Player Profile 5: Göran Per-Eric “Pelle” Lindbergh (Söder Stockholm, Sweden)

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Hello, all. I just want to start off this article by saying thank you – Your interest in my blog provides me with the satisfying knowledge that there is some sort of engagement in the work I’m doing, which is what keeps me going working on my craft. Not only that, but you’ve kept me on my toes – Your attention motivated me to take things a step further with the brains of the operation. I’ve researched this one young man for the past month, discovering a story of the realization of a dream, and its very sad and sudden end one fateful autunn night. It was challenging both physically getting through my resources (primarily the biography Pelle Lindbergh: Behind the White Mask written by Thomas Tynander and translated into English by Bill Meltzer) and mentally in my efforts to force everything into perspective (you should’ve seen me sobbing last night at the end during the account of the authors’ visit to the goalie’s childhood home). But here we are. Let’s begin.

One day in 1936, sailor Sigge Lindbergh, age 20; originally from the village of Roslagsbro in the meadows north of Sweden’s capital, was biding his time one in the fishing port town of Oskarshamn in a brief respite from work on the cargo ship where he was a very well-respected crew member. In his routine stop at the town’s newspaper stand, he encounters the very dashing 16 year-old daughter of a railroad worker. Anna-Lisa Carlsson is a very outgoing and social young lady, and their interactions leave Sigge simply lovestruck. Naturally, this becomes a recurring ritual in his visits to town. A few years down the road, Sigge returns to the stand after an injury on the job and asks Anna-Lisa to accompany him to a movie. She abides and in time this acquaintanceship turns into a friendship, then a relationship (but just so you know, optimistic youth – love doesn’t always play by those rules).

In 1942, the war is looming dangerously close to Sweden. Sigge and Anna-Lisa are married in this time but nothing comes easily in this state of the world. Seeking just to get by, the couple moves to a miniscule one-room apartment on Bondegatan (Swedish for “Farmer Street”) in south Stockholm. In this 130 square foot space, a family with three children begins. In 1943, Ann-Louise Lindbergh is born. Sigge becomes restless in the months after becoming a father and returns to the sea. This is distressing for Anna-Lisa to say the very least as the job’s danger only increases with war overcoming Europe more and more, but Sigge returns at the conclusion of the war in 1945. 3 years later, a second daughter, Ann-Christine, is born. 11 years after that, our story truly begins.

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The birth of Per-Eric Lindbergh at Stockholm’s Southern Hospital on May 24th, 1959 brought out an uncharacteristic sense of urgency in his father. Sigge was a life-long blue collar worker who never got the chance to play organized sports, but during his time out and about in his work he had become a very, very dedicated soccer fan – more specifically of Bajen, the top team of the Hammarby IF sporting club. It had gotten so strong that he had signed up Pelle for the club on his way to the hospital. With the birth of a son anywhere in the world comes an overwhelming sense of excitement for the father, but this in itself provides some perspective on what that sometimes entails.

After Pelle’s 5th birthday, Sigge and Anna-Lisa decide to seek a larger home than the one-roomer on Bondegatan. They move to another street (Barnangsgatan) on the south side for a more ideal locale to raise a boy. It is in this time and place Pelle discovers his love for the ice, as during the winter he can almost always skate in a frozen patch beneath the balcony of his abode. Starting in his early adolescent years, the quick route to the skate spot (walking out onto the balcony from a door in the family room on the second floor and jumping the guardrail) becomes his preferred method of leaving the house.

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Pelle plays much summer soccer as a youngster, but his strongest developed passion with Hammarby’s various youth clubs became hockey quickly and easily. Starting at age seven, agile from the very beginning, and developing at age 10 as one of Stockholm’s best youth goaltenders. He knows by this time he wants to be a pro one day and develops an interest in the NHL that was quite unusual for a Swedish kid of the time. More specifically, he becomes Europe’s biggest Philadelphia Flyers fan (a team that, at the time, was a struggling expansion franchise trying to make a name for themselves). Lindbergh had encountered their crest in a magazine or book (he was later unable to recall which) about NHL teams and was instantly drawn to it (go figure, coolest one out there in my opinion). In his mid-teens, it was not uncommon to find Pelle doodling the winged “P” in his notebooks (which makes me think part of him lives on through me because I often do the same). This spread to his schoolwork, as well, as he once wrote the following on a test: This is meaningless. I’m going to be the goalie for the Philadelphia Flyers. This passion only grows when Pelle watches the super-8 film reels of the 1974 and 1975 Stanley Cup Finals and becomes simply enamored with the goaltending style of Philly’s Bernie Parent. He subsequently buys a mask with Parent’s specific design and style, and adds a Flyers decal above the eyeholes. If Hank Hill were Pelle’s father, he would probably respond with something along the lines of “That dang boy ain’t right!”

