by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

As a kid in Philadelphia, I played a lot of ice hockey. It came with the territory. The Flyers were the only winning team in town. So if you wanted to feel good, you put on skates, grabbed a stick and picked a Flyer to call your own.

In those days, it was Bernie Parent, the star goalie, whose name was invoked most often. You would stand in the net and a puck would come zipping in, and in your mind’s eye you saw yourself as Parent, the last seconds of the game ticking away, and a surge of adrenaline coursed through your veins and for the briefest of moments you were him — and you slapped away the puck and screamed, “What a save! Bernie Parent!” just like a radio announcer.

Play acting. The ground floor of hero worship. Certain players just inspired it. Parent was one. Pelle Lindbergh was another.

He was just 26, but he had inherited the job that once belonged to Parent, and he was great, leading the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals last year. Many ranked him as the NHL’s best goalie.

And as late as last week, on the same ice where we once played, kids were slapping away pucks while shouting his name. They are quiet now.

Early Sunday morning, on his way home from drinking at an after-hours club, Lindbergh slammed his red Porsche 930 turbo into a schoolyard wall in Somerdale, N.J.

He is dead. His two passengers are hospitalized.

When they peeled away the wreck, red paint was imbedded into the concrete. It’s still there. On a school wall. Call it the goodby lesson. His death is not heroic

There is no question Lindbergh was driving drunk — his blood alcohol content measured at twice the legal limit. Because of that, some people are saying “he got what he deserved.”

But there’s no satisfaction in this. Just as there is none in turning Lindbergh into a tragic hero. His death was not heroic. On the contrary. The horror is how very ordinary it really was.

Listen to how a coach who knew him described Lindbergh: “He was a fun-loving fella who loved to be around people. Everybody liked him. . . . He always had a fast car. He liked to drive fast.”

Sound like anyone you know? I can rattle off a dozen guys who fit the description. They work hard. They play hard. None are criminals. None are bad guys. They merely possess the right birth certificate and a set of car keys.

So before we walk away from Lindbergh’s corpse with the comfort of
“that’s him, not me,” remember he was not known as a chronic drinker. Nor was he guzzling Wild Turkey or grain alcohol the night he died. Just celebrating a victory with drinks served at your average bar. And that includes beer. The innocence we associate with that beverage — “When it’s time to relax . . . ”
“Here’s to good friends . . . ” — masks the rope we are being given to hang ourselves.

Drunk is drunk. No matter what the pedigree.

Or the age. Today, even as Lindbergh’s family mourns his death, we hear about a Michigan State basketball player named Scott Skiles, who was arrested last week for drunken driving, his second such offense. The last time he was reportedly too intoxicated to get past the letter D in the alphabet. Yet he’s back on the team after a one-game suspension — an exhibition game, at that.

The cry is that Skiles got off easy because of his status. The real crime is that with such a slap on the wrist, he may never realize how closely he was

dancing with death. And he may try it again.

If there was somehow a bridge to where Pelle Lindbergh is now, what message would he send back to Skiles? Would he listen? Tell the kids the whole story

Maybe your kids are hockey fans. Do them a favor. Tell them Pelle Lindbergh’s story. Tell them of his glories on the ice, and what he left behind off of it — a family, a pretty fiancee, an hourglass full of untapped happy moments.

Tell them how, like most of us, he was no doubt convinced that tragedy would never darken his doorstep, even as he staggered into the car for the final ride of his life. Include the gruesome ending, for it would be a grave injustice not to.

Children grow up. Some play sports. When they win, they celebrate, and if they’re old enough, like Lindbergh, they may celebrate with alcohol. That will not change. Not tomorrow, and not in years to come — when even those apple-cheeked kids playing hockey in Philly reach the age of cars and beer.

But maybe, when they sit down behind the wheel, eyes droopy and equilibrium fuzzy, that old spirit of youth will flush through them, and they’ll hear that make-believe radio announcer — “What a save! Pelle Lindbergh!”

And they’ll hand over the keys.

If there’s any good in his death, it will be in this moment. May we all be that smart when it comes.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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