A European History of the Philadelphia Flyers (Part 3 of 7)

By Bill Meltzer

Part III: Ilkka and the Pelles
By the time Miro Dvorak joined the Flyers from Czechoslovakia, the Flyers had already begun to reap their first dividends of European scouting, landing their first players from Scandinavia and Finland. (In hockey terms, “Scandinavian” scouting really means scouting in Sweden because Norway and Denmark (and Iceland) are minor hockey countries. Although often classified as such, Finland is not a Scandinavian country). The early history of Flyers efforts in Finland and Sweden Finland will be recounted separately.

The whole of Flyers history in regard to drafting and/or signing Finnish players remains rather limited even to this day. In the two decades since Swedes and Finns started to be selected regularly in the NHL draft, the Flyers have made only six total entry draft selections from Finland. Moreover, to date, only two Finns have ever worn a Flyers uniform in a regular season or playoff game. For over a decade, the entire history of Finnish Flyers could literally have been summed up in one name: Ilkka Sinisalo.

Unselected in the NHL draft, the former HIFK winger was signed by the Flyers in 1981 as an undrafted rookie free agent, a practice that is now forbidden for European players under the NHL collective bargaining agreement. Sinisalo turned out to be one of the most underrated two-way players in the NHL during the 1980s. A fine penalty killer, a smooth skater, and a solid offensive contributor with good wrist and backhand shots, Sinisalo was a largely overlooked, but important player for the Flyers throughout the 1980s, which included a pair of trips to Cup Finals in the mid-1980s. During his nine season stay in Philadelphia, Sinisalo set the standard as the Flyers all-time leading European goal scorer and top plus-minus player. Today, Ilkka is the general manager of the Espoo Blues club in Finland’s SM-Liiga. (Incidentally, Sinisalo also later became the landlord in the Helsinki apartment where the second Finnish Flyer, Janne Niinimaa, resided while he was living in the Finnish capital).

If Ilkka Sinisalo was the only Finnish name to know on the Flyers during the 1980s, there was also a single Swedish name that stood out above the all others for the Flyers during the same period: Per-Erik. That’s Per-Erik as in Per-Erik “Pelle” Lindbergh and Per-Erik “Pelle” Eklund. It’s not that the two Pelles were the lone Swedish Flyers during the 1980s. Defenseman Thomas Eriksson was the first European player to suit up in an NHL game for the Flyers and had some nice moments of his own during his non-continuous 200+ game time in Philadelphia. Defenseman Kjell Samuelsson was acquired from the Rangers in a trade for goaltender Bob Froese during the 1986-87 season and went on to have two separate strong stints with Philly. However, Lindbergh and Eklund arguably represented the pinnacle of the Flyers drafting efforts in Europe during the late 1970s and early 1980s (remember that Sinisalo was initially signed as an undrafted player). As such, Lindbergh and Eklund deserve special mention above all the others.

Pelle Lindbergh, the goaltender for AIK and the Swedish national team, idolized Flyers Hall of Fame goalie Bernie Parent. He wore a mask like Parent’s, studied Bernie’s stand-up positioning, and adopted many of Parent’s after-the-whistle mannerisms. As a result of his affinity for Parent, Lindbergh adopted the Flyers as his favorite NHL team. Unaware that the Flyers were scouting him, Lindbergh was stunned— and thrilled— when the Flyers made him their second round selection in the 1979 entry draft (after Brian Propp, another player who went on to be a crucial force on the club during the 1980s). Lindbergh went on to play a fine tournament in the 1980 Winter Olympics, during which time his Swedish club was the lone team that the “Miracle on Ice” Team USA squad did not defeat in the tournament (Team USA got a come-from-behind tie against Sweden).

Joining the Flyers organization before the 1980-1981 season, Lindbergh did not realize that there were still significant obstacles in front of him before he could become a regular goalie in the NHL. The first and foremost roadblock was that, although there were by this point quite a few position players who had become at least regular starters in the NHL, there had not yet been a single European goaltender who had successfully staked down a regular NHL job. Previous top Swedish goaltenders, such Leif “Honken” Holmqvist and Christer Abrahamsson, were never considered as serious candidates for NHL jobs. Instead, they took their shots at North American hockey in the renegade World Hockey Association. Hardy Åström got a brief look-see with the New York Rangers and then became a split-time starter for the awful Colorado Rockies, for whom he won a total of 15 games in two years (against 42 losses and 12 ties). So, while Lindbergh’s talents were undeniable, he and the Flyers would have to be trendsetters if Pelle were to become the Flyers goaltender of the future.

Lindbergh spent the entire 1980-81 season and most of the 1981-82 season with the Flyers affiliate in the American Hockey League, the Maine Mariners. Finally, in 1982-83, Lindbergh got an extended shot with the Flyers and outplayed Rick St. Croix to claim the starter’s job. From his first full season, Lindbergh showed frequent flashes of the brilliance that lay ahead, although there were missteps along the way. Pelle and the entire Flyers team stumbled badly in the postseason, going out quickly in the first round to the New York Rangers. The following year, Lindbergh struggled with his timing and confidence for much of the season, and the Flyers went out in the first round once again.

Things changed in a big way for the Flyers in 1984-85. Ed Snider began phasing himself out and phasing in his son, Jay, as the team president. Longtime general manager Keith Allen was moved upstairs. Bob Clarke retired as a player and became the new general manager. Finally, Clarke hired a fiery young junior coach, Mike Keenan, to coach what was the youngest team in the NHL. Through all this upheaval, a young goaltender named Per-Erik Lindbergh emerged as the best keeper in the NHL.

