A Night to Last a Lifetime
No skate this morning. Darren Jensen was told. No shots from NHL players to sweat out some of the anxiety. Go to the hotel, get a bite, get some sleep.
The bite wasn’t a problem. “Obviously there was no sleep,” he recalls. “I laid in bed, eyes wide open, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.”
It was a fix of all fixes, the spot of all spots. Fresh off the plane the Flyers had sent for him in Montreal after taking a cab there following an American Hockey League game in Sherbrooke was Jensen, summoned under miserable; almost incomprehensible, circumstances.
Pelle Lindbergh, the reigning Vezina Trophy goalie, had crashed his car and died four days earlier. Bob Froese, who would be No. 1 now, had been hit with a shot in the protective cup during the previous morning’s practice and was passing blood.
Rematch with Edmonton of the previous season’s Stanley Cup final. Spectrum in tears. Team that had been in virtual group therapy for four days; players in their young-to-mid twenties talking out their fears that they wouldn’t be able to skate, shoot, function. Hockey world watching on November 14, 1985 in morbid curiosity to see how the Flyers, their considerable Stanley Cup hopes presumably crushed like that Porsche, would handle such heartbreak.
And no previously tested choice for a goalie, only one with a single game’s NHL experience the previous year and had been bombed in that one besides. GM Bob Clarke feared the situation–withering grief and withering offense from the Oilers–would be too overwhelming for an NHL debut of the more promising of two prospects at Hershey–Ron Hextall.
The second choice was the best choice. This is your moment, Darren Jensen. Don’t dare to think it might be the defining one of your career.
“I could have looked at it that if I failed, everybody would understand the situation and try to take some pressure off myself that way,” he recalls.
“No. Of course there was pressure. What professional wants to be embarrassed?”
Six months earlier, Game Three of the final in Edmonton, Flyer coach Mike Keenan had yanked Lindbergh for Froese at the start of a five-on-three to buy some wind for his tired penalty killers. “And good luck to you my friend.” had said defenseman Miro Dvorak to Froese as he put on his mask to face those Edmonton flamethrowers.
“Good luck to you my friend” became a team in-joke whenever it was crunch time. Asked 35 years later what he said to Jensen, Keenan, on cue, laughs and says. “And good luck to you my friend,” but those weren’t his words of course. He told Jensen. “They will play their hearts out in front of you. Just play your game.”
Sounded like a plan if only the game finally would start. The preceding memorial service was heartfelt and tearful and emcee Gene Hart called it a celebration of life but, put yourself in Jensen’s shoes, it also was interminable. “Terrible,” he recalls, no disrespect meant. To his stand-in, Lindbergh wasn’t just a ghost but had been a kind teammate when Jensen, a once-Hartford draftee signed as a free agent in 1984 out Fort Wayne of the IHL, had been up with the big club in 1984-85 while Froese had rehabbed a knee.
Everybody had loved sweet Pelle, making the situation all the more tragic, but when the teams went back to the locker room for 15 minutes to dry their eyes and try to force their minds onto hockey, that turned out to be easier than expected. Anybody could understand Jensen wishing for a side door to duck out but the Flyers’ hideout from their grief was in plain sight on the rink. The games would be their escape.
Of course during those 15 minutes somebody said something about carrying on for Pelle and, cliché or not, the Flyers bought in. “It wasn’t sad in there,” Keenan would say and that’s the way Jensen remembers and, believe him, after all these years, he remembers a lot.
The game started a little tentatively, but Eddie Hospodar, Oiler antagonist, went into his act and quickly it was the two best teams in the NHL as usual. Jensen got a pad out on Wayne Gretzky early to calm himself, followed Jari Kurri across, and then stopped a breakaway by Dave Hunter to a standing ovation.
Mark Howe gave the Flyers a 1-0 lead before going out with a groin pull. But by then 17,077 funeral attendees were fans again, business as usual just like the overachieving young team they now were taking into their hearts all the more. At 1-1 late in the second period, the game turned on Oiler outrage-an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Mark Messier for complaining about a faceoff drop, then a snit by Glen Sather resulting in the Oilers getting hit with a delay-of-game penalty by Don Koharski for coming out late for the third period.
Ilkka Sinisalo scored on the five-on-three and then so did Brian Propp on another power play following a gratuitous slash by goalie Andy Moog. The Flyers got some breaks– they must give newbies up there a learners permit to drive things down here–but there wasn’t a dry eye in the place, including those of their martinet coach, when the 5-3 Philadelphia victory was complete. “Winning or losing didn’t matter,” said Keenan, the ultimate results guy. “I’m just so proud of the way they played.”
