Friday, November 13, 2015

Remembering Pelle Lindbergh



*Some of the details on the events of November 10-14, 1985 below [with the exception, obviously, of the parts about me, my cousin, etc.] come from Jay Greenberg’s Full Spectrum: The Complete History of the Philadelphia Flyers.

In an age before the Internet, before there was cable television in my house, I'm not certain exactly how or when I learned that the Philadelphia Flyers' Pelle Lindbergh had been involved in a horrific car crash.  It was Sunday, November 10, 1985.  I didn't even have my driver's license yet - just a learner's permit.  I was due to go out with my mother that day for what would no doubt be another hair-raising drive to practice my ability to nearly hit every parked car within a 10-mile radius.

Since it was a Sunday, probably one of those NFL pre-game shows were on.  Maybe the local station cut into one of those programs with the news of Lindbergh's crash.  Or maybe it was somebody listening to KYW-1060 AM Newsradio. I do remember that, by the time that I did learn of the crash, the word was that Pelle Lindbergh was brain dead. 

My first thought was of my cousin, Jim.  He completely idolized Pelle.  I mean, I loved Pelle, but Jim had taken on Pelle’s persona and style in goal himself in his local street hockey league. Jim was going to be devastated.  I don't remember if I called Jim [no texting or emails], or if he called me.  I do seem to remember us talking on the phone at some point that day, but I can't recall any of the details. I also remember well that Jim went onto his dad’s computer some time over the ensuing days and - on a dot-matrix printer - produced two banners [one for me, one for him] that read ‘Pelle Lindbergh 1959-1985”. It hung in my room until I left home for the final time six years later.

The news said the accident had occurred early in that morning. We were told that Pelle had been taken from the accident scene at Somerdale Elementary School in South Jersey to JFK Memorial Hospital in Stratford, just two minutes away.  It was there, at a 10 am press conference in the hospital cafeteria, that Flyers' physician Dr. Edward Viner informed the media that - for all intents and purposes - Lindbergh was dead.  He would be kept on life-support until his father, Sigge, could arrive from his native Sweden [ironically, Lindbergh's mother, Anna-Lisa, was visiting him in South Jersey at the time of the accident].

By some point in the mid-afternoon, the word was that Pelle had been drunk, which changed considerably the dynamic- feelings went from sorrow to anger at the stupidity of driving a Porsche 930 on a residential road at all - let alone after a night of drinking at speeds exceeding 120 mph.
There had been murmurings among the fan base about Pelle's driving fast cars.  Just rumors.  But inside the locker room, his teammates knew this was no over-hyped 'athlete-gone-nuts-with-a-new-toy' story. Pelle drove too fast and his teammates and management had been concerned for some time.  Indeed, it was not unlike the discomfort in the New York Yankees' locker room in 1978 when Thurman Munson first bought his own airplane. He flew too recklessly, in the opinion of many. And, by August 1979, his teammates’ fears were realized and Munson was dead. In Pelle's case, his teammates were similarly concerned about his driving speeds.  But in the code of young males, there was just concern, not any actual action taken.

Then-general manager Bob Clarke would recall that - when Lindbergh had bought the 930 in 1983 -  he had taken Clarke [then a teammate] for a 'test drive'  After a mile or so, Clarke had had enough and made Pelle pull over. "He scared me," Clarke recalled shortly after Pelle's death. "We told Pelle he had to slow down.”

So, in that pre-Internet age, I waited for the newspaper the next day to read the full details - disbelieving all the while that Pelle was really gone.  The newspapers said the story began Saturday, November 9, 1985.  Lindbergh had sat on the bench for the Flyers' game against the Boston Bruins, with Bob Froese getting the start in goal.  Earlier in their careers, both men - who came up at the same time - had been in fierce competition for the number one goalie job.  Pelle had slammed the door on that competition the previous season as he led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Finals against the Edmonton Oilers. Indeed, Lindbergh’s status was such that - just prior to the 1985-86 season, the Flyers had signed Lindbergh to an unprecedented 6-year, $1.7 million contract [which, somehow, Pelle had neglected to sign yet.  Ironically, a signing ceremony had been planned for November 11th. Flyers' owner Ed Snider said the Flyers would fulfill the obligation of the contract even without Pelle's signature].