How good was Lindbergh in the 1984-85 season? The young Flyers were an exciting and gritty team, always playing on the raw edge of emotion. As a result, however, outside of a few key players (Mark Howe, Dave Poulin, Tim Kerr), they were also a bunch that was prone to losing its composure. Lindbergh was the glue that held the team together, getting them through 2-on-1 rushes caused by offensive anxiousness and 5-on-3 shorthanded straits caused by undisciplined penalties. Viewed by late 1990s standards, Lindbergh’s Vezina Trophy winning statistics from 1984-85 might seem unimpressive. Realize, though, that this was in the middle of the highest scoring era in hockey. It is probable that the scoring levels attained during the offensive explosion of the 1980s, especially by the hockey version of Murderer’s Row that was assembled in Edmonton, will not be seen again for many years. To properly compare mid-1980s-early 1990s goaltending stats against those from the mid to late 1990s, shave about 1.10 goals against per game and add at least a full one and a half tenths of a point to save percentage statistics.

As great as he was in the regular season, Lindbergh cranked his game up even further in the 1985 playoffs. He was the number one reason the Flyers broke free from their playoff doldrums and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals, stealing game one against the otherworldly Oilers squad before succumbing to their superior talent. In the offseason, Lindbergh was awarded the Vezina Trophy, which was presented to him by his idol, Flyers goaltending coach Bernie Parent.

Lindbergh got off to a fine start in the 1985-86 season, playing brilliantly in six of his first eight starts. On the night of November 10, 1986, Lindbergh made a terrible mistake in judgment, getting behind the wheel of his Porsche after a night of drinking with teammates. He died in a car crash, leaving his teammates, the city of Philadelphia, and the nation of Sweden (hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike), stunned and devastated. It was not just that Lindbergh was arguably the best goaltender in the world at the time of his death. He was also one of the most friendly and accommodating people in the entire sports world. He was almost impossible to dislike; never in bad mood. It was a Herculean task for the Flyers to pick up the pieces and get their minds back on hockey after Lindbergh died.

Helping the Flyers along in the on-ice healing process during the 1985-86 season was a promising rookie, originally selected by Keith Allen in the eight round of the 1983 draft. Coincidentally, like Lindbergh, the new Flyer was also named Per-Erik and had come to the Flyers via AIK Solna; one Per-Erik “Pelle” Eklund. Eklund was a pure speedster and a brilliant playmaker. He had become wildly popular with AIK fans in Stockholm. In fact, when it was announced in the summer of 1985 that Eklund would be leaving AIK to join the Philadelphia Flyers, the notorious AIK “Black Army” fan club was determined not it let it happen. They even went so far as to organize a demonstration outside the American embassy in Stockholm. (One can only imagine how bewildered the embassy workers must have been at the site of this particular demonstration. American embassies have been sites for many demonstrations— and worse— over the years but the “Keep Pelle Eklund in AIK” protest surely ranks among the oddest causes that has aroused a protest rally in front of their gates!)

Eklund was not as quickly beloved by Keenan as he had been by the AIK fans. Keenan loved his speed and his passing ability, especially on the powerplay, but he also viewed the diminutive player as being soft physically and far too hesitant to shoot the puck even when he had open shots. As a result, Keenan generally confined Eklund to 4th line and powerplay duty. However, with the likes of Mark Howe, Tim Kerr, Tim Kerr and Ilkka Sinisalo already assembled for the man advantage, the spectacular playmaking of Eklund made it all come together. The Flyers powerplay was nothing short of deadly with Howe at the point, Kerr in front of the net, and Eklund threading the needle. Despite limited even strength playing time, Eklund racked up 51 assists and 66 points in 70 games during his rookie year. Keenan kept him in largely the same role during his sophomore season. But Eklund exploded into his own during the 1987 postseason. Backstopped by outstanding rookie goalie Ron Hextall, the Flyers came even closer to winning the Cup in 1987 than they did with Lindbergh’s 1985 team. This time, they stretched Edmonton to a full seven games in the Finals, despite playing with an injury depleted lineup. Eklund, Propp, and Rick Tocchet were the forwards who picked up most of the slack during the 1987 playoffs, carrying much of the load for the team.

It seemed that every time you looked up during the 1987 playoffs, Eklund was blowing by another defenseman to go in all alone. For a little while, at least, Eklund lost his reticence about shooting the puck. Unfortunately for Pelle, his 1987 playoff run raised expectations for him to levels he was not prepared to meet. Eklund still loved the art of passing first and foremost. While his coaches and fans were thrilled with all the assists he racked up each year, they always craved more of his goals, which were often spectacular. Despite these frustrations with Eklund, Keenan eventually came to have confidence in the player. During the last season under Keenan (1987-88) and then during the Flyers coaching tenures of Paul Holmgren and Bill Dineen, Eklund came to see regular even-strength ice time at both center and left wing and even started to see time on the penalty killing units. By the time Eklund was traded to Dallas during the 1993-94 season, he had become the all-time leader in both assists and points among European-born Flyers players. He ranks 7th on the Flyers overall all-time assist list and 5th in assists by a Flyers center. Pelle finished out his active career with a five year stint with Leksand IF in Sweden. He retired at the end of the 1998-99 season.

(Next Week: Part IV: The First Clarke Administration)