Dave Poulin, captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, sat in the stands of the Spectrum last Thursday morning and reflected on the past. How long had it been? Eleven days? Only 11...since an early-morning car crash on Sunday, Nov. 10 claimed the life of the Flyers' puckish and popular All-Star goaltender, Pelle Lindbergh, at the age of 26. "We knew the character of this team," said Poulin, 27. "We knew how we all felt about one another. But a lot of those feelings had never been expressed, not just because we're athletes, but because we're males. As much as Pelle's death pulled us together, I think it showed us how close we already were."
There is more to these Flyers than meets the eye. More to them than the best record in hockey (17-4 at week's end) and an outdated label (the Broad Street Bullies) that even now, years after its pertinence went the way of Frank Rizzo, keeps rival fans around the league chanting for Flyer blood. More to them than a coach of multifarious talents who, while pacing behind the bench, devours crushed ice to ease tension and talks about things like "the synergistic effect" of his retread Flyers—a team of workaholic castoffs whose whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.
More to them, even, than a team that has played bravely and well through a tragedy, proving in the first quarter of this season that last year's trip to the Stanley Cup finals was not just a whale of a fluke. The Flyers are suddenly the heir apparent, the team waiting in the wings for the champion Edmonton Oilers to falter. More even than that, they are downright likable in that role; a bunch of veritable princes of Wales. When was the last time anyone said that about the team everyone loves to hate? Poignantly, the only thing now holding them back seems to be the lack of a frontline goaltender.
"We didn't make believers out of too many press people last year," says Flyers coach Mike Keenan, who last season took over a team that was supposed to be rebuilding and led it to the best record in hockey, 53-20-7. "I wasn't worried that we might be a flash in the pan, but it seems everyone else was."
One of the reasons people thought the Flyers would return to earth this year was Keenan himself. Dictatorial and demanding, arrogant and seemingly aloof from his players, the 36-year-old Keenan emanates all the color and warmth of a bottle of seltzer fresh from the refrigerator. As a coach for the Rochester Americans, the Buffalo Sabres' top minor league affiliate, between 1980 and '83, Keenan had studied under that master noncommunicator, Scotty Bowman, and it was generally assumed that he was cut from the same starchy cloth. One year, pundits predicted. Keenan will get away with that act for one year, and then the Flyers will have seen enough. When one of the Flyers' best young prospects, Todd Bergen, quit the team during the preseason to try his hand at professional golf, "Keenan burnout" indeed seemed to have begun.
Wrong. "This is a happy team," says Poulin. "Despite the tragedy, this team is happy. Mike's a player's coach."
Keenan, his public image notwithstanding, is not a Bowman clone. In addition to never being referred to as "a player's coach," Bowman never started a rock-'n'-roll oldies band called Nik and the Nice Guys when he was in college, as Keenan did in 1971 when he was an undergraduate at St. Lawrence University. Keenan, who sings and plays bass, is still Official Head Coach of the Rochester-based group—now made up primarily of ex-hockey playing accountants—and the band's charity gigs, in upstate New York anyway, have assumed something approaching cull status. The Flyers have never had a curfew under Keenan, and before the start of this season he and general manager Bobby Clarke went over the entire travel schedule with Poulin to see if the players had any objections to the travel arrangements. "I wonder how many other players around the league have input into something like that," says Poulin. "Everything Keenan does is designed to make it easier for us to keep our minds on hockey."
And teamwork. Team this, team that, team everything. The Flyers have no individual bonuses for scoring 40 goals, or whatever—won't even discuss them. Instead they have team bonuses, all divvied out after convenient little 10-game segments so that the 80-game season doesn't seem the eternity that, in fact, it is. The Flyers get bonuses for allowing fewer than three goals a game; bigger bonuses for allowing 2.75 goals or fewer; bonuses for wins, for shutouts, for points. That's $500 here, $250 there. Last season they made close to $15,000 a man reaching the benchmarks Keenan had set for them. All for one and one for all—a concept that flattens individual egos but raises team consciousness. "This team is made up of traded players, late-round draft picks and free agents," says Keenan. "The common thread—and I know this sounds corny—is hard work. Every one of them has had to work hard to get to play at this level."
Only two of the current Flyers—Brian Propp and Ron Sutter—were drafted in the first round by Philadelphia, and neither was thought to be much more than a good, honest forward. Six of the Flyers arrived by trade, meaning that somebody had given up on them; six others were signed as free agents, including two-time 50-goal scorer Tim Kerr, who leads the league with 21 so far this season. The rest were draft choices ranging from the second to the seventh rounds—not exactly bonus babies.
Poulin is a classic case in point. Undrafted after a fine career at Notre Dame—he is that school's fifth-leading alltime scorer—he had accepted a job with Procter & Gamble. But in early June of 1982 Ted Sator, now coach of the New York Rangers, gave Poulin a call and asked if he wanted to play in Stockholm, Sweden, where Sator was coaching a Division I team called Rogle. Poulin recalls, "I was getting married and I thought, 'Why not? What a great honeymoon.' " So Poulin put P&G on hold and went. After Rogle's season ended in February, Poulin, at Sator's urging, tried out for the Maine Mariners, the Flyers' top farm club, and was signed to a free-agent contract. He was called up to the Flyers with two games remaining in the 1982-83 season and scored on his first NHL shift, later adding a shorthanded goal in that same game. "I didn't know a soul," Poulin says. "I'd never even been to a tryout camp."
