Sunday, November 10, 1985. Back then, I was a 14-year-old hockey player living just outside Buffalo, New York. It was early in the evening when my father walked into the living room where I was sitting and told me that Pelle Lindbergh, the goaltender for my beloved Philadelphia Flyers, was in the hospital following an accident.
In those days there was no quick Internet link, no accessing the Flyers web page or the Philly papers for news. You simply had to wait for the news to come on the TV. Fourteen-year-old boys tend not to think the worst will happen to their sports heroes, and so with a naïve hope I waited and watched. Reports were slow, and ultimately it was announced that Lindbergh was brain dead. He was kept alive long enough for his father to arrive from Sweden a few days later. His life support was then shut off, his organs were donated, and he was gone forever. Hard as it was, the hockey world --- and my 14-year-old world --- had to move on.
Bill Meltzer and Thomas Tynander teamed up to write PELLE LINDBERGH: Behind the White Mask. In Sweden, Lindbergh's home country, the book was a bestseller. The English translation is here now, and it provides incredible insight into his youth, his dream of playing in the NHL, his passion for speed, and the devastating effect his fatal accident had on everyone around him.
Meltzer and Tynander show us a young Göran Per-Eric "Pelle" Lindbergh growing up as an active and hockey-obsessed boy in Sweden. His gifts were recognizable early on, though he lacked the drive in practices to push himself. Despite his disinterest in practice, Lindbergh excelled in games and ultimately secured a spot on the Swedish National Team. While this was an enormous success, Lindbergh wanted something more: playing in America’s National Hockey League, which became a reality in 1979 when Philadelphia drafted him to play for the Flyers. This was a dream come true for Lindbergh since, as a boy, he idolized famed Philadelphia goaltender Bernie Parent, who became his friend and mentor. But their friendship went beyond the ice, and Lindbergh often called the aptly-named Parent his “father” in America.
The following year, Lindbergh earned himself a spot on the Swedish Olympic hockey team, playing at Lake Placid. He was disappointed to come away with only a Bronze from the Games, but he took great pride in knowing that his was the only team that the U.S. "Miracle On Ice" squad did not defeat (they tied 2-2). Later in life, Lindbergh and Jim Craig, goaltender for the 1980 U.S. team, would become friends, joking with each other about that game. Do you recall that iconic image of Craig with the American flag draped over his shoulders as he looked for his father in the stands? It should tell you all you need to know about Lindbergh that Craig gave him that flag as a gift.
Throughout PELLE LINDBERGH, what becomes abundantly clear is that, despite his own personal drives and passions to succeed and play in the NHL (specifically dreaming of playing for the Flyers), Lindbergh was a genuine and giving person not prone to brushing off his fans or his friends. He volunteered his time and money to hockey camps in Sweden, held up team buses to sign autographs, and was an easy-going friend and teammate who enjoyed a good laugh, even at his own expense. It easily could be said that Lindbergh simply loved life.
Still, for the beauty with which Lindbergh pursued his life, there is to be found immense sadness and even anger at the unfortunate and preventable manner of his death. After a long night out with teammates, Lindbergh, who had been drinking, slammed his turbo-charged Porche into a wall. It was a rare thing for Lindbergh to drink, and even rarer for him to get behind the wheel afterwards. No one will ever know why he did what he did that night. Couple his impairment with his dangerous speeds --- he was routinely stopped for speeding, and people were scared to drive with him --- and it seems it was only a matter of time before this incredible talent would be laid to waste.
And he was such a talent: he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers, he was a First Team NHL All-Star, he was named to the All-Rookie Team, and he was the first European goaltender to win the Vezina Trophy honoring the top goaltender in the NHL. At the time of his death, he was showing signs of eclipsing his previous successes, which was recognized by fans who voted him to the All-Star Game posthumously --- the first time this ever happened in any major North American sport.
PELLE LINDBERGH excels at stripping down Lindbergh’s story and splitting it into its two key parts: the joy of his life and the tragedy of his death. The chapters rotate between his childhood and the night of November 10th and the events to follow, immersing you in a constantly rising and falling tale where you experience the delights of goals achieved with the heart-wrenching ache of a life lost. What it lacks for in smoothness and flow, it more than makes up for in honesty, forthright emotion and insight.
Taken as a whole, this book is not about Pelle Lindbergh the hockey player per se (though that role is a key component), but rather about Pelle Lindbergh the boy, the man, the son, the friend and the fiancé. Coaches, players, friends and family all contribute to the legacy he leaves behind, sharing their laughs and their joys but also their frustration, sadness and anger at his unwillingness to use better caution behind the wheel.
Flyer great Bob Clarke said at the time, "You don't replace a Pelle Lindbergh." And he's right. After all these years, his family and friends still lament his passing. In Philadelphia, goaltenders come and go --- some excellent, some not as much --- but there has always been a shadow in that crease seemingly moving of its own design, reminding us of the loss to the game.
Closing PELLE LINDBERGH after its final pages will leave you wondering what could have been had Lindbergh not been taken from us so early, so unnaturally. If only...
Reviewed by Stephen Hubbard on September 28, 2009