Life After Hockey

Philadelphia Flyers of the ’80s united in spite of tragedy

Ilkka Sinnisalo
Ilkka Sinnisalo is the fifth member of the Philadelphia Flyers from the '80s to pass away prematurely. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, April 5, Philadelphia Flyers fans of a certain age once again felt the familiar and discomfiting jolt of sadness surrounding the death of a popular former player. Ilkka Sinisalo, at just 58 years old, died in his native Finland following a prolonged battle with prostate cancer.

“Ilkka was a true friend and loyal member of the Flyers,” said Flyers team president Paul Holmgren in a statement released shortly after the announcement. “He gave a great deal of his time, effort and talents to the organization in several capacities as a player and long-time scout to bring this franchise success on and off the ice.

“Most important to all that knew him, he was a great person, a loving husband, father and grandfather. His presence and friendship will be deeply missed by all that knew him. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife of over 35 years, Carina, his sons Niklas and Tomas, as well as Tomas’ wife, Maija and their children Peter and Matilda.”

Sinisalo spent the first nine years of his 11-season NHL career in Philadelphia. He was the club’s first Finnish player and its first significant European presence. He is still the only member of the franchise to score his first goal on a penalty shot, in just his second North American appearance, Oct. 11, 1981 against the Penguins.

A fluid skater who possessed a keen sense of the ice, Sinisalo boasted a wicked shot as a left-hander often positioned on the right side. He went on to accumulate 199 goals and 408 points — still the most in franchise history for a European player.

In 1985-86, Sinisalo, alongside Tim Kerr, set another still-standing team record by combining for 53 power-play goals.

Following the end of his playing career back home, and a stint as a GM with Kiekko-Espoo, Sinisalo returned to the Flyers organization as a European scout beginning in the summer of 2004.

From the core group that gave thousands of fans a thrill and many more dreams of Stanley Cup glory from 1984 through ’89, there are five players who have since passed away: Pelle Lindbergh (November 1985), Miroslav “Cookie” Dvorak (June 2008), Peter Zezel (May 2009), Brad McCrimmon (September 2011) and Sinisalo. Fortunately, Brian Propp continues his recovery from the sudden, debilitating stroke he suffered in September of 2015.

Ilkka Sinnisalo

The Flyers core group from the ’80s was met with unspeakable tragedy when Pelle Lindbergh perished in an auto wrech during the 1985-86 season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

This was another shock to the system. If you are over 40, looking to the skies and cursing no one in particular while asking when the wave of misfortune will skip this team and visit someone else, you are not alone. Sinisalo, one of millions of born-and-raised pragmatic Scandinavian stock, was felled by a disease that robbed him of the chance to get close to his native country’s average life expectancy for men of 78.3 years (per World Health Rankings).

And with the 30th anniversary of the monumental Flyers-Oilers Stanley Cup Final coming up, it is rueful to note how the powerhouse Oilers won that seven-game series while totally healthy — and three decades later, have similarly been untouched by the loss of former players in the intervening years.

During the rush following the Flyers-Penguins alumni game in Philadelphia on Jan. 14, the one guy who seemed to be asked most of the questions — and who gave the most expansive, thoughtful answers — was former Philadelphia captain Dave Poulin, one of the few college graduates (Notre Dame) in the bunch who was also one of the few who has worked in an NHL front office.

Poulin is no stranger to the vagaries of life and the struggles of its continuation. Prior to the 1986-87 season, after all the emotion that got swept along in the wake of Lindbergh’s untimely death the year before, he and wife Kim had to grit their teeth through months of uncertainty surrounding twin daughters Taylor and Lindsay after their premature birth.

The captain’s words to reporters that night hold a more bitter and poignant ring: “We are far too young to have so many of us not here.”

Poulin made that statement while flanked by Propp and Tim Kerr, with Murray Craven silently, patiently waiting just outside the locker room. It was not lost on anyone that he was speaking about men in their late 50s and early 60s, far removed from their time of glory but given pause at the failure of nature to provide the expectation of many quality years ahead.

Ilkka Sinnisalo, Brad McCrimmon

The late Brad McCrimmon was tasked with trying to stifle Wayne Gretzky when the Flyers met the Oilers in both the 1985 and 1987 Stanley Cup Finals. (Photo by B Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

Sometimes, as fans and professionals who have followed the career arcs of our favorite players, there is a denial of reality in accepting the passage of time. We look at the two sides of a trading card, watch a video, dig out a photo and believe that these moments should be frozen in time. Then we look at the older gentleman in the press box, in the elevator or on the dais and have a difficult time processing the truth.

It’s even harder to accept, given that no other NHL team whose players were around in that same period, have been over-served by the mysterious ways in which life can be shortened. The Red Wings (Bob Probert, Shawn Burr and Steve Chiasson) and Blues (Doug Wickenheiser, Mark Reeds, Todd Ewen), are the Flyers’ only contemporaries who come close to feeling this same sting of cruel fate.

At the January alumni event, Poulin went on to add, in contrast with the iconic blackboard quote from former coach Fred Shero about his back-to-back Cup champions of 1974 and 1975 winning together today and walking together forever: “We went to the finals a couple times. So we lost the third period to Edmonton? Does that make you any different? You lost to some of the greatest players in the world. In our eyes, we’re walking together.”

Nowhere was that more evident than when Lindbergh’s ex-fiancee stood in his place last December during Goalies Night, warmly welcomed by all the first time she had returned to Philadelphia in more than three decades. Flyers and Hockey Hall of Fame member Mark Howe pushed for more legitimate action on his former defense partner McCrimmon’s behalf in the wake of the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl air disaster six years ago.

And still others – now a bit too late — have rediscovered and recalled Sinisalo as one of the most underrated cogs in the machinery which made those mid-’80s Flyers hum. We all should be mindful to celebrate the living members of that legacy before hockey heaven receives a full lineup from the Orange and Black.

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Bob Herpen

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