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Triumph & Tragedy: The Life and Death of Pelle “Gump” Lindbergh

November 11, 2023, 7:07 AM ET [8 Comments]
Scoop Cooper
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NOTE: I originally wrote this blog for HockryBuzz nine years ago in November, 2014 about my friend, Pelle Lindbergh, and am posting it again today in memory of the 38th anniversary of his passing at just 26 after the tragic automobile accident that took his life and changed hockey forever in Philadelphia.

At just 5-9 he was small for a professional hockey player, but his talent as a goalie was as huge as you could ever expect to find. But unlike almost every other goalie in the NHL in the early 1980s, his native language was not English or French, but Swedish, and he became the first European netminder to reach the top in the NHL, the world's best professional hockey league.

His name was Per-Erik Göran "Pelle" Lindbergh, but to his friends and teammates he was known by the distinctly North American nicknames of "Gump" and sometimes "Tex". And for one glorious season, 1984-85, this cat-quick little netminder became -- like his mentor before him, Bernie Parent -- "the best goalie in the world." Tragically that season would also be his last as just a month into the 1985-86 campaign both his career and life ended suddenly as the result of a horrific early morning crash on November 10, 1985 of his beloved red Porsche just blocks from the Flyers then training facility in Voorhees, NJ leaving him brain dead.

Gump died the next day from his injuries. He was just 26 years old.

Lindbergh and his beloved red Porsche

Philadelphia hockey fans first heard of Lindbergh when the Flyers selected the then twenty-year old Swede in the second round (35th overall) of the 1979 Draft. That off-season had already been one of considerable change for the Flyers' netminding staff. Hall of Famer Bernie Parent had just retired after suffering a career-ending eye injury the previous February, and gone too was their other veteran, the late Wayne Stephenson, who had been traded to Washington.

Despite the retirement of Parent and departure of Stephenson, however, the Flyers already had a future star ready to come up from the Calder Cup champion Maine Mariners in Pete Peeters and had also just traded for veteran Phil Myre. So using a second round pick to select Lindbergh seemed to many to be a surprising gamble to take on a European goalie who was not even expected to be able to come to training camp for another year because of his commitments to the Army and the Swedish National Team. Although he had played well in the 1979 World Tournament in Moscow a few months earlier, he was otherwise unproven.

As the Flyers went on to compile their still standing record-breaking 35-game unbeaten streak and come within two games of the Stanley Cup in 1979-80, Lindbergh was also making a name for himself in the 1980 Olympic games. Although most of the world's attention was directed at the remarkable Gold Medal winning U.S. Team, Lindbergh was also impressive as he led the Swedish squad to a Bronze Medal -- and came within seconds of being the only goalie to beat the Americans in the tournament. (A goal by Bill Baker in the final seconds of play salvaged a 2-2 tie for the U.S. in the opening game.)

Lindbergh as a Swedish Olympian and Philadelphia Flyer

In September, 1980, Lindbergh came to North America and spent his first pro season in the AHL with the Mariners learning a new style of play. All he did in that transition year was lead them to the 1981 Calder Cup finals while personally winning every league honor available to a rookie goalie -- First Team All-Star, Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player, and shared the Hap Holmes Trophy with creasemate, [the late] Robbie "The Nob" Moore [1954-2022] for the fewest goals-against allowed in the league.

With the Flyers already out of the Stanley Cup playoffs after losing to the Calgary Flames in the quarter finals in seven games, I traveled up to Maine to join up with the Mariners as they met the Adirondack Red Wings in the Calder Cup finals. Although the Mariners lost to the Wings in six games, the always cheerful Lindbergh wouldn’t let it get him down for long. As we flew back on the charter from Glens Falls to Portland he got on the PA system and started speaking excitedly in Swedish. The only one who really knew what he was saying was Pelle's best friend, trainer Kevin Cady (who I will be seeing later this week), who was sitting next to me and spoke some Swedish. He told me that Gump was talking about the stewardess and even though nobody else knew what he was saying Lindbergh’s personality was so infectious that it broke through the gloom of the disappointing loss. When we landed back in Portland, Gump gave me the stick he had used that night (see illustration below) in what would prove to be the only championship hockey game he would ever play in in North America.

Lindbergh’s stick from the 1981 Calder Cup title game

Lindbergh split the next season between Maine and the Flyers (2-4-2, 3.26 in eight games), but despite that only brief look the Flyers felt that he was good enough to permit them to trade away Peeters to Boston in June, 1982, and bring Pelle up as a regular in 1982-83. The young Swede responded with an excellent rookie campaign in which he compiled an impressive 23-13-3 record with three shut-outs and a 2.98 goals-against average.

My most vivid memory of my friend that year took place in Los Angeles in early February. In those days the “rookie initiation” was still in vogue and after a morning skate at The Forum both Lindbergh and fellow rookie goalie Bob Froese were given theirs. Lindbergh’s included shaving his head all but bald. I’ll never forget giving Gump a ride back to the Airport Marriott and watching him get out of the car and walking into the hotel with a pink towel wrapped like a turban around his head like a turban. The next night he shut out the Kings, 2-0, making 29 saves.