It wouldn’t have been possible had the goalie on the spot not been spot on.
“Relief was an understatement,” said Jensen, asked what he felt at the buzzer. “Mike was known for pulling goalies so there was no way (with a non-prospect from the low minors serving as backup that night) he could yank me from that game. I think I used that a little to calm myself, but there is no pill you can take, no manual for a situation like that.
“I wasn’t the most fundamentally-sound goalie but I had always seemed to be very responsive to high pressure situations. At North Dakota (University) I played in two NCAA championship games (winning both) and the first time I was just a rookie behind an All America.
“I asked the coach (Gino Gasparini) why he put me in. He said “I knew you would be calm. I don’t know what’s going on in your insides but on the outside that is what we needed.’
“Pressure is a good thing. It tests you. What it comes down to is a person can either do it or they can’t. I’m sure you’ve been under pressure to write a good article under a tight deadline. In the end, you did, that’s all that matters. How you did it, you might not even know.”
So true. And so lasting for the rest of your life, especially so for Jensen after a career that was short and his opportunities to show he had the right stuff even shorter. The Flyers had won 10 straight when Lindbergh died. Jensen stayed in the net as they stretched the streak to 13.
Froese soon was good to go but for Jensen there was one more shining moment–a 48-shot 1-0 win in St. Louis–before he gave up a bad overtime goal to Kurri in Edmonton and seemed to lose confidence. After he gave up five goals in ten shots in the following outing at New Jersey, the Flyers traded for Chico Resch. So after 30 appearances (15-10, 3.82, .879), Jensen went to he minors, never to return. A year later, he was traded to Vancouver in a deal that brought Philadelphia a more NHL-tested Wendell Young.
Jensen played only another season-plus . “There were a ton of goalies with NHL experience in the Canuck organization,” he recalls. “My confidence dropped and I wasn’t having fun. I knew it was time to pack it in.
“I had fun and great experiences. No regrets.”
Saved by his response to what proved to be the chance of a lifetime, fueling him for its inevitable downturns. Jensen, 60, living in Kelowna and back in the British Columbia interior where he grew up, has leukemia.
It is the chronic kind, the good kind, so to speak, with a survival rate for five years of 63 per cent, much higher than for acute leukemia. About a year ago, Jensen’s hemoglobin count dropped so low he was frighteningly close to becoming a thirty-seven percenter, but massive doses of steroids fixed him up, maybe for a long time provided he is careful. For now he doesn’t need chemo, only to understand his immune system is compromised.
“I had a flu that went into a second week, so my wife Michelle, who’s a nurse, said I should get blood tests to make sure everything was okay. While I was in the waiting room for the doctor to tell me the results, I read on my phone about Tom Lysiak, who played for the Blackhawks (and Atlanta Flames) dying of leukemia, and thought, ‘Oh that is so sad.’ Ten minutes later the doctor is talking to us about white blood cells and my mind is racing and not really following him until Michelle’s face drops. Leukemia. Me too.
“You get perspective immediately–a respect for life, a need to cherish it. All these things you complain about on a daily basis are really nothing.
The doctors are watching it. I go every two months. I have to be really careful about being around sick people, but you also can’t bury your life in a hole; it defeats the whole purpose. I’m back to work and can do it from home.”
Jensen sells marketing software to car dealerships across Canada. Getting a foot in doors is almost as hard as beating Gretzky to the post; word-of-mouth not to be counted on between dealers all in competition with each other. It takes tenacity to get the managers ignoring messages to come to the phone so, in a sales job in Canada, no NHL career is too obscure to mention. What he once did for a living helps.
“For a long time I thought people might remember that game, but not me,” Jensen says. Michelle told me ‘You’re wrong. You are what they remember about it’ and in large part that has turned out to be true. They are Flyer fans. Or, they hated the Flyers. Or they watched that game.
A pompous job interviewer once told Rick MacLeish that it was time to go to work; his hockey notoriety was over. ‘It’s never over,” MacLeish disagreed and he was right. Whenever Jensen hears ‘you can’t live in the past,’ he thinks, “At least I had a past.
“My career was relatively short. But I think most people understand that if you were in the NHL you reached the highest level of a profession and that it was no gift. It took hard work and talent. People are in awe. ˆYou’re the guy who won that game against Gretzky? Wow!” They are blown away.
“So I smile when I think about it. But I also look back and wonder, ‘How the hell did I do that?’ The stars have to align but you can either show up or not. The fact that I did makes it a very gratifying moment I can take with me in every day of my life and more than ever now.
”Dealing with leukemia, I have support from the people in my life, just like I had from my teammates, my coach, and the fans that night. So I know I can get through this.”