“Never let your head hang down. Never give up and sit and grieve. Find another way.” – Satchel Paige
Not sure what’s more difficult to believe — that the worst pandemic in more than a century caused the NHL to halt games for four-plus months and schedule the postseason without fans, or the fact that left winger Oskar Lindblom, who completed his cancer treatments earlier this month, may rejoin the Flyers for their playoff march.
Oh, it’s highly unlikely Lindblom will play, but that doesn’t really matter.
He has become a symbol of hope, a symbol of resilience, a symbol of doing the improbable.
At some point, coach Alan Vigneault said Thursday, Lindblom will skate with the Flyers during their practices in Toronto, site of the Eastern Conference round-robin tournament and some of the conference playoffs.
Lindblom, 23, was absent from the Flyers’ last 39 games because he was being treated for a rare bone cancer, but the players say he was actually present. In the locker room. On the ice. In their hearts.
Physically, no. Emotionally, yes.
They always thought about him, always considered him a big part of the team, always got inspired when they saw him between his grueling chemo treatments, and they were amazed by his upbeat attitude and a smile that never went away.
When things weren’t going well, the players said, they thought about No. 23 and what he was battling. That made their challenges – whether on or off the ice – much easier to accept.
And, so, when news filtered down to them that Lindblom would be joining the team for practices at some point in Toronto, well, it was just Oskar being Oskar, they thought.
“The real glory is being knocked to your knees and then coming back. That’s the real glory. That’s the essence of it.” – Vince Lombardi
It would be a minor miracle if Lindblom was able to get in game shape and play for the Flyers in this year’s playoffs. Still, general manager Chuck Fletcher said nothing is out of the question with Lindblom.
“If anyone didn’t realize how much character he had, I think the last six, seven months have shown the depth of this toughness, his courage, and his character,” Fletcher said.
“Anytime we’ve gotten a chance to see him or he would come to a game, it was a little bit more motivation,” captain Claude Giroux said. “The kid had been through a lot. We want to play well for him and for ourselves. He’s really big part of this team.”
Lindblom, who was having a breakout season and was tied for the team lead with 11 goals when his cancer was discovered in December, is a real-life Rocky Balboa. He has the character and resilience of Adam Taliaferro, the former Penn State football player who was paralyzed in a 2000 game and told by several doctors he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
Three months later, he walked out of the hospital.
Like Taliaferro, Lindblom is laid-back and a person who puts others first. Always.
When Lindblom got the frightening and stunning cancer diagnosis, “he was more concerned about his teammates than himself. I think that was really a big factor in bringing our team together,” Fletcher said. “The players really care about him and respect him. ... Not that any of us wanted that to be a turning point or have that happen, but certainly the way Oskar dealt with it really resonated in a positive way with our team and helped our team come together.”
“Everyone loves him. He’s just the greatest kid to have around,” veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “He’s a hell of a player. Normally in playoffs I would say you don’t need any extra motivation. [But] that’s a nice little story that everybody can rally around. We think about him. We talk about him all the time. Oskar’s with us in this. Everyone feels that. We talk about it, so what a great story that he’s been just a champion through this. We can’t wait to see him again.”
“I don’t know if God is a sports fan or not, but I do know this: He loves a good comeback.” – Lane Kiffin
Shortly after his last chemo treatment at Pennsylvania Hospital, Lindblom went home to Sweden, but he will soon be reunited with his teammates in Toronto, Vigneault said.
“He’s been working out. He’s been skating. He wanted to go home and see his family, which is obviously normal and expected after beating the cancer,” said Vigneault, whose team will restart its season in a round-robin tournament Aug. 2 against Boston. “We do think in a short amount of time here, he’ll be back with our group and skating with the boys on the ice. Depending on how quick and how good he feels, at some point he might be able to help us in the near future.”
Fletcher said Lindblom’s oncologist and the Flyers’ medical staff have cleared him to practice. The GM didn’t rule out Lindblom’s playing in this year’s playoffs.
“I don’t know what’s out of the question,” Fletcher said. “I certainly wouldn’t put any limits on Oskar.”
Fletcher cautioned that Lindblom’s health was obviously the main concern, and the Flyers would do “everything we can to protect him.”
Forget, for the moment, about Lindblom’s playing in a game. Just being in Toronto with his teammates is mind-boggling.
“He wants to get back and skate and train and regain his ability to play hockey,” Fletcher said. “Again, who knows what that will mean for this year? None of us know, but I think this could be a real positive thing, not just for our team but for Oskar, too.”
Dave Scott, the chairman and CEO of the Flyers’ parent company, Comcast Spectacor, got to know Lindblom better when he sat with the left winger and his family in his Wells Fargo Center suite a couple of times this season.
“Can’t say enough about him,” Scott said. “He’s such a fighter. He’s so passionate. We all love him.”
They love his talent and the tenacity he shows at both ends of the ice, but mostly, they love the selfless way he carries himself and his indomitable spirit.
Without knowing it, Lindblom played an important part in the team’s surprising 41-21-7 regular season.
The Flyers have a talented, well-balanced team with a nice blend of veterans and youth, but they are far from favored to win the Stanley Cup this year. If they do end a 44-year drought, there’s no question which player deserves to be the first one skating around the ice with the famous trophy – even if he isn’t in the lineup.