Thursday, November 14, 2013

Why Pelle Lindbergh endures

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Hockey Editor 

One sobering thought in a chilly November night brought me to write the following piece.

Pelle Lindbergh has been dead longer than he was alive.

This is a fact only important to, and given weight by, a significant portion of Flyers fans and professionals -- all of whom are 35 years of age or older.

Any younger than that, then any memories of the sensational Swede are most likely false ones, created through stories of siblings, relatives, peers and enhanced by the magic of taped highlights and YouTube.

It occured to me, after three years kicking around social media and selling my wares where the median age is a number I left roughly 10 years ago, that there are many who know of Pelle, who have heard the legend, but were never a witness to his greatness and infectiously happy personality. Therefore, you probably can't figure why his life and death are lodged deep within certain souls after one-third of a typical lifetime has passed.

First of all, it's because he rose to prominence at such a high rate. From the time he arrived in North America until his untimely death, only five years passed. From the time Bernie Parent's career-ending eye injury it was only a little more than six years. He was an anomaly: a European in the NHL, and a goaltender at that, and a goalie in Philadelphia, whose glory years were earned on the backs of rough-hewn Canadians of both English and French extraction.

After being the only netminder not to lose to the USA in the 1980 Winter Olympics, he set the American Hockey League on fire at Maine, taking home the league's MVP, top rookie and best goaltender honors in his first full season in 1980-81 with the Mariners.

Two years later, he helped rocket the Flyers to the top of the Patrick Division over the three-time defending Cup champion Islanders along with fellow rookie Bob Froese. Two years after that, in 1984-85, Mike Keenan helped restore Pelle's lost confidence from the year before, making him the starter and playing him until he tired of it. The results were a Vezina Trophy -- won for the first time by a non-North American -- along with league-best 40 wins, and a berth in the Stanley Cup finals after a record-setting 53-win regular season.

As many of his teammates including Brian Propp and Brad Marsh have said, the Flyers were who they were because Pelle worked so well in net that it elevated everyone else's confidence and level of play.  He lifted a team which had the lowest average age of any club in North American professional sports -- without the veteran leadership of Bob Clarke, or Bill Barber or Darryl Sittler -- and made them believe they could compete with the best in the NHL every night.

His style was unique for the times, aggressive, flexible, positionally-sound, or as much as you could be in the risk-taking 1980s, but his reaction and recovery times were and still are a rare commodity. The following video demonstrates some of his quickness:

Several lightning-fast saves, and a rejuvenated sellout Spectrum crowd broke out in a "Pelle" chant whose cadence is still hauntingly familiar to those who witnessed it.

Second, for those of you who believe in the Butterfly Effect, Pelle's sudden death created ripples on this frozen pond that resonate to this very day regarding the never-ending search for the next championship-caliber goalie. It's something that defies analysis, and is encouraged by long life and a good memory.

If not for his passing, in the early stages of another division-winning season, Bob Froese would have never been elevated to the starter, which wouldn't have given Keenan doubts about Froese's long-term viability. That, in turn, would have kept Ron Hextall down in Hershey for at least one more year and it wouldn't have resulted in Hextall's sensational rookie season that resulted in Froese's trade to the Rangers, and might not have ended with a Cup Finals loss to Edmonton and a Conn Smythe Trophy and Vezina Trophy and his eventual burnout through suspensions creating nagging groin injuries that lessened his impact when he did play for weak teams, and caused his trade and two years away from the organization before being brought back to start the cycle we know and loathe today.

There's high degree of probability that no statistic would exist about the Flyers featuring 11 different starting goaltenders in the playoffs every year they made it between 1996 and 2012, and we would have only heard of most of the names on that list (Hextall, Garth Snow, Sean Burke, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Boucher, Roman Cechmanek, Robert Esche, Martin Biron, Michael Leighton, Sergei Bobrovsky, Ilya Bryzgalov) as playing for other teams.

Speaking of goaltending, and Parent -- this is where Pelle's effect on others really took hold. At age 34, Parent's Hall of Fame career ended prematurely due to a freak eye injury during a February, 1979 game against the Rangers. As has been related by his daughter, Kim and others, Bernie lost his way a bit in the aftermath, and as many do in times of trouble, turn to the bottle to drown sorrows. 

That malaise lasted until Pelle earned his way into the NHL during strong play in the 1982-83 season, where Parent was brought on as goaltending coach and mentor to the then-23-year-old. The relationship became beautifully intertwined: both professional and personal, and each managed to lift the other to a place Pelle always thought he'd reach and that Bernie might never have thought he'd see again.

The culmination of that special bond came in June of 1985, when Parent was on hand to present the Vezina Trophy to Pelle, linking the two Flyers greats forever engraved in silver. 

Parent finally made his feelings known publicly during Pelle's memorial, prior to a 5-3 victory over the defending champion Edmonton Oilers at the Spectrum 28 years ago tonight, choking back tears. The video below shows Bernie's eulogy, beginning at the 2:13 mark. I encourage everyone to watch not only that, but the rest of the clip as well as the second video, which are highlights from the game itself.

The Flyers won their 11th consecutive game, improving to 13-2-0, the best record in the NHL at the time. Running on inertia, and playing in Pelle's memory, the run stretched on for two more games, and the 13-win streak still stands as a club record.

In a twisted sense of logic, an athlete dying young preserves his personality, athleticism, reputation and impact at its peak. Time is not allowed to erode or diminish any of those qualities, but it's hard to imagine, had Pelle been gifted with a long life, that any would have been. Even though Elton John once sang that "life isn't everything," our cherubic Stockholm-born goaltender would beg to differ. Life was everything, and that exuberance showed then and radiates now.

Only a footnote in team history, it's up to us -- fans, writers, fellow Swedes of all ages and students of the game -- to keep the memory and the legacy vibrant. Celebrate and mourn in equal parts, but always remember.

As a bonus, here's a feature on goalie equipment and goaltending philosophy from Lindbergh and Froese, televised four days before Pelle's death:

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