When I was a kid, I played Little League with Borje Salming’s son.
This was around the time Salming was the only good thing about the Toronto Maple Leafs. He would come to most games. He always wore the same thing – blue jeans, T-shirt and a puffer vest. I’d never seen a puffer vest before and wouldn’t again for another decade. Even back then, Swedes were way ahead of the rest of us.
He was a quiet, gentle presence who’d sit in the stands pretending every single person at the baseball diamond wasn’t not-so-secretly staring at him. This wasn’t some fancy rep team. This was a house league filled with the kids of waitresses and machinists.
Once the game ended, Salming would sign autographs for any child that asked. I had mine on the bill of my ballcap. It’s the only autograph I’ve ever asked for.
What I remember most about Salming were his arms. Thick, ropey, veiny. The arms of someone who could crush rocks. I grew up with men who did hard labour, but none of them had arms like that. Salming seemed to grade-school-aged me a sort of Superman.
I suspect a lot of people thought the same thing about him. That’s why this weekend’s commemoration of Salming in Toronto was especially poignant. It is one thing for your heroes to leave forever. It is another to watch them go.
What is the great image of the past 20 years of Leafs’ history?
I’m not sure what it was last week, but I know what it is now. It’s Salming, 71, in the advanced stages of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), still more dapper than any contemporary, being escorted by former Leafs captains onto the ice at Scotiabank Arena.
Simply appearing would have been a moment. But the scene’s pathos was amplified by one of his escorts – Darryl Sittler – in floods of tears. Sittler represented emotion, while the man on the other side of Salming, Mats Sundin, was stoicism.
Here were the two sides of the man being honoured, neither of which he can properly show any more because of his disease. It was so perfect, it ought to have been painted rather than broadcast.
Then Sittler lifted up Salming’s right arm so that he could acknowledge the crowd’s salute. An indelible memory created by two Toronto giants. Maybe better than any they made in their long, Hall of Fame careers. Up in the stands, panning cameras caught several fans of a certain age with wet eyes.
Just about everything that happens in a sports arena these days is contrived and hopelessly self-reverential. Here was something organic, generous and universal. You didn’t need to know who any of these people were to feel affected by it.
This, not trophies, is what separates iconic sports franchises from the rest. The Leafs have not been a great hockey team in a very long time. Considering their natural advantages, they have been so consistently mediocre that it might be sabotage.
Salming, a defenceman, was there for the beginning and middle of that. He was a remarkable player, but on some deeper level, his presence was a downer. You’d watch Salming, and then you’d watch everyone else in blue and white, and one of those things was not like the others.
The Leafs have spent 40 years congratulating themselves for going all the way to Sweden to find Salming. They talk about it so much, you’d think they got there in a rowboat. But you can’t help but think, “So you got on an airplane. Congratulations. Since you were already there, couldn’t you have stayed a couple more weeks and found five others like him?”
But even while losing in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Salming was reconfiguring the Leafs legend. If they couldn’t be a winner any more, the Leafs would be a scrappy loser. It took him a while, but Salming finally figured out how to get other NHLers to stop hitting him – hit them first.
If Wendel Clark came to embody the idea of the Leaf who would not submit, Salming originated the role. This poor, handsome Scandinavian kid who came all the way over here to get his face carved up on the regular. Not only that, but he stayed. He stayed for 16 years on a team that couldn’t organize a one-car motorcade. In a city full of immigrants and immigrants’ children, that meant something.
I don’t give the Leafs credit for having any special insight when it comes to hockey, but they are masters of symbology.
Somehow, they have imbibed the lesson understood by great institutions – you don’t have to be good, as long as you have history and a sense of occasion. How do you think the British monarchy survives?
This heightened sensibility has never been more apparent than in the choice to honour Salming now, while it still matters. All of us would like to attend our own funeral, so that we could hear all the nice things the people who love us might say. The Leafs gave someone that chance.
Then they let everyone else be a small part of it.
There is something cruel and tender about the fact that Salming, while suffering from Lou Gehrig’s disease, gets his own Lou Gehrig moment. I wonder if he felt this weekend as the New York Yankees’ Gehrig did when he addressed the crowd at Yankee Stadium nearly 100 years ago. Did Salming “never receive anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans”? Was it a “privilege” to associate himself “with such fine-looking young men as are standing in uniform … today”? Looking back on it from a distance, does he think of himself as “the luckiest man on the face of the Earth”?
One cannot know, but that’s how it looked to me back in Little League, and that’s how I choose to see it now.