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Remembering Pelle Lindbergh, 25 years on

A red Porsche 930 Turbo missed a curve at 5:41 a.m. A sports star at the top of his game slammed into a concrete wall in front of an elementary school in Camden County.

The man in the white mask: With Pelle Lindbergh in net, the Flyers made it to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals.
The man in the white mask: With Pelle Lindbergh in net, the Flyers made it to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals.Read moreFile photograph

A red Porsche 930 Turbo missed a curve at 5:41 a.m. A sports star at the top of his game slammed into a concrete wall in front of an elementary school in Camden County.

The Flyers kept winning hockey games, but life was never exactly the same.

It's been a quarter-century since Pelle Lindbergh was taken off life support in a South Jersey hospital on Nov. 11, 1985. His name still resonates, images still flicker, a tragic chapter in local sports folklore is still discussed.

Virtually all sports fans living here at the time can remember getting the news of the car crash and the details that soon filtered out. The Flyers goalie had been drinking at an after-hours place with teammates. Then he drove away. Lindbergh wasn't a big drinker, but he so loved to drive fast.

For the 1985-86 Flyers, for the men left behind, those days are much more personal.

"I walked out of the bar with him," mentioned the captain of that team, Dave Poulin.

Lindbergh, 26 years old when he died, already had led Sweden to a bronze medal at the 1980 Olympics, tying that Miracle on Ice U.S. team that beat everyone else. And he led the Flyers to the 1985 Stanley Cup Finals. After that season, his last full one, Lindbergh won the Vezina Trophy, which is given to the outstanding goalie in the NHL.

"He took that organization in that time to a different level, literally," said Poulin, now the vice president of hockey operations for the Toronto Maple Leafs. "He taught us to win before we deserved to know how to win."

Flyers owner Ed Snider still remembers walking out of the Spectrum earlier the night of the accident and saying, "I think this is the best Flyers team we've ever had."

For Snider, that memory remains, of course, because it was immediately replaced by "the incredible sadness" of the next day, of getting an early-morning phone call from Bob Clarke, of visiting Lindbergh in the hospital, of seeing him being kept alive by machines until his father could get over from Sweden.

Another memory for Snider: "I felt guilty that I didn't sit Pelle down and have a long talk with him for his penchant for speed in his automobile. I never drove with him, but he talked about it. I knew about it. Somehow, somebody should have tried to slow him down, and I felt a little remiss that it wasn't me."

The first game after Lindbergh's death was against Edmonton.

Ed Hospodar - who remembers driving Lindbergh to Baltimore to pick up the red Porsche - still vividly recalls his first shift in a full Spectrum that was eerily quiet. He grabbed Edmonton tough guy Marty McSorley and began a fight that he wouldn't have normally started right then, Hospodar said.

"To try to get this place back to normal," Hospodar said. "I look back now as I say it, that's cold. But that's business. We had to play the game."

The Flyers won that game and several more in a row. They made the 1986 NHL playoffs but were out after the first round.

"We were most comfortable on the rink. I think that's where you channeled everything," Poulin said. "I do think we just hit a wall in the playoffs. I think we were a good team that was emotionally spent."

Nobody will look to the record book for the most important Flyers events of 1985.

"I stand here as a minister of a growing, loving church because an event so deeply touched my inner core - an event that was horrific," said Bob Froese, now pastor of Faith Fulfillment Church in Clarence, N.Y., just outside Buffalo.

Froese had been Lindbergh's backup goalie.

"As I look back, it's still horrific," Froese said of Lindbergh's death. "But because of that, God got hold of me and got my attention."

"I think it changed everyone to different degrees," Poulin said. "Frozee was probably the most extreme. But every single person there was affected by it. You couldn't not be. We were too close. We had achieved too much in a short period."

Memories of that red Porsche linger.

"You just looked at it. . . . It was like this thing belongs on a racetrack, not on [Interstate] 295," said Hospodar, who now owns a real estate company on the Main Line.

Attitudes about drinking and driving changed instantly, Poulin said. "Not an option. I just don't." He coached Notre Dame University's hockey team for 10 years and said he never shied away from telling his teams the story of Lindbergh's death.

"The standard phrase I used: You are allowed to learn from someone else's mistakes," Poulin said. "You don't have to make your own."

For several generations of Philadelphians, the message hit like a death in their own family.

"The whole lesson of drinking and driving, nothing resonated like that," said Bill Meltzer, who was 15 at the time and living in Northeast Philadelphia when a friend called on a Sunday morning and told him to turn on the television. "One bad night, one bad judgment - that stuck with me."

What the teenager couldn't know at the time was how Lindbergh would remain in his life - how Meltzer would one day sit as a guest in Lindbergh's boyhood home, speaking Swedish with Lindbergh's mother.

Haven't touched a drop

Bob Froese had a friendly relationship with Lindbergh going back to their days together in minor-league hockey, he said. But the rivalry was always there. Only one goaltender gets to play.