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Success is a journey, not a destination, and Pelle works towards the success he desires with that sentiment in mind. He moves up the ranks and finds himself eventually at age 18 playing at the highest level Hammarby has to offer (Swe-1, the third-highest ranked pro hockey league in Sweden). Satisfaction does not often last long, however, and despite his allegiance to HIF, he finds it in his best interest to be transferred to rival club AIK towards the end of the ’78-’79 campaign for an opportunity to play in the SEL. Juliet said: “Parting is such sweet sorrow”, and while neither Per-Eric nor father Sigge were very big literature buffs, I’m sure they would agree with that sentiment as they dealt with Pelle’s decision to leave the club he had been a part of literally since birth. But they both bore in mind that better and bigger things were to come as a result.

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Pelle’s play with AIK proved to be quite the valuable experience, as he clearly showed his reliability as part of the everyday line-up of a team of an elite status. His GAA of 3.41 in the ’79-’80 campaign (quite low in an era where it seemed like all of pro hockey the world over was dominated by goal scorers) made him quite sought after by the Swedish Ice Hockey Association. Pelle had previously played with Tre Kronor at the 1978 World Junior Championships in Canada (where they picked up the silver medal and where Pelle earned the tournament’s best goaltender award and a place on the All-Star team), but things only went up from there. At the 1979 World Championships in Moscow at Central Lenin Stadium, he backstopped Tre Kronor to the bronze.

Another bronze medal came at the unforgettable tournament at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The biggest story of that time needs no explanation (and it doesn’t need to be tagged, either – it’s talked about enough on here already!). But Pelle’s unstoppable play and indomitable spirit in that tournament made for some great headlines, as well. He gained much respect and admiration on both sides of the pond, getting a visit from Queen Silvia of the Swedish royal family at the Olympic Village (said Pelle later to his family and friends back home: “DAMN, she was good looking!”) and a life-long friend in U.S. goalie Jim Craig (whom Lindbergh and Tre Kronor played to a 2-2 tie in the group stage). Pelle gave a description of the experience later in a Hockey Night in Canada interview in the summer of 1985:

…It’s safe to say that we were a little disappointed with the final result at the time, not medalling higher. But when looking back, it’s hard not to recognize how historical what the U.S. did was. At the same time, we accomplished a lot ourselves. We were the only team, including the Soviets, that the Americans didn’t beat.

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Amidst all the Olympic glory, Pelle’s major goal in hockey was beginning to be accomplished. His absolute favorite club and the inspiration for all his dreams, the Philadelphia Flyers, chose him with the 35th overall pick in the Entry Draft of ’79 after scouting had started to pick up on his play in the international circuit in North America. After finishing his gig with Tre Kronor, Pelle went to Portland, ME to begin development with the Flyers AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners. There was little more to be asked in terms of results at the end of Pelle’s rookie season in North American hockey. He made the adjustment to the smaller ice surfaces and shooting focused play very, very well. The final stat line for 1980-81 included a 31-14-5 record, a GAA of 3.26 (contributing to him and back-up Robbie Moore winning the Harry “Hap” Holmes Award for lowest GAA in the league), and a .893 save percentage. Other accomplishments included the Dudley “Red” Garrett Memorial Award for most outstanding rookie, the Les Cunningham Award for media and player selected MVP, a spot on the AHL First All-Star team, and a trip to the Calder Cup finals (where the Mariners lost to the Adirondack Red Wings in six games, marking the only blemish on the season). What a year, what a year!

’81-’82 didn’t see more world-beating for Pelle, but was a success nonetheless. That’s in a statistical sense (17-7-2, 3.31, .887%), but it wasn’t limited to just that. His first taste of the NHL came in this time, as he begun to split time with incumbent Flyers starter Pete Peeters. This taste was bittersweet, however, as he was a bit shaky in 8 starts. This was unsettling with Lindbergh and he feared that only worse results were to come. But at the encouragement of idol turned goalie coach and father figure Bernie Parent, and a close friend in Mariners equipment manager “Sudsy” Settlemyre (who would soon join Pelle in Philly), his determination did not dissipate. There was no way the pursuit of his dream would end because of this.

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Despite his talent, Pete Peeters was becoming bothersome to the Flyers organization due to his attitude, and eventually action had to be taken. Early on in the ’82-’83 campaign, general manager Keith Allen traded him to Boston for defenceman Brad “The Beast” Mccrimmon. This was a great move in two ways – 1) the already impressive defensive corps was improved further and 2) a very close to a sure thing of a young goaltender was given the opportunity to grow.