In the play-offs that spring, however, Lindbergh faltered and gave up 18 goals as the Flyers went down in three straight games (5-3, 4-3 and 9-3) to the Rangers. That play-off collapse carried over to the next year (1983-84) as Lindbergh suffered through a sophomore slump which saw his goals-against average balloon to 4.05 and his record drop to 16-13-3. (Things got so bad at one point he was even sent back to the AHL for four games with the Springfield Indians.) In the play-offs he appeared for just 26 minutes with the Flyers already losing a third-and-final game to Washington and gave up three goals. As Pelle returned to Sweden that summer he wondered if his dream of becoming the first European goalie to star in the NHL -- and to win a Stanley Cup -- would ever come true.

But while Lindbergh may have had his doubts, his mentor and boyhood idol, Bernie Parent, did not. The Flyers' goaltending instructor told his pupil that he had the talent and ability to do it and that the Flyers still believed in him. The next twelve months would more than prove Parent correct.

"Gump" facing the “Great One”

Lindbergh appeared in sixty-five games for the Flyers in 1984-85 and led them to the best record (53-20-7--113) of the twenty-one teams in the league. He won forty of those games (against just seventeen losses and seven ties) and dropped his average back down to 3.02. In the play-offs he was even better with a 2.50 average and three shut-outs in 18 games. A knee injury he has suffered in the semi finals against Quebec finally caught up with him in the finals against Edmonton, however, and eventually sidelined him against the Oilers who were able to retain their Stanley Cup title in five games.

It was a disappointing loss for all, but for Lindbergh the season had proved to the world that a European goalie could be a star in North American hockey. That was made official by his selection as First Team All-Star and confirmed when he won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goalie which was presented to him in an emotional ceremony in Toronto on June 15th by his hero and mentor, two-time Vezina winner Bernie Parent.

Lindbergh and the Vezina Trophy

The 1985-86 season opened with Lindbergh and the Flyers expected to repeat as Stanley Cup finalists and, after a dozen games, they were right on course with a 10-2-0 record as they stepped on the Spectrum ice on November 7th for their thirteenth game of the season. Their opposition that night was the Chicago Blackhawks and Lindbergh handled them easily with a routine 6-2 win. It was the club's ninth consecutive win and Lindbergh's 99th regular season or play-off victory in the NHL.

But tragically he would never get a 100th.

Just over 48-hours later, Lindbergh lost control of his beloved Porsche on a rain slicked road following a team party and hit a stone wall less than a mile from the Flyers' practice rink in Voorhees, New Jersey. His career and life both came to sudden and premature ends -- although his heart continued to beat in the chest of another in whom it was transplanted a short while later.

Lindbergh's body was returned to his native Sweden where his countrymen bid him adieu with what was virtually a state funeral. In Philadelphia, his fans and teammates said their goodbyes in an emotional pre-game ceremony at the Spectrum on November 14 -- one week to the hour after he had started the last hockey game of his life, that win over the Chicago Blackhawks on the same ice.

After the moving half-hour ceremony, the Flyers then went on to defeat the Edmonton Oilers, 5-3, with rookie Darren Jensen in goal for Bob Froese who ironically had been injured during practice that week. And for the rest of the season, each Flyer player wore a small "31" on his shoulder in memory of their fallen teammate.

This was the first meeting between the Flyers and Oilers since Edmonton had beaten the Flyers in the 1985 finals, and every Oiler wore a back armband during the game which was tied 1-1 after two periods. The game featured several fights and Oiler GM/coach Glen Sather was given a rare game misconduct by referee Don Koharski at the end of the second period. (Ironically he was replaced behind the bench for the rest of the game by former Flyer coach and GM Bob McCammon who was then working for the Oilers. McCammon had also been Lindbergh's coach in Maine in 1980-81 and 1981-82.) Although the Oilers scored twice in the third period, the Flyers got four to win the game, 5-3. Jensen stopped 29 of 32 Oiler shots for his first NHL win in his first NHL game.

Needless to say it was probably the most emotional week in Flyer history.

Pelle Lindbergh was on this earth for just twenty-six years and was a Flyer for just over four seasons. While both periods were far too short, his memory will live forever in the minds and hearts of millions of hockey fans he touched around the world.

Despite the early season loss of Lindbergh, the Flyers with Froese, Jensen, and then veteran Glen "Chico" Resch (who replaced Jensen when he was acquired at the trade deadline from the New Jersey Devils) in the nets were again outstanding and finished the 1985-86 campaign with 110 points on a record of 53-23-4. In less than a week, however, their emotion charged season came to a crashing end in the play-offs when the fourth place New York Rangers -- a team which had finished the regular season 32 points behind Philadelphia -- unexpectedly knocked them off, three-games-to-two, in the best- of-five Patrick Division SemiFinals.

While the Flyers had been prematurely idled that Spring, their AHL Hershey Bears affiliate club was on its way to the Calder Cup finals behind young rookie goalie Ron Hextall. And the next season Hextall would do the same for the Flyers as he picked up Lindbergh's fallen mantle and led the orange and black to the brink of the Stanley Cup once again. Had it not been for Lindbergh's premature tragic death, Hextall may have never had a chance to play for the Flyers and would have made his career elsewhere in the NHL -- and would never have been with the team today [in 2014] as its General Manager.[Danny Briere became GM in 2023]

It has now been 29 years [38 years in 2023] since Pelle Lindbergh left us way way too soon. Had he lived Gump would be 55 [64 in 2023] now, probably a grandfather, and still bringing the joy of life that he loved so much to all around him.

Resquiat in pacem Gump, my friend. You are now -- and always will be -- dearly missed.

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