"We were both trying to prove ourselves," Froese said last week. "Whether you're trying to prove yourself as top dog or underdog, there's pressure. I realize now he had a much more pressure-packed situation [as the No. 1 goalie] than I did."

When Froese first heard that Lindbergh was in a car accident, he was told that Lindbergh had survived but both his legs were broken.

"The first thing I thought: 'All the games are mine,' " Froese said.

That is not an easy admission to make, he said, even 25 years later.

"I've had to deal with this," Froese said of the self-serving thought after his own pastor told him he had a phone call that Sunday morning as he dropped his son off at the church nursery before services.

Other thoughts come back to Froese, like the time Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker appeared on the television in the Flyers' locker room.

"Pelle asked from kind of the other end of the room, 'Frozee, what does it mean to be a Christian?' " Froese said. "I just kind of laughed it off. Everybody kind of stared at me, and I just thought, 'He can look at a Gideon Bible in every hotel room on the road.' I didn't know that five days later he would be basically dead. I remember vowing then that if anybody asked me what it meant, I would tell them."

Froese also remembers going out with Lindbergh one night not long before the car crash.

"It's very seldom that the person you're in competition with, you become best friends with," Froese said. "I wouldn't be truthful to say we were best friends. Probably in the last month of his life, we took tremendous strides in personal relations. The week before, we had spent time together, an evening together, just the two of us."

They kind of compared notes that night.

"Pelle was a great goalie, head and tails above me talent-wise. In my mind, that was never a question," Froese said. "On that evening we got together, he said he was always amazed how I wouldn't let little things bother me, like if I broke a stick."

Appreciating their differences brought them closer, Froese said. They both enjoyed the night out. But Froese also said, "I'd been out late. I came home. That wasn't what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be. I remember promising my wife I would slow down on the partying end of it."

Lindbergh's death obviously added punctuation to the promise.

"I haven't touched a drop of alcohol," Froese said last week.

'I just play'

Poulin said his last remembrance of Lindbergh, walking to the car, is far from the only one.

"A lot of wonderful memories," Poulin said. "Such a special kid."

Poulin found out he wasn't alone in believing Lindbergh carried that team. "We had the tradition of gag gifts," he said. At Christmas in 1984, all the guys drew a teammate, like a secret Santa. Czech defender Miroslav Dvorak, who died of cancer in 2008, drew Lindbergh. Dvorak gave the goalie a statue of an Asian worker carrying two bowls tied to a stick. In one bowl, Dvorak had written the word Defenders, in the other bowl Forwards.

"That actually wasn't a gag," Poulin said. "His natural abilities were phenomenal. His work ethic wasn't, and it would have been interesting to see where it would have led. Things were changing then about how much time you put in at work. Coming to training camp to get in shape was on the way out. But he was gifted, physically and mentally."

Poulin remembered one game when the Flyers were killing a penalty late in the game.

"I went back to see [Lindbergh], said something to him about the time," Poulin said. "He said after the game, 'Don't tell me anything about time. I don't look at the clock. I don't know about the clock. I just play. When the whistle blows, I get off the ice.' "

Poulin also remembers that when Mike Keenan took over as Flyers coach and became convinced that Lindbergh had the goods, he made sure that Lindbergh understood he was the No. 1 goalie.

"Pelle was a person who had to know - this is my interpretation - that there was no competition," Poulin said. "When he had competition, he wasn't as good. Mike Keenan figured that out very quickly."

But Lindbergh was no prima donna, said Poulin.

"Quiet, very congenial. He just did what he did," Poulin said. "Very well liked."

Blue and yellow octopus

Most mornings, Bill Meltzer spent 20 or 30 minutes trying to translate Swedish hockey news into English. That's how he learned the language, word by word. At the time, Meltzer was just out of Temple University, writing for a trade publication, Outpatient Surgery Magazine.

"I had been a hockey fan all my life," Meltzer said. "I had some friends from Sweden."

He began freelancing hockey articles. This was more than a decade after Lindbergh's death. Another Swede, Mikael Renberg, was a star forward for the Flyers. Meltzer took an interest. He found the Swedish papers, then bought a couple of Swedish books and began translating them.

Meltzer was on a natural path toward exploring Lindbergh's life.

"Growing up, I was a huge Flyers fan. Mark Howe was my favorite player on those teams. Pelle was second," Meltzer said.

Meltzer didn't know when he took a trip to Sweden in 2007 for the World Junior Championships that he would eventually translate Lindbergh's biography from Swedish to English and contribute original reporting of his own.

During that trip, a visit was arranged to Lindbergh's boyhood home in Stockholm. Meltzer met Lindbergh's mother and sister. They took him to Pelle's old bedroom.

