Book Review: Pelle Lindbergh "Behind the White Mask"
Paperback: 350 pages
Publisher: Middle Atlantic Press (September 2009)
First and foremost, I’m not a fan of Philadelphia Flyers. As far as I’m concerned they epitomize the thuggery and intimidation tactics that detract from the real skill of hockey. Need proof? Here’s a cast of characters that will certainly prove my point, Dave Schultz, Bobby Clarke, Ed Van Impe, Ron Hextall & Chris Pronger.
Sure, every team has players that are less than reputable. However, the Flyers have had an inordinate number in their history. Yet, throughout their history, there have been exceptions to this rule, Bernie Parent, Mark Howe, Mark Recchi and of course Pelle Lindbergh.
I must admit because of his association with the Flyers, I was never a Pelle Lindbergh fan. His death on November 11th, 1985 did not have a lasting impact on my childhood. Of course, I was sad to have heard of his death, but it ended at that (just like any chance of the Flyers winning a Stanley Cup in the 1980s or early 1990s).
As we know, on the evening of November 10, 1985, Pelle drove his customized Porsche 930 Turbo (containing an illegal engine) into a wall in front of a Somerdale, New Jersey, elementary school, fatally injuring himself and also injuring two others. The medical staff at the hospital kept him on life support until his father, Sigge, arrived from Sweden to say his final goodbye. Law enforcement disclosed that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident, with a blood alcohol content level of .24%, well above .10%, which was New Jersey's legal limit at the time.
I was looking forward to reading this book, an edited translation of the original Swedish version, and I was not disappointed. This is a compelling story and I found it difficult to put the book down. I particularly liked the structure of the book. The book is divided into alternating chapters starting off with the accounts leading up to the accident and the information about the accident itself in the odd numbered chapters. In the even numbered chapters, Pelle’s youth and ascendancy with the Flyers is recounted. This was a clever method to tell his story. At the end, there is a recap of Pelle’s career statistics and a “where are they now” list of the characters.
The chapters telling of Pelle’s young life in Sweden, his love of Hammarby IF, interactions with his family, his love of the Philadelphia Flyers and respect for Bernie Parent is emotive. From humble beginnings Pelle was the apple of his father’s eye. Family was, and I’m sure still is, very important to the Lindbergh’s and this theme is continued throughout the book. The book’s portrayal of Pelle as a caring, confident and dedicated young man is touching. He is a likeable figure, someone that you want to see succeed. It’s a glowing tribute to such a talent. I found this part of the book not only informative but also helpful in contextualizing the Swede’s career.
The issue that I have with the book concerns the chapters detailing the accident in 1985. In many ways, the title of the book could have been, "An Exoneration of Pelle Lindbergh”. Time after time, it is mentioned that Pelle hardly ever drank and that he knew that he drove too fast, but it was ok because he was a “good driver”.
“When I wanted to drink wine, he took a glass of milk,”
Kerstin Pietzsch (Pelle’s fiancée) (page 95)
“Pelle was conscientious when it was hockey season,”
Rolf Ridderwall (fellow Swedish goalie) adds. “I can hardly recall him even tasting a glass of wine…” (page 95)
“Pelle does enjoy going out to pubs, both in-season and over the summer, but rarely drinks alcohol during hockey season…. In the 1970s, he took part in a public service campaign to promote responsible drinking.”
Thomas Eriksson (fellow Swede and Flyers teammate). (page 127)
“We sometimes were out three nights a week and had a hell of a good time, but Pelle almost never drank anything – not a drop!”
Al Morganti (reporter) (page 163)
“It’s strange that he would drink before taking his Porsche. He was (usually) so careful about that”
Kerstin (page 245)
Somehow by repeating these two notions and interspersing the compelling tale of his youth, the reader is led down a road to perhaps ‘excuse’ Pelle for his indiscretions. Whether or not this was the intent of the authors, I’m not sure, but nevertheless, this is what I gleaned from the book. I’d be interested in hearing how the authors would address this accusation. Both are easily found on Facebook: Bill Meltzer and Thomas Tynander.
Meltzer and Tynander provided great insight to the Flyers team of 1985. It was interesting to see how the various characters were portrayed in this time of great distress. Mike Keenan comes across just as you would expect, a real jerk. He drove the Flyers hard during their time of mourning and was steadfast in not showing outward emotion. Rick Tocchet, who was one of the dirtiest players I’ve ever seen, played a role in Pele’s death when he didn’t stop him from getting behind the wheel to drive home. Tocchet’s indiscretions continued, and in 2006 it was revealed through an undercover police investigation known as “Operation Slapshot”, that Tocchet was a key player in an illegal nationwide gambling ring while coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. On the other side, Dave Poulin, the captain, is portrayed as a stabilizing and caring individual. He played a year of hockey in Sweden prior to joining the Flyers and had a unique bond with Lindbergh. After reading the actions of Poulin, who is now an executive with the Maple Leafs, I have a new found respect for him. Lastly, I thoroughly enjoyed how the authors detailed the unique relationship between Pelle and Bernie Parent throughout the book.
In retrospect, I find it difficult to look beyond the hard facts surrounding the death of Pelle Lindbergh. Despite the fact that 25 years ago there was less of a social stigma associated drunk driving, this does not change the fact that simply put, Pelle Lindbergh was a drunk driver on the night of November 9th, 1985. He was responsible for his own death and the substantial injuries suffered by Ed Parvin Jr. and Kathy McNeal. Though I don’t believe that his death detracts from his on ice accomplishments, which were extensive and accurately accounted in this book, his prowess on the ice in no way vindicates his actions off the ice.
For a video tribute to Pelle Lindbergh, check out this video on YouTube.
Rating 4/5 Pucks