And oh golly, did those wings spread! In 40 games, Lindbergh went 23-13-3, posting a GAA of 2.98 and a .891 save %. Along the way he picked up the honors of playing in the All-Star game on Long Island and a spot on the end of the year All-Rookie team. It can’t be said that there weren’t a few questions raised by issues such as back-up Bob Froese playing with slightly better statistical results and a one-and-done in the playoffs at the hands of the rival Rangers, but nobody in Philadelphia could complain. They had found someone in between the pipes worth holding onto, as the “PEL-LEE! PEL-LEE! PEL-LEE!” chants that echoed through The Spectrum indicated.

Despite the great results the first go-around, the game of hockey does not always guarantee great success for the best talents. Despite continued success in the early stages of the ’83-’84 season (8-1-1 with three or fewer goals against in 8 of his 10 starts in October, at one point winning NHL Player of the Week), Pelle found himself seemingly succumbing to a sophmore jinx. A prolonged slump began on November 3rd with a 6-4 home loss to the Los Angeles Kings in which his nerve caused him to surrender a 2 goal lead. He never quite found his footing in the season after that game and had to be sent down to the Springfield Indians (the Flyers’ then-new AHL affiliate in western MA) to rediscover the better aspects of his play. The final results were a record of 16-13-3, a 4.05 GAA, a save % of .860, and another first-round sweep exit (this time at the hands of the Washington Capitals). But next season proved these struggles may have been a valuable learning experience.

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Immmediately after the lowest point in Lindbergh’s career came the highest peak. The Flyers organization underwent some fairly notable changes, such as captain Bobby Clarke retiring (he was replaced by Dave Poulin) to take Keith Allen’s GM position, and the hiring of new head coach, disciplinarian “Iron Mike” Keenan. Having that bit of temper set the whole team on a straight course, but it wasn’t all drill sergeant rage – Pelle found another confidence booster like the one he already had in Parent. A ritual that developed was Keenan shaking his hand after each win, and that gave Lindbergh a stronger sense of worth. Judging by how the season wound up going, I’m sure his self-confidence was overflowing by its end.

Let’s put everything in perspective here: The year that Pelle had in ’84-’85 was easily the most dominant season that any European goaltender had in the NHL up to that point. Once he got hot, he never let up. In 65 games played, he went 40-17-7, allowed an average of 3.02 goals per game, and stopped nearly 90% of the shots he faced, in the process making his already vast fanbase grow (as well as winning back those he had lost) and earning All-Star game and first All-Star team selections. Yowza, yowza! With that sort of backstopping, it’s no wonder that the Flyers held the league’s best record (53-20-7, 113 points).

But after two straight years of playoff futility, it was imperative for Lindbergh to prove his sudden success wasn’t just a fluke. The only way this could be accomplished was through absolute domination. Things started off as greatly as they could, with a Division Semi-finals sweep of the hated Rangers. In the next round, the Fly Guys took on the Islanders. The Long Island boys were no longer boys, as the still talented but aging center core of Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, and co. were unable to solve Lindbergh in a five-game series. Next for Phily came Quebec and the bigggest challenge yet. The Nordiques succumbed in six games, allowing the Flyers to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, but their physical play left Philadelphia battling some relatively strong ailments, such as Mccrimmon’s shoulder injury and Poulin’s cracked ribs. Pelle himself finished game six going through agonizing pain. Regardless, the show had to go on. The point was proven in spite of the criticisms Lindbergh and the Flyers dealt with (such as the ones from pundit Don Cherry, who didn’t think Philadelphia could win with a European goaltender). The powerhouse Oilers were next.

Though Philly had Edmonton’s number for quite some time going into the Finals having won each of the last 8 match-ups at the Spectrum and swept the season series, the game is unpredictable; and a defending champion team with a roster featuring the likes of Gretzky, Messier, Coffey and Fuhr was nothing to have low expectations for. To add fuel to the fire, the Flyers were still relatively unhealthy. No matter what statistical advantage they had, they still needed to rip their hearts out of their chests against a very good team to win their third Cup.

With home-ice advantage in favor of the Flyers, the series started at the Spectrum. The first game seemed to be a good omen, as the Fly Guys won 4-1 with Gretzky being off his game. There was another level of interest provided by Edmonton head coach Glen Sather, who criticized Pelle’s practice of keeping a water bottle on top of his net (this was part of his battle with dehydration and is now, of course, the norm for goaltenders). Regardless, things carried on fairly normally. The next night saw the game get a bit tighter. The Flyers held a 1-0 lead for much of the 60 minutes, but ultimately lost 3-1. A split before the series moved to Edmonton was a decent result, but it was time for some giddy up and go play.