He has been the guts of the Flyers ever since, their prototypical forward—hardworking, hard-checking, none too fancy with the puck. "We're not a great one-on-one hockey team," he says. "We're not going to win a lot of games with Denis Savard-type moves. But sometimes it helps to know your limitations."
Whereas the old Flyers favored fisticuffs, these Flyers "try to intimidate you with their work ethic," says current Chicago co-coach Roger Neilson. They usually succeed. Shaking off the aftershock of four straight losses to the Oilers in the Cup finals, the Flyers started this season 12-2. They were not merely playing in midseason form; it was playoff-style hockey, and they had a 10-game winning streak to show for it after a 5-3 win over the Bruins in the Spectrum on Saturday, Nov. 9. There were four days off before the next game. Then came the accident.
Lindbergh was a car freak. The turbocharged Porsche 930 that he crashed into a retaining wall early Sunday morning in Somerdale, N.J. has the reputation of being the closest thing to a race car that you can buy for the streets. Lindbergh had been drinking. The accident occurred at 5:41 a.m. Most of the Flyers were at the hospital by 10. Lindbergh was brain dead, hooked up to a respirator. His mother and fiancée, Kerstin Pietzsch, were there; his father was flying over from Sweden. It would be Tuesday before the decision would be made to donate Lindbergh's organs to the living and unhook his body from the machines.
The Flyers were together almost constantly the three days following the accident. Monday's optional practice became mandatory, and afterward everyone went to Keenan's home for lunch. On Sunday they had gone to Poulin's. "They were essentially group therapy sessions," says Poulin. "Talking things out that usually go unexpressed and would have remained unexpressed had we been alone. So many of the players were confused. It was easier to go through it as a group."
The first thing that had to be reconciled, of course, was the loss of Lindbergh as a friend. After that came the realization—and this was the team thing again—that the Flyers' strong suit, goal-tending, was suddenly no longer that. Lindbergh was last season's Vezina Trophy winner (with a 3.02 goals-against average) and was voted the Flyers' MVP.
There was some comfort in the knowledge that Lindbergh's backup, Bob Froese—a free agent signed by the Flyers in 1981 after the St. Louis Blues had cut him—is generally considered the best second-string goalie in hockey. His career won-lost record now stands at a phenomenal 65-20-9, and he has the second-lowest career goals-against average (2.84) of any active goaltender. However, at a morning practice just hours before the private memorial service for Lindbergh that the Flyers would attend, Froese was hit in the groin with a puck. The shot shattered his protective cup, and after the workout Froese began to pass blood. He could not play for at least a week. "That's when we began to wonder if we were being tested," recalls Poulin.
On Thursday the Flyers were playing the champion Oilers, the first meeting of the season between the Stanley Cup finalists. What should have been a highlight of the regular season for both teams had turned into a grim but necessary chore. Philadelphia had to call up from Hershey yet another free-agent signee, rookie goalie Darren Jensen, who responded to the emotional evening—which began with a 22-minute ceremony honoring Lindbergh—by backstopping the Flyers to a dramatic 5-3 victory. It was remarkably therapeutic. "No one knew what to expect, including us," says Poulin. "But we're hockey players and are most comfortable in our own environment, which is a hockey rink, rather than a hospital or a chapel."
Everyone expected an emotional letdown to follow, but the Flyers won their 12th straight game that Saturday in Hartford, beating the Whalers 5-2, and on the flight home Keenan, so proud of his young team that his eyes misted over when talking about it, helped the stewardesses serve meals. The Flyers won their 13th straight the next night against the Islanders—a club record that tied (with Boston) the third-longest winning streak in NHL history—by overcoming 3-0 and 4-1 deficits to triumph in overtime. "Philly taught us a lesson in this game," the Isles' John Tonelli said afterward. "They were down three goals twice and never gave up."
"The way they've faced the tragic loss of someone they loved and respected has been an inspiration to everyone in the community," says Keenan. "The tragedy didn't really add to this team's character. The character was always there. The only difference is that now it's public."
The Flyers finally lost on Nov. 19, to the Islanders, their streak ending two games short of the Isles' NHL record of 15 consecutive wins. Falling behind 5-1 early in the second period, Philadelphia rallied to 7-6 before a last-second open-net goal by Bryan Trottier cemented the Flyers' first defeat since Oct. 17. It had been a gallant run. "Games can be good therapy," says defenseman Brad Marsh. "As a team, we're basically over Pelle's death, but during the year it's going to continue to hit us as individuals."
By week's end, Froese had returned to the goal—shutting out Hartford 3-0 in his first game back, then playing erratically in the Flyers' 5-4 loss to Boston Saturday. On Sunday night, with Jensen again in goal, the Flyers overwhelmed Pittsburgh 7-4 in the Spectrum as Paulin scored a hat trick.
So, it is business as usual on ice for this remarkable team. "The saddest part," said Marsh, "is we're going to go on and win a couple of Cups, and Pelle's going to miss it."