Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pelle Lindbergh, by those who knew him best

On the 29th anniversary Pelle Lindbergh's death, the Phanatic takes an extensive look back at the way in which the Philadelphia Flyers chose to honor their departed franchise goaltender with a memorial in his honor.

"Can you believe we're planning a funeral?" -- Flyers President Jay Snider.

Three days after life support systems were disconnected, ending the 26-year-old Swedish superstar's brief but electric life, the National Hockey League schedule beckoned.

Heading into the Spectrum on November 14 would be the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers -- who offered to postpone the game out of respect but were declined by the Flyers front office who recognized the need for some kind of return to normalcy.

"If they had wanted more time (to resume the schedule) we would have understood," said Oilers captain Wayne Gretzky the day before -- the only player from outside the Philly organization to donate to a fund set up in Pelle's sister Ann-Christine's name. "Now that we're here, we'll do the best we can. But I just can't imagine how two teams can come out flying after something like this."

Against a near-pitch-black arena floor save for the orange carpet leading from the dressing room to center ice where an orange circle was placed that was big enough to hold the podium and accommodate principal members of the Flyers organization, members of Mike Keenan's team took the ice at one blue line, facing their opponents, who stood at the opposite blue line. 

Master of Ceremonies Gene Hart was given the unenviable task -- but one for which he was completely suited -- of beginning the somber remembrance by providing a soothing, meaningful opening statement.

The video can be accessed by hitting the link, while full text of his remarks were as follows:

"My good friends, what was to have been a night of shimmering spectacular hockey between the two greatest teams in the professional game has become instead a deeply more personal occasion. The team, the organization and especially you fans who gathered to grieve over the loss of one of our own. But since Pelle Lindbergh's entire existence exuded nothing but the positive things in life, what I'd like to do this evening is make the theme of our ceremony not the mourning of a death but the celebrating of a life which we in Philadelphia were privileged to share. 

"Please, first, let me assure you, particularly the youngsters, that our sorrow will diminish, and it will be replaced with rich memories, a part of the legacy that Pelle leaves us. And the sorrow is going to ease, and we will endure because it's the marvel and the essence of life in its continuation. And when you talk of life, what a life filled with triumph and achievements.  

"And I think it all goes back to what was spawned in (1967) when Pelle was eight, that was when a team called the Flyers was born. In the ensuing years, this young Swede began to formulate a dream, and he wanted to make that dream in North America, and he wanted to play hockey, and conquer the toughest position in the world's toughest game. As he approached being a teenager, the dream began to refine even more, because Pelle wanted to make that challenge in a place called Philadelphia. Because there ... he had an idol who had already become a legend in this building. And it was his dream to become the best, and to have his name on the Vezina Trophy alongside his idol, Bernie Parent.

"And so the work began -- the Swedish National Team, the Olympics, the Maine Mariners and then fate managed to intervene and he was drafted by Philadelphia. It took three years, and a superb relationship between the old legend Bernie and the new one, Pelle, and I think a marvelous part of the story than in the finest tradition that is the melting pot of this country, when you think about it, last year, this Swede with a fellow countryman, a Czech, a Finn, Americans and Canadian had a spectacular year. And that team drove him to the top of the mountain, culminating in last Spring in Canada, when his idol presented him with the highest honor they could give him -- the Vezina Trophy -- and finally his name was there.

"So, that far-fetched, hundred-thousand-to-one dream that began so long ago and thousands of miles away came true. He was the best. And when you add to that he was admired on two continents -- he was honored in his homeland and he was loved in Philadelphia ... his marvelous personality and the manner than endeared him to everyone with whom he came in touch. And you add to that he was able to share all of this with a fiancee who made his every day a joy. And I might add a young lady whose courage and strength this past week has been magnificent.

"And then you add to that the ultimate triumph, that posthumously through the mark of transplant, he has given life to two people this week.

"It is the fulfillment of a life  far beyond most of what any of us in this building can expect or hope to achieve in a lifetime twice or three times his 26 years. So, as Dave Poulin said yesterday, Pelle is indeed to be envied. And in a sense, I think all of us here should be envied, because of the blessing of kind circumstance we were permitted to be part of this extraordinary person's life. All of us in this building owe fate, and the Gumper, our eternal gratitude."

Following a blessing and benediction for all patrons, the Lindbergh family as well as the entire Flyers family by Father John Casey, Flyers goaltending coach Bernie Parent -- Pelle's friend, mentor, and the man who set the standard for play a decade earlier -- presented his remarks in halting, emotional English flecked with his distinct French-Canadian accent.

Video can be viewed here.

"Thank you, Gene, Mr. and Mrs. Lindbergh...Shastine, fans and friends, as I stand before you tonight, I feel that our hearts are one. Every single one of us lost someone we respected, someone who made us very happy and someone who made us proud. Every single one of us lost a friend. A man who loved hockey, a man who loved his family, and a man who loved the fans. No single moment in my entire career has been as difficult as this one. For this one is filled with flashbacks of one of the most positive relationships the game of hockey could ever produce.

"Flashbacks of a young boyish goalie from Sweden who relied on me to teach him how hockey in America is played ... of how this same young, boyish goalie brought to my own life a sense of purpose and accomplishment. The papers said I was his hero. I wish I could tell you how much I admired him. I wish I could have only told him this. Told him how much I honored him, how much I cared. 

"A goalie stands on a very lonely island. I'm grateful 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. And when death defeats greatness, we all mourn. When death defeats youth, we mourn even more. But, as we mourn, we must strive to define those qualities that Pelle left behind, that can give us strength throughout this period and beyond. 

