I’ll be chronicling my top five list of the greatest European Flyers of all time — talking about their time with the Flyers, career legacy, and what might have been. It was tough to narrow it down to five, and there are plenty of (very) honorable mentions.
4. Pelle Lindbergh
The Broad Street Bullies, the most iconic teams that have laced up for the franchise, had many memorable players — Dave Schultz, Rick MacLeish, and Bobby Clarke are still revered by Philadelphia fans 40+ years later. Perhaps only second to Clarke in popularity was Bernie Parent. Flyers fans knew that there needed to be somebody to replace the enigmatic, Stanley Cup winning goaltender. In stepped Pelle Lindbergh.
Although he began his Flyers career during the 1981-82 season, he was perhaps always destined to be a Flyer. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, Lindbergh was an avid hockey fan, and idolized Parent and his Jacques Plante style of goaltending. He made a name for himself playing in Sweden’s top hockey league for AIK Stockholm, and was drafted by the Flyers in the second round (35th overall) in 1979. He played in the AHL briefly and, under the guidance of his idol turned mentor (and goalie coach) Bernie Parent, he made his Flyers debut in 1982 playing eight games. Though the Flyers would win the Patrick Division behind their Swedish rookie goaltender (who was named to the all-rookie team), they would run into the Denis Potvin and Mike Bossy led Islanders Dynasty in 1982-83 and lose in three games in the first round. The following year, expectations were high, and they would again be swept in the first round, this time by the Washington Capitals. It was an off year for Lindbergh, as he only posted a 0.860 save percentage. Despite the poor season, Lindbergh would bounce back and forge his legacy the following season.
The Flyers were very heavily considered to be Stanley Cup contenders in 1984-85 due to the strength of their core players Tim Kerr, Brian Propp, Mark Howe, and Dave Poulin among others. They were only behind the Gretzky led Oilers in Stanley Cup predictions, and ultimately surpassed those comparisons in the regular season. They finished with four more points than the oilers, and took the Patrick Division title. Both Kerr and Propp finished with 90+ points, and Lindbergh had himself a career year. Wearing his signature white mask, he led the NHL with 40 wins, and in doing so became the first ever European goaltender to win the Vezina trophy (the next European to win it would be Dominik Hasek). Lindbergh was named an NHL first team all-star, and set a standard practice for NHL goaltenders that stands to this day. Due to dehydration he suffered, Lindbergh was the first NHL goaltender to have a water bottle on ice, though this was of course criticized by coaches.
Behind Lindbergh’s Vezina caliber play, the Flyers looked to make some noise in the playoffs. They would best the Rangers, Islanders, and Nordiques en route to their first Stanley Cup final of the decade against the Oilers, who would ultimately win the series and the cup four games to one. This would be the first of four cups for the Gretzky, Kurri, and Messier dynasty Oilers. Due to the team’s success, there were even loftier expectations for 1985-86. The club had begun the season at 12-2-0 and the Flyers were poised for another cup run, however tragedy struck when Lindbergh was killed in a car crash in November. That season would never be the same for the Flyers, and they would ultimately lose in the first round to the Islanders.
For as tragically short as his career was, Pelle Lindbergh was a catalyst for the Flyers’ success. His goaltending was superb and while not necessarily as vital during the increasingly offensive hockey style of the 80’s, Lindbergh was a key difference maker on a young team trying to win a cup. His story is one of tragedy, but not necessarily of ‘what if’. A superb goaltender in Ron Hextall would succeed Lindbergh, and lead the Flyers to yet another matchup in the Stanley Cup with the Oilers. Perhaps even with Lindbergh then, the Flyers would not have won against the juggernaut Oilers.