It doesn't take much to get me thinking about Pelle Lindbergh's death. I thought about it last Thursday, when the Flyers beat the Edmonton Oilers at the Wells Fargo Center.
Kerstin Pietzsch-Somnell, who had been engaged to Lindbergh, attended the game, and the arena's JumboTron showed a brief interview with her, and it was striking that she would travel from Sweden for one night here, just to speak for a few seconds about him. I thought about it again Wednesday, when the Flyers beat the Colorado Avalanche, 4-3, in Denver. It was their 10th consecutive victory, a feat they hadn't accomplished in more than 31 years. The last time they did, it was the darkest night in their history.
It was Saturday, Nov. 9, 1985. They had beaten the Boston Bruins, 5-3, at the Spectrum. Lindbergh, 26 years old and the best goaltender in the National Hockey League, had the night off. He joined his teammates for a party at an after-hours bar in Voorhees; the Flyers didn't have another game for five days. Midnight came and went. Lindbergh and Dave Poulin, the Flyers captain, left at the same time.
Poulin was driving a white Toyota Supra. Lindbergh was driving a rich red Porsche, a prototype for the 930 Turbo. It had the power of 565 horses and had cost Lindbergh, between the initial sales price and the modifications he had requested, roughly $160,000. It wasn't a car, Poulin said later. It was a piece of art. Poulin climbed into his vehicle and drove one way, and Lindbergh climbed into his and drove the other.
If you were a Flyers fan, if you covered the team, if you were a 10-year-old kid who thought Pelle Lindbergh was a god on ice, you know what happened next without having to read another word here. Drunk, Lindbergh crashed the Porsche into a retaining wall near a Somerdale elementary school, leaving himself brain dead, injuring the two friends who had wedged themselves into the car with him. It remains among the most stunning tragedies in Philadelphia sports.
I remember it clearly. I was that 10-year-old kid, sheltered in a comfortable suburban life. I had lost no one, not a parent, not a grandparent, not a friend, not our family dog. I had discovered sports two years earlier. One game or another was on our television or radio all the time, it seemed - the voices of Harry Kalas and Merrill Reese and Gene Hart, Mike Schmidt at third base, Julius Erving in flight, Ron Jaworski (a pro athlete whose name ended in "ski," just like mine!) in the pocket and taking hits.
But the Flyers were nonpareil to me, Lindbergh in particular. He looked so mysterious and vaguely scary when he wore his white goaltending mask, and he was so affable, almost puppy-like, when the TV people would interview him, and God, he seemed invulnerable during the 1984-85 season, when the Flyers were the youngest team in the NHL and went to the Stanley Cup Finals and he won the Vezina Trophy and Mom and Dad said I could stay up to watch every game as long as I didn't wake up late for school the next morning.
Then he was gone. The revelation was slow and sickening. There was no "ticker" then, no perpetual information crawl feeding your brain every final score, every transaction, every significant or insignificant development in sports or politics. You read the newspaper in the morning, and if anything of note happened to your favorite player or favorite team, you found out the next day.
But now it was late Sunday morning, and we had one of the local TV stations on. Channel 3? Channel 6? Channel 10? One of them, surely. And along the bottom of the TV screen came a breaking news alert, the kind reserved for big storms and potential snow days, except this one said something like "Flyers goalie Pelle Lindbergh involved in serious car accident," and when you're 10 and have lost no one and have had nothing bad happen to you, what the hell does serious mean? That night, once the awful news had been confirmed, I crawled into bed and asked my mom if it was OK to cry about Pelle.
They're a helpful memory, those little-boy tears, now that I do this job. People ask all the time if it's fun to cover the teams you grew up rooting for, and it is, but not for the reasons they think. They think you still cheer for those teams, but you don't, not really.
The pleasure comes from the work itself: finding a good story, writing a piece that pleases you or others, keeping the executives and coaches and players honest. And the demands of that work - the deadlines you have to meet, the questions you have to ask, the positions you have to take to maintain your professional integrity, the sheen that sports heroes inevitably lose when you spend so much time around them - excise those rooting interests from your mind and heart.
Sometimes, though, you remember that sports wasn't always your job. You were 10, and sports was joy. It still is for some people now, with the Flyers heading to Dallas to play the Stars on Saturday, trying to win 11 in a row. Sometimes these small things arise and get you thinking again about that power, about why people care so much and why you used to, and a dark night from the past catches a new gleam today.