Pelle Lindbergh’s tragic death raises tough questions 30 years later
I got my first Philadelphia Flyers jersey in 1988, when I was nine years old and just starting fourth grade. Goalie Ron Hextall and winger Rick Tocchet were my favorite players, but since a lot of kids at school already had their jerseys, and I didn’t want to be called the 1980s elementary school lingo equivalent of a copycat, I went with No. 12 for 50-goal scorer Timmy Kerr. Maybe he was prematurely past his prime due to injuries, he was a respectable choice nonetheless. There was one thing, however, that kept my jersey from being as cool as the other kids’ at school: the absence of a small black “31” sewn into the left shoulder.
The patch memorialized Pelle Lindbergh, the Flyers’ starting goaltender who died 30 years ago this November at the beginning of the 1985-86 season. I wanted to be just like the other kids with the “31” on their shoulders, but my father wouldn’t let me because Pelle Lindbergh died while driving drunk.
I remember hearing the news over the radio on the morning after the crash. I was in the car with my family when my parents said something to the effect of, “How sad.” They turned up the volume to hear the details. It’s actually my earliest defined memory of the team, even though I knew of the Flyers and must have been familiar enough to recognize Lindbergh’s name when I heard what happened.
For those unfamiliar with the story, the ’85-’86 Flyers season began with Lindbergh poised to finally seize the role of successor to Bernie Parent—the most beloved and accomplished goalie in the team’s history to that point. The year before, Lindbergh led the NHL with 40 wins, won the Vezina Trophy (he was the first European-born goalie to do so), and took the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers. He started off ’85-’86 just as strong, and the Flyers were expected to make another deep playoff run.
But in the early morning hours of November 10, 1985, Lindbergh and two friends left a team party in his customized Porsche, which was supposedly capable of speeds up to 190 miles per hour. He lost control and crashed head-on into a concrete wall in Somerdale, NJ. The other passengers both sustained serious injuries (one spent nine days in a coma following the accident), but both lived. Lindbergh was declared brain-dead, and after his father flew in from Sweden, the goalie was taken off life support. He was only 26 years old. Tests revealed that his blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit at the time.
“The fact that alcohol was involved was surprising. The fact that a car was involved, was not,” Al Morganti, a Flyers beat writer at the time of the accident and close friend of Pelle’s, told me recently. “That Porsche was his pride and joy, but I don’t know how it was street legal. I had stopped riding with him. We all told him he was going to get hurt eventually.”
Truth be told, I was not the Flyers fan then that I became years later. My obsessive fandom started in the era just after Lindbergh’s death—the Hextall years. I idolized NHL goalies, especially Hextall. I would bang the goalposts, practice stick-handling the puck with a blocker and catching mitt, hoping to be the first goalie to score a goal in my neighborhood street hockey games (that never happened). My poor younger brother had to duck flying blockers aimed at his head as my inner monolog turned him into Chris Chelios.
But as a detail-oriented kid, my imagination could never fully inhabit the role of Hextall because of his mask. In the 1980s, goalies were just starting to switch from the classic Friday the 13th-style mask to the ones we see now with a cage. It took some time for plastic replicas of the new style to work their way down to the street hockey sections of sporting goods stores, so my first plastic mask looked just like Jason’s. And that was fine with me. A straight-on view of that goalie mask is one of my favorite images, be it in a horror movie or on the ice. It’s on my list of possible tattoos. A lack of facial expression and black empty eye sockets, when I wore that mask in games with my brothers and friends, I channeled Bernie Parent or Pelle Lindbergh, not so much Hextall. That’s ultimately what prompted me to look back on Flyers history and learn how to idolize the guys I had never really seen play. I checked out books on them from my library and rented VHS tapes of season documentaries and classic games from the video store. After watching one tape called Triumph and Tragedy, about the ’85-’86 season, I felt like my Tim Kerr jersey was sorely missing the black “31”, and so I asked my parents if I could get one.
That conversation did not go well. My father refused to let me publicly honor a person who killed himself while driving drunk. He said it was fortunate that more people didn’t die that night—the passengers could’ve been killed, along with other drivers or pedestrians on the road. He obviously thought it was a tragedy that Lindbergh died, but to him, the far more important narrative centered on the epidemic of drunk driving, the horror and sadness caused by such a selfish action. It was wrong in his mind to ignore this aspect of the story, and he wanted me to process Lindbergh’s death differently than how my friends did.
I recently asked my father to recall that conversation. “As a parent you look for teachable moments to help build a framework of values that your children can lean on throughout their life,” he said. “To me, this was a clear issue of right and wrong. You don’t glorify someone who made a terrible mistake that resulted in death.”
At nine years old, I begrudgingly took him at his word, even though it didn’t square with how the rest of Philadelphia processed the accident. And as two adults discussing it today, neither of us would say it’s a clear-cut issue.
In the time after Lindbergh died, I remember the narrative of his life as being nothing but positive—not just in Philly, but around the whole league. Lindbergh died more than two months before the All-Star Game, yet he was posthumously selected that year, getting more votes than any other player. All of his teammates, friends and family painted him as a warm and caring individual. None portrayed him as a selfish, entitled celebrity athlete prone to indulgence without concern for the consequences to those around him.
“He was a very good friend. He was invited to my wedding,” recalls Morganti. “My wife and I had been out with him and his fiancé before, and I never remember him having more than one drink—and this was in the days when it was not uncommon for hockey players to have four, five or six beers at the end of the night ... When his father came over and found out about the drunk driving part of it, he was appalled because in Sweden, drunk driving is horrific; it’s just not something that’s done.”