Despite being greatly outshot and generally outplayed, the Flyers only lost Game Three at Northlands Coliseum by a 4-3 score. In the process, prime goal scorer Tim Kerr’s knee injury had been worsened, ending his season. The time had come for the team to pick up the slack. That didn’t quite happen, as the Flyers lost Game Four, 5-3, and Pelle had the extreme pain that had occurred in the Quebec series come back. This time, it was determined to be a slightly torn quadricep. After diagnosis, it was clear this was the end of the year for him. Keenan turned to Bob Froese, who had shown through his numbers that he was just as reliable as Lindbergh, for the rest of the series. They both hoped this was his moment to shine, but that moment didn’t come. Edmonton steamrolled the Flyers, 8-3, to capture their second straight Stanley Cup.

Despite the disappointing end to the postseason, nobody had forgotten what sort of year Pelle had. The press gave him a spot on the first All-Star team and nominated him as a finalist for the Hart Memorial Trophy as MVP, though that didn’t go far with the sort of season Gretzky had. But the most coveted accolade did go his way. His idol, Bernie Parent, had the privelege of presenting him with the Vezina at the Awards gala at the Metro Convention Center in Toronto, making Lindbergh the first ever European winner of the NHL’s best goalie award. You can only imagine how heartfelt that was. Says Parent:

That night in Toronto was the finest memory I have from [my] time with Pelle. I was even happier and prouder than when I won the Vezina. I saw all the hard work that went into it, and I saw Pelle make his dreams come true. He was so determined. We didn’t say much to each other during the night, but to see him walk up from the floor to the stage, look him in the eye, hand him the award, and give him a big hug; it really said more than any words we could say to each other. Several times during the night, we looked over to each other and caught each other’s eyes. We both knew what it took to get there. He had to battle for it and get through some tough times. When it came time to give interviews, I went off to the side. It was his night, and he earned it. I was just glad to watch him a little in the hall and see how glad he was.

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Despite all the glamor and glitz, Murphy’s law states that if something can go wrong, it will. The Flyers had won 10 straight in the beginning of the ’85-86 season before all went awry. For as long as anyone who had known him could remember, Pelle had a penchant for driving fast, with the Portland, ME police department becoming very familiar with him and on-and-off throughout the years teammate Thomas Eriksson in their time with the Mariners. But drinking and driving was something he’d never, ever partake in due in part to Sweden’s zero tolerance laws to which he was accustomed (according to his fiance’, Kerstin Pietzch, he would have a glass of milk with his meals when she would have wine). But lo and behold, one stupid mistake is enough to have an impact, as he got behind the wheel with a .24% BAC level. On November 10th, the team had a carousing night at the bar of their practice space, the Coliseum in Voorhees, NJ, and at a Bennigan’s restaurant outlet. Pelle decides to head back home at about 5:30 AM after agreeing to take two passengers back to their places. At around 6, Lindbergh crashed his customized Porsche into a wall outside of an elementary school in Somerdale, causing critical injuries to all 3 people in the car. The STAT ambulance were the first on the scene, and brought Lindbergh to Kennedy Hospital, where he was declared brain dead about 3 hours later. He was kept on life support until Sigge arrived from Sweden late the next day to collectively give the green light to terminate treatment alongside Anna-Lisa (who had been visiting for the past week along with Pelle’s brother-in-law Goran) and Kerstin. Pelle’s organs were then harvested on the operating table and were used to save 3 lives. Thus the curtain closed grimly on a bright and wonderful tale of a life…

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Here’s an account of the memorial prior to a rematch of sorts against Edmonton, interestingly enough taken directly from a passage in “Behind the White Mask”.

Though the Flyers organization has not yet officially retired #31, Per-Eric’s memory is kept alive in many other ways. The institution of the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Award in ’94 (fittingly first given to fellow Swede Mikael Renberg) for most improved player on the team served as an acknowledgement of Pelle’s work to improve after his disappointing second full season. Perhaps what would make him the most proud was the renaming of a street adjacent to his childhood house on Barnangsgatan in his honor. Because despite all that he experienced and achieved, he never forgot where home was. That was just another part of his down to Earth nature.

These woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost

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One response to “Player Profile 5: Göran Per-Eric “Pelle” Lindbergh (Söder Stockholm, Sweden)

  1. Thanks for this. I am a HUGE fan of Pelle’s and love keeping the memory of him alive. And most importantly, somehow retelling his tragic story may save someone’s life.

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