"You could see kind of the hockey dream taking shape from childhood to adulthood," Meltzer said of that bedroom. "His father had handmade a lot of his early equipment. There was his copy of Bernie Parent's book. His first NHL jersey. His whole story was in that one room."

Lindbergh's mother told the story of another item in the room and broke down as she told it. She had been visiting her son when he died.

"On the night he died, he was back at his house," Meltzer said. "He spoke to his mother and she said, 'Do you have to go out so late?' He said to her, 'Yeah, the guys will get upset if I don't.' He handed her a little stuffed animal that was on the windowsill and said, 'Hold on to this.' It was a stuffed animal that a fan had thrown to him in Sweden, a blue and yellow octopus."

The octopus sat on a pillow on his bed.

"That was the saddest part of the visit," said Meltzer, who wrote about the trip for

Also along on the visit to Lindbergh's home was Thomas Tynander, a Swedish journalist who had written a biography, Pelle Lindbergh, Behind the White Mask, which had been a best seller in Sweden. Tynander wanted to translate it to English, to bring it to the American market. Although he spoke perfect English, he wanted the written nuances right. He didn't want Americans to think they were reading a Swedish book. So he talked to Meltzer about doing the translation.

"The first half of the process was straight-out translation, to make sure there is an English manuscript," Meltzer said. "Then I did about a half-dozen interviews in North America, then did some rearranging of material, cut some things. We put in more background on the league at the time, more Flyers history. Also a little bit more of the adjustments he had to make to the NHL."

The book came out in late 2009.

One sad postscript to his visit to Stockholm, Meltzer said, is that Lindbergh's mother, in frail health, couldn't keep up the house. Nobody in the family realized the true worth of the memorabilia in Lindbergh's old bedroom.

"Some guy came along, said it's not worth that much," Meltzer said. "He said it was all worth about $2,500. He auctioned it off and made 10 times that much. All Pelle's stuff has kind of scattered to the winds."

All supermen

It wasn't just Lindbergh's death that connected Bob Froese's hockey career to his current duties as pastor of a nondenominational church.

"A lot of the things I've taught here in the church - and this might make him laugh - I learned from Bobby Clarke," Froese said.

He said Clarke was the best leader he's ever been around, and recalled how he spent a lot of time with the veteran players - preparing them for leadership - before retiring in 1984. Froese said he is stealing from Clarke when he talks to his congregation about how leaders have to stand behind other leaders when a decision is made. Froese also said he concludes early-morning men's club meetings at his church with a line straight from Clarke - "Men, let's go to work."

Froese remembered seeing Clarke, then the Flyers' general manager, right after Lindbergh died.

"That day, he embraced me. He realized what lay ahead for me," Froese said. "It wasn't easy. Pelle's locker was always right there. But the guys I played with were just amazing in their encouragement. Brad Marsh consistently told me to be who I was, that I wasn't replacing anyone."

Froese had a strong season, giving up an average of just 2.55 goals a game. The Flyers gave up the fewest goals in the league. He played in the All-Star Game. To this day, Froese wonders how much Mike Keenan consciously pitted the players against him as the coach. If that was the plan, it worked, Froese said.

"If you saw one of us, you saw five of us," he said. "I never thought I'd experience that again. I went to the Rangers. It wasn't even close."

With the Rangers, Froese served as a backup to John Vanbiesbrouck and Mike Richter.

"I realized that I could work hard, could push them. I got to play with some thoroughbreds - Richter, Vanbiesbrouck, and Lindbergh," Froese said.

Froese said he won't ever forget driving up to the hospital, thinking he was visiting a man with broken legs when Dave Poulin came out. The Flyers' captain had been waiting for Froese.

"He came out weeping," Froese said. "He told me, 'He's dead.' I'll tell you what, I don't know if I've ever experienced that feeling before. That team was in such great shape. A great team character-wise, working together. We were all supermen."

One of the few

Two gravediggers at Södra Skogkyrkogård, a cemetery just outside Stockholm, didn't speak English. They understood Pelle Lindbergh, though. They thought the visitor last winter was from Canada, making the association with hockey. They didn't connect with the word Philadelphia.

"The Flyers were so much part of his identity, from his childhood onward," said Meltzer, who had made his own visit to Södra Skogkyrkogård during his 2007 trip. "You have to understand, in Sweden, there weren't many hockey players at the time who followed the NHL, let alone a particular team. Pelle was one of the few. It started as simple as he liked the logo. Then Bernie Parent became his idol. He told teachers and friends, 'I'm going to play for the Flyers.' "

The two gravediggers found a facility administrator, who took a check of her computer and led the visitor to the right section, just past a row of towering spruce trees from the grave of another Swede who made good in America, Greta Garbo.

The gravedigger in charge of Lindbergh's section knew the way and cleared a walking path in the snow. It was easy for him to spot the right grave. He didn't even have to look for Lindbergh's name. Just above the snow line, engraved in the stone, was the familiar Flyers logo.