Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Like a shooting star


Goran Per-Eric Lindbergh, better known as Pelle Lindbergh, was born 57 years ago today.

I have a thing about not wanting people and events to get forgotten with the passage of time, so here I am hammering out this post more than three decades after his untimely and unpretty death. And I'm doing it even though my general policy is to root against all things Philadelphia where sports are concerned.

Because he was neither a statesman nor philosopher nor artist, Pelle Lindbergh did not impact the world in the ways that usually inspire journalists and poets to sing a man's praises, but no matter. He was an athlete of the first order, which means he spent his time plying an endeavor that inspires legions across the planet and is ruled by merit and results.

Lindbergh was a hockey goaltender who hailed from Stockholm, Sweden, and moved across the Atlantic to play in the best hockey league in the world. He was one of the last to wear the cageless white mask immortalized by Friday the 13th:


But there was of course a man behind the mask, if you don't mind me borrowing from the title of this biography; and when it comes to the man himself, his story is often overlooked.

 

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Lindbergh was born in 1959 and in his youth played for the legendary Hammarby IF Ishockeyforening hockey club. In 1979 he joined the Swedish National Team and was drafted by the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers.

He was only 20 years old when he suited up for Team Sweden in the 1980 Winter Olympics and backstopped it to a 2-2 tie against Team USA. That game was each team's first of the tournament, and it ultimately earned him the distinction of being the only goalie not to lose to that Team USA -- a distinction which is extremely significant when you consider that the USSR's Vladislav Tretiak, widely considered the best goalie to ever play the game, got yanked from the net after Team USA peppered him in the first period of the Miracle on Ice.

Lindbergh began his North American career later that year by reporting to the Flyers' AHL affiliate, the Maine Mariners, for whom he would play a season and a half. He saw his first action for the Flyers themselves during the 1981-82 season, appearing in eight games; and became their starter in 1982-83, when he posted a record of 23-13-3 while paying in 40 games.

As the calendar flipped forward, he became a stalwart and started drawing comparisons to Flyers legend Bernie Parent, who had backstopped them to back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975.

Because he had a history of dehydration problems, he chose to keep a water bottle sitting atop the goal cage to drink from during stoppages in play. Nobody else had ever done that, yet in his wake, every goalie now does it and has for the last 30 or so years.

Lindbergh won 40 games in the 1984-85 season, more than any other goaltender in the league, which resulted in him being the first European to ever win the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender. He led his team all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before they got bested by the dynastic Edmonton Oilers of Gretzky, Messier, et al.

When the next season began four months later, Lindbergh -- 26 years old and with just three complete seasons under his belt -- was an NHL star and all the rage in the City of Brotherly Love.

33 days and 14 games after that, he was dead.

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On November 7, 1985, Lindbergh stopped 90 percent of Chicago's shots in a 6-2 Philadelphia victory.

Two nights later, he got the night off and backup Bob Froese played in the Flyers' 5-3 win over Boston while Lindbergh watched from the bench. It was the team's tenth consecutive victory.

A post-game party was held at their practice facility across the Delaware River in Voorhees Township, NJ -- and of course, parties in general are about alcohol, especially those filled with high-testosterone, well-paid men in their twenties.

At some point in the wee hours of the following morning, November 10, 1985, Lindbergh departed driving his Porsche 930. With him were two passengers: Edward Parvin, a realtor who had sold homes to several Flyers players, and mutual friend Kathyleen McNeal.

At 5:41 a.m., with Lindbergh at the wheel, the Porsche crashed into a wall near a school in Somerdale, NJ. He was pronounced brain dead within hours. Parvin and McNeal survived, but only after sustaining serious injuries and being confined in a hospital. Parvin spent nine days in a coma before coming to.


Lindbergh was kept on life support until his family could arrive from Sweden to say goodbye. Then, following a five-hour operation to remove his harvestable organs, the plug was pulled and he was pronounced dead on November 11th.

Nine days later he was buried at a heavily attended funeral at the Skogskyrkogarden (Woodland) Cemetery in southern Stockholm.

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There is little doubt that alcohol played a role in Lindbergh's death and the suffering that fell upon Edward Parvin and Kathyleen McNeal. However, there is room for debate about whether it played the lead role.

His blood alcohol level was originally reported to be 0.24, more than twice the legal limit at the time and thrice the legal limit under today's laws. Subsequent reports said his level was 0.17, a number still easily against the law -- but also one at which a considerable number of people exhibit few symptoms of intoxication, and in some cases very few.

