PHILADELPHIA – A full 4,000 miles away from the city that grew to love him, Pelle Lindbergh’s spirit lives on in the body of a teenager who has no biological connection to him.
His name is Jens Somnell. Naturally, he is a goaltender. Somnell, 14, has grown up playing in some of the same rinks that Lindbergh skated in as a youngster in Stockholm, Sweden.
Lindbergh was declared clinically dead 25 years ago on Nov. 11. He was brain-dead after a horrific car accident. He had been kept alive by machines long enough until his father, Sigge, arrived from Sweden to say goodbye to his only son.
Lindbergh’s $117,300 Porsche 930 hit a wall in Somerdale, N.J., at 5:41 a.m. doing 80 mph. Lindbergh had been drinking with his Flyers teammates at the after-hours bar above the team’s practice rink in Voorhees, N.J. His blood-alcohol level was 0.24, well above New Jersey’s legal limit of 0.10 at the time. Lindbergh was 26 years old.
Almost everything Somnell has learned about hockey, the NHL and Philadelphia has come from his mother, Kerstin Pietzsch-Somnell, who was engaged to Lindbergh and lived with him in South Jersey when he was killed.
“Every time I look at him in net, I can’t help but think of Pelle,” Pietzsch-Somnell said from Stockholm. “He isn’t as talented as Pelle yet, of course, but he is always asking questions. I tell him stories about Pelle and he knows all about him.”
No Flyer has worn Lindbergh’s No. 31 since his passing. Though it is not available, the number has not been retired by the Flyers. Jens Somnell could not have thought of a better number to wear.
After all these years, Lindbergh remains one of Sweden’s most revered hockey figures. He is right up there with Peter Forsberg, Borje Salming and Nicklas Lidstrom.
Last March, Pietzsch-Somnell made a pilgrimage back to Philadelphia for the first time since Lindbergh’s accident in November 1985. She wanted to meet with old friends, revisit favorite sites and most of all, introduce her son to the Flyers.
Pietzsch-Somnell, who married a little less than five years after Lindbergh’s death, brought her husband, Kurt, and Jens to a Flyers game.
“I wanted to show my son a little bit what my life was like,” Pietzsch-Somnell said. “Before then, he had just seen pictures and read stories about the Flyers. He was astounded by everything, from the arena to the players.”
It was on that trip that the memories – both good and bad – flooded back to Pietzsch-Somnell. She recalled what it was like to be awakened by a police officer on the morning of Lindbergh’s crash, as she was in bed waiting for him to come home.
Lindbergh was always friends with the police officers, she said.
“The policeman came and knocked on the door, and he was a friend,” Pietzsch-Somnell said. “Pelle’s mother and brother-in-law were visiting with us in South Jersey at the time, and it just didn’t sink in at first. I thought he was just in a (minor) accident. But when the policeman started to explain, I knew it was serious.”
Lindbergh’s teammate, Rick Tocchet, just 21 then, was nearly a part of the wreck. Tocchet was with Lindbergh, and friends Edward Parvin and Kathy McNeal, leaving the establishment when he realized that Lindbergh brought the Porsche, with only two seats, instead of Pietzsch-Somnell’s roomier Mercedes.
Tocchet told Parvin and McNeal to pile in. He told them he would get another ride.
“When I found out, it took me a long time to digest it,” said Tocchet, now a Flyers analyst with Comcast SportsNet. “We were all out that night. Most of the team was there. Murray Craven and myself had to go down to the hospital to identify (one of the other passengers). I went to the hospital with Brad Marsh, Murray and myself.
“It was really something that I’ll never forget.”
Parvin and McNeal survived the crash. Parvin, 28, was listed in critical condition with a fractured skull and McNeal, 22, was in stable condition with a broken pelvis and ruptured spleen and liver.
The next 36 hours, as doctors determined that Lindbergh would never recover from his injuries, were a blur for Pietzsch-Somnell. Tocchet said he doesn’t even remember the next three or four days.
Tocchet lost a teammate and a good friend. But Pietzsch-Somnell went from thinking about her pending marriage the next summer to wondering how she could cope with losing her best friend.