Watching the NHL today wrestle with how to handle players who get into trouble with drugs and alcohol, I wonder if there were any behind-the-scenes discussions about how to honor Lindbergh in 1985. As my father points out, “No Flyer has ever worn the number 31 since Pelle, but they’ve also never officially retired the number. They must be aware that it’s a touchy subject.”
How did they navigate the gray area? Was there any discussion of parallel messaging with anti-drunk driving groups or outside pressure to do so?
“I can’t speak for the team, but no, I don’t think there was anything like that. It became more about honoring his career,” Morganti says. “I speak regularly to youth hockey clubs on drunk driving, and while I don’t keep much memorabilia, I do have one of Pelle’s shirts, and I bring it when I speak to these kids and say, ‘Don’t let yourself or your teammate end up like Pelle Lindbergh.’…. It’s been so long, the shock has worn off, but you can see their parents are still affected by it when I say this is Pelle Lindbergh’s shirt.”
As I got older, my father’s hasty black-and-white moral judgment of Lindbergh seemed increasingly murky. I started to feel as if maybe I should’ve been allowed to get the “31” patch.
As with most adults, my personal views on drunk driving, and more specifically drunk drivers, got more complicated as I saw it happen more often. One comes to learn that the potentially horrible consequences are not always the result of a horrible person. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having driven a car at times when I shouldn’t have, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Just look into the cars around you and see how many people are texting or talking on their phones, despite all the research showing how dangerous it is. But these are hard things to explain to a kid in grade school.
As my father only just admitted to me, “If I had been thoughtful in the heat of the moment I might have had a conversation where you separate the man from the act. But how do you explain that to a child? I guess I was more interested in the black and white of right and wrong.” Now that I am a father myself, this makes more sense to me.
I’m still a rabid Flyers fan today. We watch all the games in my house, and I try to go to a few each year if the team is nearby. My son started to notice hockey on the television when he was about two, and without any influence from me, he gravitated toward the goalies. We got a knee-hockey set for the living room (which we still use almost daily three years later), and he had no interest in playing any other position.
He started to emulate what he saw on TV immediately. First he needed pads, so he put on my wife’s boots. He wanted big gloves so he borrowed my winter mitts. He asked me to make a tin-foil cage for his bike helmet, and then to jerry-rig a water bottle holder to his little net. If I scored on him (despite my best efforts not to), he would push up his helmet and take a drink from his sippy cup just like he saw NHL goalies do. Once last year, he proclaimed his name was “Sim Vason,” which my wife and I quickly realized was Steve Mason, the Flyers’ current starting goalie.
We thought it was adorable, until one day when I scored on him, he threw his stick up in the air, almost breaking a light bulb before it crashed down on our hardwood floor. “What are you doing!?” I shouted. He explained that he had seen a highlight of former Flyers netminder Ilya Bryzgalov throwing his stick in the air, and he thought that’s just what goalies did. I tried to explain how that fit with Bryz’s unique personality, but it wasn’t a very cool or normal thing to do. I didn’t do a good job, though, and quickly gave up. He was set on doing it, and besides, on some level, it was hilarious. I told him if he wanted to throw his stick he had to walk to an area rug in the next room where it wouldn’t damage the hardwood floors.
As my dad said, sometimes you have to talk to a kid in black-and-white terms. Maturity and sportsmanship are just too abstract for a toddler to comprehend. So my message, distilled, became, “Just please don’t break the house, buddy.” And for a long time, he walked to the other room, stood over the rug, and threw his stick in the air after every goal. The goalies were his guys, and he wanted to do as they did.
Granted, drunk driving is a far cry from playful stick throwing. I don’t mean to draw any sort of serious analogy between the two. I don’t know how I’d handle the Pelle Lindbergh conversation, or whether I’d let my son get the black “31” if we were back in the 1980s. I’d like to think I’d have a cooler head and be able to explain the complexities of the situation, but I really don’t know.
As tight as it is, I can still fit into that Tim Kerr jersey from 27 years ago, and sometimes I’ll wear it to games. A few years ago I saw another 80s-era jersey at a game, one with a black “31” on the shoulder. It still looked cool in that specific way that dated iconography from one’s youth can look. I considered finally getting one for myself as an adult but decided not to. I may be able to question my father’s approach on an intellectual level, but emotionally, I get it. And I respect it. The drunk driving discussion will come up for many parents, probably more than once. It’s understandable if they go for the teachable moment, even if they know they are oversimplifying at the expense of a decent person’s memory.
And, by all accounts, that’s what Pelle Lindbergh was. I don’t think that’s ever been up for discussion amongst those who knew him best. As we come upon the 30th anniversary of his death, a lot of people far more qualified than I am will probably talk about his legacy. I remember him only in photos and on video. Had he lived, there is a very good chance he would have still been the Flyers’ starting goalie when I became an active fan. I would’ve liked to experience that.
When my band Animal Collective played Stockholm for the first time in November 2005, just after the 20th anniversary of Lindbergh’s death, I happened to be wearing a Flyers T-shirt on stage. During a song break, one fan up front pointed at me and yelled out, “Flyers! Peter Forsberg!” The center, a recent Flyers free agent signing at that time, may be the most famous Swedish hockey player ever. It was a highlight of the night.
Looking back, though, I can’t help but think, what a shame it is that when Swedes see the Flyers emblem, they don’t think of a long, storied career of a goaltending legend from Stockholm, and shout out Pelle Lindbergh’s name instead.
Brian Weitz, also known as Geologist, is a founding member of the band Animal Collective and a lifelong Flyers fan. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children.