Another factor very much in play that night, but talked about much less, was that Pelle Lindbergh had something in common with Maverick Mitchell. Mitchell was the fictitious F-14 pilot played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, released six months later. What the fictitious pilot and authentic goalie shared was "the need, the need for speed."

Bobby Clarke -- the former Flyers star who was then the team's GM and is now its Senior VP -- said of Lindbergh: "He had a fast car. He enjoyed driving fast. He scared me."

It was mentioned in the New York Times that Lindbergh's teammates knew he "often drove his red Porsche too fast, especially on the small roads of the small towns of southern New Jersey where most of the Flyers live." It was also mentioned that Clarke had had discussions with him about his driving.

Mixing driving and alcohol is a risk that can be deadly... Driving on narrow winding roads while indulging a lust for speed is a risk that can be deadly... Combining those risks in the wrapping of a young man, who is possessed by a young man's illusion of invincibility, makes a toxic stew indeed.

Don't get me wrong. Pelle Lindbergh was young, but he was grown, and therefore it makes no difference whether it was alcohol or speed that played the lead role in his death. Most likely one played the lead and the other the supporting role, but it hardly matters. Either way he was the author of his demise. But still...

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...the shit of all is that the memory of his existence has been compromised -- to say the least -- in ways it needn't and shouldn't have been.

Those of us who were alive and paying attention in the 1980's remember how transitional a time it was for public attitudes about drinking and driving. The decade began with it being socially acceptable to literally drink a beer while driving home, and ended with most jurisdictions in this country being able to arrest the driver of a vehicle for one of his passengers sipping a beer, even if he the driver was not.

MADD was ascendant in the 1980's and rightfully so, but its fervor obliterated the very concept of context. Even murder was (and still is) graded out into first and second and third degrees, yet not drunk driving. A person who can walk a straight line and recite the alphabet backwards, only to blow 0.001 over the legal limit, became (and remains) a person that the law regards no differently than someone who stumbles around while blowing 0.200 over.

It was in the hype stage of that confused environment that Pelle Lindbergh, a man not even from this country, exited the stage of life. The confusion of that environment is illustrated by the fact that his existence has been largely flushed down the public memory hole. Say "Flyers goalie" and most people think either of Bernie Parent or Lindbergh's successor, Ron Hextall. Most think not at all about Lindbergh, and that is wrong.

Although there is no denying that he authored his own demise, there is also no denying that his actions that night were not abnormal for his demographic. Young men drive fast, young men drink. Put the keys to a $90,000+ customized German sports car in the hands of a young man whose profession has him in the fast lane, and you are playing with fire.

Lindbergh's death had a definite "there but for the grace of God go I" aspect to it. For example, go back to Bobby Clarke, the ex-star and then-GM who had warned him about his driving habits. Less than two days after the accident, Clarke told the press that "Pelle didn't do anything I didn't do. I probably didn't have a teammate who didn't do what he did."

And it is worth noting that more than one person in a position to know has claimed that drinking to excess was out of character for Lindbergh.

One of them is Edward Parvin, the afore-mentioned passenger who spent nine days in a coma following the accident. He insists that "Pelle was not drunk. I was in a freak accident...nobody was to blame."

Another is Lindbergh's fiancee at the time, Kerstin Pietzsch-Somnell, who was awakened in the early morning hours by police officers bearing the horrible news. Recalling the night that ended in his death, she said "he wasn't even going to go out, but he decided he should go out to meet the guys."

Then there is Bernie Parent, who became a goaltending coach after his playing days and was working with Lindbergh in that capacity when he died. Parent said Lindbergh "never had any problem" with alcohol and "I never had to talk to him about that."

Yet, among those who today know the name Pelle Lindbergh, the main thought that comes to their mind when you ask about him is "he died driving drunk."

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During a 2011 interview, Pietzsch-Somnell gave the following insight about the character and personality of her long dead fiance: "He was so curious about everything. He wanted to learn about everything, especially in the United States, he wanted to learn it from you."

The odds are that if Pelle Lindbergh had not died on that autumn morning, he would have gone on to live a happy and accomplished life that inspired many for years to come. While we should not look back at his abbreviated life and career with rose-colored glasses, we should look back at it.

And we should do so while withholding judgment -- not only because there but for the grace of God go we, but because God's judgment has already been rendered in this case, and thus ours is meaningless.

When we remember a man we should remember both the good and bad, and we should not allow the latter to obscure the former.