There had been a long-planned party set for later that Saturday night at The Coliseum, the Flyers' practice facility in Voorhees, New Jersey, [there was a five-day layoff before the next game, scheduled for Thursday November 14, against those same Oilers].  Lindbergh's fiancée, Kerstin Pietzsch would later say that Pelle didn't even want to go out that night, but felt that he should be with his teammates, The night began after midnight at a Bennigan's on Route 73, where Lindbergh drank three ten-ounce drafts of beer before 2:30 am. Pelle then got into the Porsche and drove at speeds in excess of 120 mph to The Coliseum for the party,. How much Lindbergh drank at the Coliseum remains unknown even 30 years later.  While some reported him drinking two mixed drinks and a beer at The Coliseum, teammate Rick Tocchet recalled that he himself had bought Pelle two beers. Yet, others reported seeing Lindbergh without a drink for most of the party.

At 4:45 am, when the lights came on and the bar stopped serving, teammates Murray Craven and Tocchet agreed to meet Lindbergh for breakfast after Lindbergh dropped off two friends [Kathy McNeal and Ed Parvin] to their respective apartments, as both said they were too tired to stay out any longer. Lindbergh's Porsche turned onto Somerdale Road, accelerated, and swerved into the opposite lane before correcting itself upon reaching the intersection with White Horse Pike and stopping for a traffic light. Then, at the intersection of Somerdale and Ogg Avenues, where Somerdale turned sharply to the right, the Porsche continued instead straight towards the wall of the elementary school.

Upon impact, the car collapsed into itself like an accordion, leaving Lindbergh pinned against the wall while his passengers were slumped in the passenger seat. When ambulances arrived, McNeal was the only one of the three who was conscious. Rescuers could see that Lindbergh's leg was badly broken and he was bleeding from his nose and mouth.  

Sadly, even with all of this, at this point in time – moments after impact - Pelle might have lived. Rescuers found a very strong pulse on him. The problem was that his body was pinned up against the wall and the only way rescuers could reach him was to free the victims through the passenger side - a process that took 10-15 minutes before Lindbergh could be removed.  By that point, his heart had stopped and his brain had been robbed of oxygen for an unknown amount of time.  Rescuers using CPR were able to restart Lindbergh's heart. But by the time he arrived at JFK, Pelle had no brain activity.

By that point, it was clear to all of the medical personnel that Pelle was fatally injured. The first Flyers’ official to realize this reality was the first one to arrive, Coach Mike Keenan.  Upon arrival at JFK, he was whisked to the ER to see Pelle. On seeing him, “I knew he was dead,” Keenan would say.  The gruff coach leaned over and whispered to his fallen player, "We went through some good times together, didn't we?" Keenan then broke down and left the room.

In the end, Lindbergh had suffered many injuries. In addition to the badly broken leg, Lindbergh had also fractured his hip, his jaw, and - in two places - his other leg. While being able to reach him in the vehicle sooner could have saved his life, it is more than likely that he would never have played hockey again. In the ensuing months to follow, both McNeal and Parvin recovered, although the latter was left with permanent slurring of speech and a loss of feeling in his right hand.

Then there was the blood alcohol level.  This would be in dispute even 30 years later.  Initial tests reported – and remain the figure cited by many sources – that Pelle’s blood alcohol level was 0.24 - a seemingly inhuman amount. It was the equivalent of drinking ten-and-one-half ounces of 80-proof whiskey within 45 minutes on an empty stomach.  Every person at the party who was interviewed reported that in no way was Lindbergh “falling-down drunk” at any point.  This was born out when a second test indicated the correct blood-alcohol reading was .17 - still over the .10 legal limit, but not the astronomical first figure. Few news outlets reported the second, updated blood alcohol figure.

Lindbergh officially died the following day, November 11. One little-remembered aspect of the tragedy was that Sigge and Anna-Lisa agreed to have Lindbergh's organs harvested for transplant. Subsequently, Pelle's liver was implanted in a 30-year old Delaware man at Thomas Jefferson Hospital. His kidneys were transplanted at Hahnemann Hospital, One of his corneas was implanted in a 30-year old Philadelphia-area resident at Scheie Eye Institute; while the other was transplanted at Wills Eye Hospital.  Finally, a man named John Keeler, 52, of Northfield, NJ, received Pelle's heart after being on the wait-list for a transplant since August.

The Pelle Lindbergh story is a tragedy, of course. That his family was gracious and thoughtful enough to make the difficult decision they did and provide life-altering medical advancements to at least five human beings was a great legacy out of an otherwise tragic waste of what might have been.

There is a final irony.  Five years ago – on the 25th anniversary of the accident – a reporter caught up with Lindbergh’s then-fiancée, Kerstin Pietzsch.  Years later she married a man – not a hockey player – and has had what she described as "a good life".  While her husband isn’t a hockey player however, they have a son.  He plays hockey. 

He’s a goalie.

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