After having a rib removed and undergoing chemotherapy treatments for a rare form of bone cancer, and then gallantly returning for a couple of Stanley Cup playoff games in September 2020, Flyers left winger Oskar Lindblom was obviously drained.
Following that COVID-19-extended season, Lindblom’s offseason was shorter than usual, and club officials believe that made it more difficult for him to prepare and perform during the 2021 campaign.
This summer, he has had a more normal offseason, and the hope is that he returns to the form he displayed before his stunning cancer diagnosis.
Lindblom, 25, is cancer-free and eager to start training camp on Thursday. He started working out at the team’s Voorhees practice facility about two weeks ago and is ready to be a key contributor this season.
‘More time to train’
“After everything he went through and some things that were very hard on the body, he’s had more time to train and just live a normal life [this summer],” Flyers general manager Chuck Fletcher said recently. “He looks good physically and feels good, and I know he’s optimistic about having a strong season.”
Lindblom, who won the Masterton Trophy last season for his perseverance and dedication to hockey, said he worked hard over the summer, and his goal is “to get back to where I was, and the only thing I want to do now is help the team win games.”
The Swede was tied for the team lead with 11 goals when he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in December 2019.
At the time, Lindblom’s teammates rallied around the then-23-year-old winger who had been in the midst of a breakthrough season. While Lindblom endured chemotherapy and surgery, his teammates had a singular purpose.
”What we want to do is win hockey games for Oskar,” captain Claude Giroux said at the time. “I’m sure that’s what he would want.”
With Lindblom hospitalized, the Flyers struggled at first and then got better each week. They were the league’s hottest team late in the season, won their first playoff series in eight years by outlasting Montreal in six games, and then took the New York Islanders to Game 7 in Round 2.
Remarkably, Lindblom returned to play in two playoff games that season, a season in which he inspired people all around North America, a season of #OskarStrong.
Coach Alain Vigneault’s voice cracked with emotion and he wiped his eyes as he talked about Lindblom’s return and seeing his “beautiful smile” in those playoffs, which, for the Flyers, stretched into September because the coronavirus extended the season.
“The kid,” Giroux said after Lindblom returned and helped the Flyers stay alive with a 5-4 double-overtime win over the Isles in Game 6, “has so much courage. He played unbelievable, too.”
Last season, in his first full year back on the ice, Lindblom had eight goals and 14 points in 50 games, and also battled COVID-19 in February. His energy level, he said, went up and down during the season. “You can feel great one day, and another day you feel you haven’t played hockey for a while,” he said. “You just have to battle through.”
As he heads into the 2021-22 season, Lindblom feels different.
“I’m much stronger now and I feel more in shape. But you never know. You can feel good and not play good,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully I can get those two things together.”
The strength, he believes, will help him win more board battles and help the Flyers create more scoring chances.
Fletcher said he isn’t focused on the number of goals or points Lindblom produces.
“His game is based on effort and intelligence and he makes a lot of subtle, smart plays on the ice,” Fletcher said. “I certainly expect he’ll be much more effective and play a real good two-way game for us. But I’m not sure it makes much sense to put expectations in terms of goals. We’re a pretty deep team this year and there’s only so much power-play time, and we’ll see how everything gets sorted out.
“But, again, I think we’ll see Oskar make a much more positive impact on the ice this year.”
Lindblom said he wasn’t surprised that Fletcher, following a disappointing season, made a slew of offseason moves. Among the players dealt was Robert Hägg, a fellow Swede and Lindblom’s best friend on the team.
“We’ve been trying to make a push for a couple years and it hasn’t been working, so in this business, that always happens,” Lindblom said of Fletcher’s deals and signings. “You try and change things to make it better.”
Lindblom was baffled by the team’s inconsistency last season.
“You can’t go far in the league when you play like that,” he said. “The year before, we had a really good stretch and we played as a team. I don’t know why we couldn’t get back to that last year, but hopefully we can make a better push than last year and be a team that everybody hates to play against.”
Lindblom said the team’s all-around defense will be the key to rebounding from a 25-23-8 season. The Flyers allowed a league-worst 3.52 goals per game in 2021.
“We have a lot of guys that can score, but when you’re not playing good enough defense, it’s tough to win games,” he said. “Hopefully we can get better and help our goalies out better because last year they didn’t have an easy year. They had a lot of shots against them and a lot of rebounds, so it was tough for them.
“If you can’t play defense, you won’t win games or titles.”
Defense has always been a big part of Lindblom’s identity. It will be again this year and, if all goes right, his offense will be revived. After he won the Masterton in June, he said he planned to push himself this summer to improve all facets of his game.
“I want to be,” he said, “the player I was before I got sick.”
After watching him beat cancer, return to play during the same season, and valiantly compete for the Flyers during 2021, it’s not difficult to imagine that happening.