Bob Froese has wanted to be the starting goaltender on a National Hockey League team for as long as he can remember. And now he is, through the worst circumstances imaginable.
"I can't be Pelle Lindbergh," Froese said Monday, after it was learned that Lindbergh would not survive a Sunday morning car crash (he was declared dead Tuesday night). "I can only be Bob Froese. I know I can play and I have confidence in the players around me. Hopefully, we can draw strength from each other and keep going."
Lindbergh was the Flyers' 26-year-old, Vezina Trophy-winning goalie. He was the star on a team without many others. The team that was supposed to be an also-ran last season in the Patrick Division won more games (53) during the regular season than any other, including the Edmonton Oilers, and Lindbergh was in the nets for 40 of them. The Oilers beat the Flyers, 4-1, in the Stanley Cup finals, winning four in a row after Lindbergh had held them to one goal in the opener.
Thursday will be the first game for the Flyers since Lindbergh's death. The Spectrum was sold out long ago because this is the Oilers' only regular-season visit. Unfortunately, Wayne Gretzky will not be the focus of attention.
"It's going to take awhile to think about hockey again," Froese said.
But think about it, he must. While the Oilers were noble enough to offer to postpone the game, once play begins, business is business. With more goals this year than any team in the league, the Oilers are a goalie's nightmare any evening. But Froese and his teammates have been living a bad dream all week.
Although arrangements are not final, Lindbergh's funeral will be in Sweden, but members of the Flyers organization attended a private memorial service this afternoon. There will be a memorial before the game Thursday.
Reminders of Lindbergh are everywhere. His likeness is on the cover of the media guide, and by coincidence, his picture is on tickets for the game. American and Swedish flags at the Spectrum were at half mast, and the big electric sign out front read "Pelle."
But Froese doesn't need to go to the Spectrum to be reminded of Lindbergh. At the Flyers' practice facility, Lindbergh's dressing room stall is directly in front of you as walk through the locker room door. All that remained today was his nameplate and a small Swedish flag.
The goalies had been competitors since 1981 when they played together in the minors at Maine, and then with the Flyers from 1982 until Sunday. "We had professional respect between us," Froese said. "Pelle said he could never understand my brain. He didn't know how I could sit on the bench so long and come in and play. I told him I'd trade that for his reflexes."
They also were friends. "We became real close last season during the playoffs when Pelle was on his ear, playing so well," Froese said. "We talked a lot. Pelle had a great outlook on life and he kept things in perspective."
In only 17 games last year, Froese had a 13-2 record, and this season he is 6-0 (the team has 12 wins), with a 2.67 goals against average.
"As a team we have the utmost confidence in Bob Froese," defenseman Brad Marsh said. "He played behind Pelle and Pelle got a lot of the publicity, but Bob Froese is probably one of the better goalies in the league and he's gonna do the job."
Froese will be under a microscope, particularly from the critical Philadelphia fans. "Bob's being asked to step into a situation that no other athlete has ever experienced," said Flyers Coach Mike Keenan. "I'm confident he will respond."