Larger than Life – Still Today – Pelle Lindbergh

(Atlanta, Ga) – Twenty year ago this week (July 14, 1999), the Atlanta Thrashers named their first Head Coach, Curt Fraser. Plucked from a successful minor league coaching career by GM Don Waddell, Fraser has a successful 12-year NHL playing career that included stops in Vancouver, Chicago and Minnesota. He scored 433 points in 12 seasons and became known as a tough, smart and aggressive player.

His time in Atlanta ended predictably, he lasted 3 ½ seasons and won only 64 games for the fledging team that never won a playoff game before they departed for Winnipeg. Fraser became merely a footnote in Atlanta sports history, along with Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion who was the first-year head coach of the previously departed Atlanta Flames.

But Fraser also has another link to hockey history, this one less heralded and tinged with sadness. Fraser was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks in 1982 and spent six seasons in the windy city. His best year was the 1985/86 season when he scored 68 points in only 61 games, including 29 goals.  One of those came on a November Thursday night in Philadelphia at the Spectrum. With the Blackhawks trailing the Flyers that night 6-1, Fraser scored non-consequential power play goal in the third period to cut the lead to four, the Flyers would eventually finish the Hawks for a 6-2 win.

The Flyers were on the rise, led by first year Head Coach Mike Keenan, they lost in the Cup finals to the Edmonton Oilers a year earlier and appeared ready to win it all.  They were young, brash and had a star in the making at goalkeeper  in Swede Pelle Lindbergh. Pelle (pronounced Pelly and not like the famous soccer player) had just won the Vezina Trophy and was only getting better. 

Lindbergh had made his name known in the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid as 20-year old goalie for the Swedish National Team. In their first game against the United States, Pelle made 27 saves, many of them outstanding, but when the Americans pulled their goalie (Jim Craig), Bill Baker slid the puck past the Swede with 27 second remaining for a 2-2 tie. The Americans would proceed to win Gold (and make Miracles), but the scrappy Swedish team finished third and earned the bronze.

Five years later, Lindbergh was at the top. After the Thursday night win against Fraser and the Blackhawks, Philly hosted the Boston Bruins on Saturday at home and Keenan went with back-up goalie Bob Froese. The Flyers would be off for the next four days, so Keenan saw the game as an opportunity for Lindbergh to get a whole week of rest before facing the defending champion Oilers on November 14. The Flyers would skate to their 10th consecutive win against the Bruins with a 5-3 victory.

After the game, the celebratory mood went into the wee hours of the morning and was awoken to tragedy. Lindbergh crashed his beloved Red Porche into a wall in Somerdale, New Jersey and died later that day. The man who stood only 5’9 was larger than life. His charisma matched his talent and that  made him a generational superstar. The Flyers mourned and held together, winning four days later on home ice against the Oilers.

Lindbergh’s mentor and former coach Bernie Parent eulogized that night, “When death defeats greatness, we mourn. When death defeats youth, we mourn even more,” Parent shared to the somber and grieving audience.  There are no words to express the grief and loss the Flyer organization, the city of Philadelphia and the country of Sweden felt. Some of those wounds are still not healed to this day.

When Fraser scored that meaningless goal earlier that week, no one could dream it would be the last one Pelle would surrender. His 60th birthday was just a few weeks back (he was born on Mary 24, 1959), to those who remember him, his star is just as bright. Hockey has a way of making sure those lights stay radiant forever.

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