The Flyers have played well over 4,000 meaningful games in their history. None was more riveting than the one on Nov. 14, 1985.
Not the Stanley Cup wins. Not the J.J. Daigneault game. Not even the one when Ed Van Impe nearly started an international incident with the Russians right there at Broad and Pattison.
Even today, Darren Jensen, the unlikely hero of that November night 34 years ago, has trouble explaining how he gathered his emotions.
“One time,” his wife Michelle said, “Darren admitted to me that he was in tears behind his mask. That was his friend. That was his mentor.”
The night of Nov. 14, 1985, was when the Flyers played their first game after the death of goaltender Pelle Lindbergh, with whom Jensen trained the previous summer. The Spectrum was awash in five days’ worth of emotion since Lindbergh’s horrific car accident, and the opponent happened to be the best team in hockey. It was a night that Darren Jensen became a Flyers legend and it is a date that he -- and now his family -- will never forget.
Jensen’s story and the significance of Nov. 14 go way beyond hockey.
FROM THE ARCHIVES:
Today, Darren Jensen is a sales director for a company that supplies automotive software to dealerships throughout Canada. In 1985, he was a minor-league prospect for the Flyers; a goalie stuck behind veteran Bob Froese and Pelle Lindbergh, the budding star who had won the Vezina Trophy as hockey’s top goaltender the year before.
In Delaware County, Michelle Willis was a senior at Chichester High. She had heard of Lindbergh because late childhood friend Greg Natoli would constantly tell her about this terrific little goalie who led Sweden to a bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics.
(Sadly, Natoli was 14 when he was one of four Delco teenagers killed in a car accident in 1982 near Philadelphia International Airport. He was coming home from a hockey game where he was, of course, a goaltender.)
Jump back ahead to early in 1985 when Willis was at a boyfriend’s house when she heard Flyers announcer Gene Hart from a TV in the other room yell out, “kick save and a beauty by Pelle Lindbergh.” Willis immediately lost it.
“I just started bawling. It was like Greg was back,” Willis said. "I ran home and told my parents, ‘I feel like Greg is back.' They thought I was nuts.”
After all these years, details are a little hazy. But several months later, Willis entered a creative writing contest in which the winner would get tickets to a Flyers game and to meet Lindbergh and coach Mike Keenan afterward. She penned two poems. One broadly on the Flyers, another specifically on Pelle Lindbergh. Her entry won and her prize was two seats for the Flyers-Edmonton game and, more importantly, the meet-and-greet.
Back when actual tickets were a thing, the Flyers used to have pictures of their stars on theirs. Lindbergh just happened to be on the Nov. 14 tickets. But Willis was so distraught by his death, and the emotions and memories it churned up about her teenage young friend being killed three years earlier, she didn’t have the energy to attend the game. Her plan had been to tell Lindbergh all about Natoli and how the goalie was his idol. But now Lindbergh was gone, too.
While she wishes now that she at least had those tickets as a keepsake, she has something much more valuable. She’s married to Jensen.
“I have deep faith,” Willis said. “My whole life is based on faith. I’ve always believed that Greg led me to Darren.”
Ray Didinger was a sports writer for the Daily News in 1985 when Lindbergh crashed his custom red Porsche into a brick wall in Somerdale, N.J., in the early hours of Sunday, Nov. 10. His blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit.
“I remember that was the morning the Eagles beat the Falcons on the [Ron] Jaworski-to-Mike Quick play [a 99-yard touchdown pass in overtime]," Didinger recalled. "Even after that win, what happened to Pelle was the talk of the Eagles’ locker room. I remember having a conversation with Herm Edwards about the frailty of life and how all Philadelphia athletes are one in times like these. Herm was always a deep thinker.”
Grieving can not be infinite. Life must go on. And so five days after the accident, the Flyers were compelled -- and ready -- to return to the ice.
“I had a fear that we might not be able to function,” team captain Dave Poulin said that night. "I think a lot of us had expressed that in various ways when we counseled each other the entire week.
“We had gone over everything, what it would be like to win, what it would be like to lose. Obviously you were concerned about whether we’d be able to concentrate, whether we could even skate and shoot. We talked. We got it out in the open. If a player felt that way, he knew he was not alone.”
The task for Jensen and the Flyers that night in 1985 was an Edmonton lineup loaded not just with All-Stars, but with Hall of Famers such as Gretzky, Messier, Coffey, Kurri.
Jensen stopped 29 shots -- including all seven taken by Gretzky -- in the 5-3 Flyers victory. He won 15 games in his brief NHL career -- all in the 1985-86 season. He would go back down to the minors and was traded a year later as Ron Hextall emerged.
“My wife Michelle once told me, ‘You have no idea how meaningful that was to Philadelphia. It is far beyond what you thought,’ " Jensen said. “And she was right.”
“In some ways, Pelle is the one who brought us together,” Darren Jensen said. “It’s weird. Freaky in a way.”
Michelle and Darren first met briefly at the Ovations lounge in the Spectrum when Jensen was a 24-year-old player and Willis was 18 or 19. This was after the Lindbergh game. He was shy, and had a mustache that “made him look very old,” she laughed. Decades later, she reached out to him through a mutual friend on Facebook. Their friendship grew and in 2013, they were married.
The Jensens live in western Canada. Each has a child from a previous marriage. Look no further for how much Philadelphia meant to Jensen than his daughter. “She’s named Liberty,” he said, “after the Liberty Bell.”
Jensen was diagnosed a few years ago with chronic leukemia -- scary news, but the least aggressive form of the disease. With age and adversity come wisdom.
“If it was the other kind of leukemia, I would have been gone a long time ago,” he said matter of factly. “There are many people who have it a lot worse than I do.”
He lost his father, Aksel, to lung cancer 10 years ago. It is either eerie or coincidental that his dad died on Nov. 14, 2009.
“That date will never leave me,” Jensen said this week.
It was Nov. 14, 1985, that gave him the seminal moment of his athletic life. It was an unforgettable victory over the team that beat the Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals just five months prior.
Gretzky, the greatest player the sport has ever known, was on a typical streak (for him) with seven goals and 13 points in the previous five games. On this night, he had one assist and was a minus-2.
Jensen, who had never won an NHL game, got the start after Froese suffered an injury the day before in practice when he took a shot to his midsection that was hard enough to break his protective cup. Ouch.
“When I think about the memory of that experience: what a huge impact it had, there were lots of emotions, the crowd, the Oilers,” Darren Jensen said. “The stars had to align for all of that to come together.”
Though they live 2,800 miles away, their 22-year-old son Conor has become a huge Philadelphia sports fan.
“You can tell somebody about that night, but they really can’t understand it unless you were in the moment. You can’t explain it," Darren Jensen said. “My kids, they don’t really know what to say to me. But sometimes I hear them tell their friends about me. They just call me ‘Dad,’ which is kind of nice, too.”
It’s a hectic week for the Jensens. They’re moving from one part of town to a mountainside house nearby. Michelle calls it their “dream home.” They’re scheduled to make settlement on Thursday.
“When we found out the date,” Michelle said, “I just threw up my hands and looked at Darren. Of course, it had to be Nov. 14.”