers. She performed a stirring rendition of “Du Gamla, Du Fria,” the national anthem of Sweden. 

Up in the press box, former Maine Mariners and Flyers head coach Bob McCammon watched the ceremony with an aching feeling. Now an assistant coach with the Oilers, he couldn’t help but think of the four years he spent with Lindbergh in Portland and Philadelphia.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the players retreated to the locker room as the organist played “The Moment of Triumph.” In the Flyers locker room, players quickly composed themselves and were anxious to get the game underway. Head coach Mike Keenan chose his words carefully and spoke calmly.

“Gentlemen, you are professionals, and now you have a job to do,” he said.

Twenty minutes after the memorial ceremony, referee Don Koharski raised his arm and dropped the opening faceoff. Over the course of the first period, the two clubs traded several penalties and Philadelphia outshot Edmonton, 14-9. Finally, at the 17:25 mark of the period, the Flyers got on the board.

With the Flyers on their third power play of the period, Poulin won a faceoff cleanly back to Mark Howe at the point. Poulin and Murray Craven moved toward the net to screen Oilers goaltender Andy Moog as Howe unleashed one of his deadly wrist shots that found the back of the net.

Howe’s mind momentarily drifted as his teammates congratulated him and he skated back to the bench. He later explained that he felt tears welling up in his eyes and he had an urge to cry.

Up in the Snider family’s box, Sigge and Anna Lisa stood up and applauded wildly after Howe gave the Flyers the lead. Throughout the game, they continued to cheer loudly for the Flyers (especially the saves made by Jensen) and yelled in Swedish at Koharski when he made calls that went against Philadelphia.

In the second period, the Flyers were still clinging to a 1-0 lead. Howe, the team's top defenseman, suffered a groin pull and had to leave the game. Wayne Gretzky got a shorthanded breakaway against Jensen. The emergency call-up stoned the reigning Hart Trophy winner. The fans and the Lindbergh clan roared for the most dramatic of the seven saves Jensen would make on Gretzky.

At the 17:53 mark of the middle stanza, Edmonton tied the game and all hell broke loose at the end of the period. With 13 seconds left, Koharski whistled off Dave Hunter for slashing Brad Marsh. The Flyers pressed the attack and gain an offensive zone faceoff with two seconds left on the clock.

Mark Messier skated into the circle to take the draw against Tim Kerr. As linesman Gerard Gauthier held the puck, Messier dropped to his knees hoping to occupy the puck long enough for the clock to run out on the period. The lineman refused to drop the faceoff and lectured Messier, who barked right back at the official.

Koharski interceded and called an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Messier, giving Philadephia a five-on-three advantage for the first 1:44 of the third period. 

On the Edmonton bench, coach Glen Sather blew his cool. He wound up getting thrown out of the game by Koharski. McCammon came down from the press box and finished the game behind the bench.
Lindbergh was the first European-born goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy, which he did in 1985. (Flyers Archives)

The Oilers refused to send their players out on the ice to start the period, so Koharski tacked on an additional delay of game penalty on the Edmonton bench. The Flyers now had a lengthy 5-on-3 power play to start the third period.

They took advantage. At the 24-second mark of the third period, Pelle Eklund threaded a perfect feed to Ilkka Sinisalo, who snapped a shot past Andy Moog to give the Flyers a lead they would never relinquish.

Edmonton continued to self-destruct with penalties. A frustrated Moog got tagged with a slashing penalty, and Brian Propp turned the latest 5-on-3 advantage into a goal at the 3:56 mark, firing a tracer from the circle. 

When one team enjoys a series of power plays, it’s almost inevitable that the calls will eventually even out. Sure enough, Brad Marsh (holding) and Brad McCrimmon (high sticking) got sent off in quick succession. Forced to play without their top three defensemen and facing a 5-on-3 penalty kill, Philadelphia tried to minimize the damage.

Paul Coffey scored on the 5-on-3 to cut the deficit to 3-2, but Edmonton was unable to tie the game on the remaining 5-on-4 time. At the 11:04 mark, Rich Sutter took a feed from twin brother Ron, went wide on Melnyk and scored to temporarily restore breathing room for the Flyers.

Seconds later, two rounds of fisticuffs broke out, as Hospodar fought McClelland and Dave Brown took on Dave Semenko. Brown and Semenko were assessed game misconducts and escorted to the locker rooms. One minute and 21 seconds after all the penalties were sorted out, Messier got Jensen to commit early and went top-shelf to bring the Oilers back to within a single goal.

Finally, with 3:10 left, Rich Sutter connected with McCrimmon. The defenseman beat Moog to give the Flyers a final 5-3 margin of victory. 

Few of the 17,211 fans in attendance left the Spectrum after the final buzzer. The Flyers players received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the game. The applause were in recognition of the team’s 11-game winning streak, the tremendous effort involved in beating Edmonton and, most of all, for all it had been through emotionally over the last five days.

After the game, the Flyers’ locker room went silent as Sigge Lindbergh appeared in the doorway. Unable to speak a word of English, the 69-year-old retired sailor was nevertheless able to communicate his feelings. One by one, he approached each player in the locker room, looked him in the eye and shook his hand.

Thereafter, Pelle’s father met with Bob Clarke. Kerstin served as translator as Sigge told Clarke that the family would be honored if Bernie Parent could attend the funeral in Sweden, if it was at all possible.

“You’re all welcome to come together,” Sigge said. “When Pelle was in the States, he saw Bernie as his second father. That felt good for us at home.”

Without hesitation, Parent agreed to come along to Stockholm. The team also gave defenseman Thomas Eriksson (who had known Lindbergh since they were kids in Stockholm) permission to take a bereavement leave and be with the Lindbergh family during the funeral.

The following week, Clarke, Jay Snider, Keith Allen and Parent attended Lindbergh's funeral at the breathtaking Sofia Church in south Stockholm. Lindbergh had been baptized at the church, and if he had lived to marry Kerstin the following summer, the ceremony would have been held there as well.

Pelle Lindbergh is buried at Skogskyrkogården in south Stockholm, along with his older sister Ann-Christine (who passed away from cancer one year and eleven months after Pelle) and Sigge. His otherwise modest tombstone is engraved with a Flyers logo and the number 31.
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