“You could never be bored with Pelle,” she said. “He was so full of life. He was so curious about everything. He wanted to learn about everything, especially in the United States, he wanted to learn it from you. I can remember that he always wanted to learn from people like musicians, he wanted to be in the action and he wanted to take part.”
Both Tocchet and teammate Mark Howe said they most remembered Lindbergh’s red Porsche, and “how shiny and beautiful it was.”
“He wasn’t like other goaltenders, in the sense that every day he was casual and loose,” said Howe, now the director of pro scouting for the Red Wings. “That one year (1981), he couldn’t stop a beach ball. He was sent back to Maine. He came back the next year like a totally different player. He had a great mental attitude.”
“We were a real close team,” Tocchet said. “He was just an infectious guy on our team. Everybody loved him. He was easygoing. Usually, with some goalies, you were nervous to be around. With him, you could walk on his pads, you could touch his stick. Myself as a rookie, he made me feel welcomed.”
Things were going so right for the Flyers in November 1985. They started the season 12-2-0 and were celebrating a Saturday night win over Boston, their 10th in a row. Lindbergh won the Vezina Trophy the previous season as the NHL’s top goaltender, when he carried the Flyers to a Stanley Cup finals loss to Edmonton.
“I will never forget walking out of the Spectrum that night,” Flyers chairman Ed Snider said. “I was thinking that this was the best team we ever had. I was thinking they would be even better than the Broad Street Bullies. Pelle was the backbone of the team. The contrast between that night and the next morning was extreme.”
That year, the Flyers never really recovered. The emotionally exhausted group skated to a 53-23-4 record under Mike Keenan, the best record in the Wales Conference, but fell in the first round of the playoffs.
“It was very difficult,” said Brian Propp, the team’s leading scorer. “We started off the season very well, but when you lose a friend and a rising star at the same time, it’s on your mind.”
“The world just stopped for us,” Tocchet said. “Things were going good. It just stopped everything. Looking back, I was a walking zombie.”
Now, 25 years later, Tocchet still thinks about Lindbergh occasionally. Lindbergh’s memory is honored every year with the awarding of the Pelle Lindbergh Memorial Trophy to the most improved Flyer, as voted by his teammates.
“There will be long stretches where you don’t think about him and then somebody will bring his name up and all of a sudden you start reflecting and he’ll be in your mind,” Tocchet said. “It’s almost like a DVD, your memories start spinning and all of a sudden you remember funny times in practices, jokes in the locker room, or his beautiful fiancee.”
After her life was turned upside down by one late night at the Coliseum, a red Porsche and a wall in Somerdale, Pietzsch-Somnell stayed in her and Lindbergh’s South Jersey home for the remainder of the season.
The following summer, she moved into a small apartment in Beverly Hills, Calif., with the assistance of Snider, to live near an old friend from Sweden.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she said. “It was very hard. When something like that happens, you are shocked. You feel cut off from everything else. You don’t know what to do.
“Finally, after a few years, I was ready to go home to Sweden.”
Just a year after losing Lindbergh, Pietzsch-Somnell lost her mother in what she described as “similar circumstances.” And that’s when Lindbergh’s mother stepped in.
Even after 25 years, Pietzsch-Somnell and Lindbergh’s mother, Anna-Lise, remain close. The two were just together last week. In fact, in Lindbergh’s childhood home, pictures of the Somnells’ three children hang on a wall beside pictures of Anna-Lise’s grandchildren.
In addition to Jens, Pietzsch-Somnell has two daughters, Mikaela, 20, and Petra, 18.
“We have a very special relationship,” Pietzsch-Somnell said of Anna-Lise. “Ever since my mother passed away, she has been like a second mother to me. We are very close.”
Pietzsch-Somnell said the hardest part was moving on to find someone new. She was 27, a year older than Lindbergh when he passed. They were both so young.
“I wished we had children, so that he would live on,” Pietzsch-Somnell said. “But I know that his memory still lives on. It’s hard. I still think about him. It’s upsetting. The truth is that time goes on.”
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