Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Phanatic Book Review: Pelle Lindbergh - Behind The White Mask

by Bob Herpen
The Phanatic Magazine

            Nearly 25 years since his untimely death, former Flyers goaltender Pelle Lindbergh is a hazy, but near-mythic figure in the hearts and minds of countless hockey fans.

            Thanks to the efforts of hockey writer Bill Meltzer, the story of Pelle’s life until that tragic day of November 10, 1985 comes alive, in the English version of the book first undertaken by Sweden’s Thomas Tynander.

            “Behind The White Mask” does exactly what it sets out to do – reveal the story of the man Pelle Lindbergh, the one whose story had not been told, or more likely has been forgotten amidst the collective and fading memory of his brief yet stellar rise to North American hockey fame with the Flyers.

With its evocative picture on the front cover of Pelle in full uniform, framed by his iconic plain white mask with the telltale eyeholes and a gaze fixed away from the reader, you get a sense right away that Pelle might not mind the intrusion – as long as it didn’t distract from his goal of becoming the best goaltender in the National Hockey League.
This is exactly what Meltzer and Tynander attempt to get across. Pelle was a kid who came from less-than-desirable circumstances, but thanks to a lot of love, luck, and a heaping pile of God-given talent, worked his way up from club hockey with his father’s beloved Hammarby all the way to the top level of hockey in the world in Philadelphia.
            It isn’t the classic underdog tale, however. Along with being blessed with immense talent, Pelle also displayed the characteristic drive and all-consuming vision that any successful person sometimes displays from an early age.

He didn’t do well in school because he believed he didn’t need an education to meet his goal; he didn’t take too kindly to practice, or to other players who were given spots on a club he felt was clearly his even without proving he belonged. He also didn’t care much for coaches and scouts who didn’t believe he was destined for greatness on the timetable he set for himself.

Nonetheless, Pelle was always able to make friends wherever he went, and his infectious personality often smoothed over conflict and is what is most often remembered by those who knew him – equally so along with his athletic prowess.

Meltzer and Tynander meld the two sides of Pelle’s personality seamlessly with countless interviews of Pelle’s relatives, friends, coaches and mentors in Sweden along with touching reminiscences by his Flyers teammates, coaches and one famous Philly scribe who recounts the final, agonizing four-day ordeal in details only a privileged few have known to this point.

            Two things that benefit the book more than anything else, and make the read much more compelling, are that:  a) Meltzer and Tynander resist the temptation (baseball/football/boxing writers, I’m looking at you) to compare Pelle’s life arc and tragic end with the culture of the times and b) interlocks Lindbergh’s pre-1985 existence in alternate chapters with the events between his accident and the Flyers’ contest which honored his memory.
            It’s all too easy with the benefit of hindsight and a one-generation gap, to draw parallels between Pelle’s zest for life, need for speed, and cocky air of invincibility that athletes seem to possess, with the so-called Decade of Decadence.

Naturally, the circumstances surrounding Pelle’s accident and death can read like an Afterschool Special straight out of the era, complete with the lesson for kids who pay the ultimate price for being young and seemingly indestructible. However, this sort of devil-may-care attitude still exists today, with the danger existing now in gun play rather than with mere drinking and driving.

            The drama inherent in the storyline isn’t manufactured by trite comparisons with pop culture, but amplified by contrasting Pelle’s relatively safe upbringing in a working-class section of Stockholm and his charmed rise within the nation’s hockey ranks with the fatal series of flawed judgments that shrouded his final hours along with the tense and emotional final days before his passing.

            All of that reveals a simple underlying truth both authors express about the true nature of sports idols and their inherent humanity which is often lost when an athlete exits the spotlight at his or her peak.

            A must-read for Flyers fans over the age of 35 whose memories are still clear of the days when they chanted Pelle’s name from the rafters of the Spectrum, “Behind The White Mask” will stir up memories and emotions long-buried for those who saw Number 31 as their hero. The book is also a valuable resource for younger hockey fans who have grown up in the corporate NHL culture of the Millennium as a historical piece on the workings of the sport in a previous generation.

            It also serves as an elegy to the ultimate consequence of the folly of youth without the boundaries of wisdom, a trap which dooms even the luckiest of people, whether they live their lives for the enjoyment of others or not, to fade just as quickly as they climb.

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