"I personally feel, and the team also feels, that Pelle Lindbergh left a legacy to all of us. Pelle had this sense of determination second to none. His spirit, his will was made of iron. His ability to bounce back from defeats and setbacks will always be imprinted in my memory. His determination to become the best goalie in the National Hockey League was totally evident to all of us who knew him, and when he became the best, the superstar status did not go to his head. Pelle was still Pelle. 

"Behind that white mask, was a super talent: young, naive and sensitive, whose friendly twinkle and engaging innocence drew people to him. Pelle was friendly, likeable and anxious to please. He loved the fans and he loved kids. When he signed autographs, he knew he was making the fans happy and that made him happy. Most of all, Pelle loved life and the saddest thing about this tragedy is that while his positive attitude and love for life helped him to overcome defeat, he could not defeat death. 

"But in a way, he has. Pelle is already giving life to others, in what Mike Keenan has appropriately called 'the ultimate save.'"

"Pelle, you will always live in our hearts. Pelle, we miss you."

After a spate of rousing applause, Hart again took the microphone to say: "There is one journey left for Pelle, to return to his beautiful Sweden, where a nation waits to greet its son. And that country and his last trip brings to mind the last stanza of a poem by Robert Frost -- 'the woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep ... and miles to go before I sleep.' Pelle has miles to go before he sleeps, but on his journey the affection of thousands of us and the love of those teammates will act as silent escorts, and will, we pray, make the Lindbergh's family peace, and Pelle's sleep deep, enduring and serene."

At the first intermission, PRISM saluted Lindbergh with a one-time only video presentation of his international hockey career, which lasted only a little more than five years between appearing for the Tre Kronor in Lake Placid and the start of the 1985-86 season with Philadelphia.

It's worth noting that the film not only shows the myriad lightning-quick reflexes Pelle possessed, but also goals being scored during action typical of the scattershot 80s-style of play. See if your eyes can adjust to the brief sequence with the Oilers -- track the puck and marvel at how he made two saves in less than two seconds, with the last one appearing to come tantalizingly close to crossing the goal line.

Also, see that the goaltenders didn't wear Cooperalls when the rest of the team did -- because the extra weight and bulk of pants would have impeded the ability to properly flex the sizeable pads stuffed with down which were worn in that era:

In between the second and third periods, PRISM aired the following interview, recorded the previous Summer. Pelle reveals the adjustments he had to make in progressing from a European to a North American style of goaltending, the doubts he had in rising through the ranks, and if he thinks he'll be one of a kind in the history books:

As we know by now, Dominik Hasek was the next European to win the Vezina, for the 1993-94 season, but it took another 18 years before another Swedish-born crease guardian to be honored -- Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers in 2012.

Back to the night in question. Darren Jensen, pressed into duty and making just his second career start after sudden No. 1 goalie Bob Froese was injured in practice two days prior, stood tall and made 29 saves -- including a spectacular solo effort as Dave Hunter broke in alone while the Oilers were shorthanded in the second period, and stopping all seven of Gretzky's tries on the net -- to post his first NHL victory in a 5-3 Flyers triumph that tied a club record for consecutive wins at 11.

"I was thinking about Pelle out there. I just had to go out and try my best," said Jensen, whose lone season at the top of the game resulted in a 15-9-1 record, 3.68 goals-against average and two shutouts.

Everyone was thinking of Pelle at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes') Church on Delaware Avenue and Christian Street at his private Philadelphia memorial service. There, team captain Dave Poulin provided the following thoughts in his eulogy:

"We'll remember him for his wide grin and his zest for conquering the world. If he wanted something, he got it. If he wanted to go somewhere, he went ... we'd all joke about his ways but I think we were all envious. By challenging life he managed to see a great deal more than most of us ever will.

"I had my own nickname for Pelle. I called him 'P.F.' And when someone asked what it meant, we'd always tell them it meant 'Philadelphia Flyers' when in reality it meant 'Personal Friend.' I always told him I was personal friends with the winningest goalie in the National Hockey League and I was damn proud of it.

"He traveled all over the world, and wherever he went, he made friends. Everywhere he went, Pelle left his mark ... the first term that my wife and I learned when we moved to Sweden was 'jag alskar dig.' Whether it's Swedish or English I think I speak for all my teammates when I translate: Pelle, I love you. We all love you."

Pelle's Highlights

How do you qualify and quantify the performances of one man who meant so much to so many for such a short period?

Consistency was Pelle's name throughout his two finest seasons: his rookie year of 1982-83 and his Vezina Trophy winning 1984-85 course.

If you're looking at volume, then his best performance occurred in his second career win, when he turned away a career-high 41 pucks in a 5-3 home win over the Whalers on March 21, 1982. For s significant chunk of his Flyers career, team defense didn't permit many fusillades.

For meaning, it's a 25-save shutout -- his second of the series -- in a 1-0 victory over the four-time defending conference champion New York Islanders in Game 5 of the 1985 Patrick Division Finals. Or, it's a game in which he had slightly less work, a clean sheet to close out the Quebec Nordiques in Game 6 of the Wales Conference Finals 18 days later.

If you're looking for a trivia question, it's Pelle's 25-save effort during his first trip to Chicago Stadium as the calendar flipped to 1983, ensuring the Flyers set a then-record with their sixth consecutive win on the road by taking down the Norris Division-leading Blackhawks.

Enduring: Pelle was an organ donor, and as described above, gave life to others in his passing. He provided a liver, as well as both kidneys and corneas. His greatest gift was nearly five years of additional life to John Keeler, given a heart which doctors at Temple University Hospital described as the most beautiful they had ever seen.
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