Borje Salming, a man whose hockey career will be remembered for class, courage, skill and toughness, died in Sweden on Thursday at age 71, five months after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
A trailblazer for fellow Swedes and other European players who followed him into the NHL, Salming was the first Swede inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in 1996. He played for the Maple Leafs for 16 seasons beginning in 1973 and for the Detroit Red Wings for one year after that.
The greatest defenceman to don a Toronto jersey, he owns a half-dozen team records and was a six-time all-star during his career.
Despite the fact that he had a terminal disease, Salming’s death came as a surprise because he had travelled to Toronto less than two weeks ago ahead of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s annual induction game. He received a standing ovation when he was introduced before the Maple Leafs and Penguins faced off on Nov. 11 and the following evening was the subject of a lengthy emotional pregame tribute at Scotiabank Arena.
Salming’s dear friend and former teammate, Darryl Sittler, accompanied him onto the ice and helped him raise one hand to recognize the cheers that rained down. Tears flowed in the stands and from Salming’s eyes as well.
“You don’t have a soul if you weren’t moved by that,” Elliotte Friedman, the hockey reporter for Sportsnet and an NHL insider, said Thursday.
On Nov. 14, three Swedes – Daniel Alfredsson and Daniel and Henrik Sedin – were inducted as Salming and his family watched from an adjoining room.
“He loved the Hall of Fame weekend and wanted to be there,” Friedman said. “The Hall of Fame people told him he didn’t have to do anything he didn’t want to do but he participated in almost everything. It was very meaningful to him.”
In February, Salming began to experience an unusual twitching in his muscles. In mid-July, he was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive disease of the nervous system. He revealed the diagnosis through the Maple Leafs organization on Aug. 10 and in October said his condition had worsened to where he had lost the ability to speak and relied on a feeding tube.
His death was announced jointly by his family and the Maple Leafs.
“Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” Brendan Shanahan, the Maple Leafs team president, said in a statement. “He defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.”
Toronto players were informed of Salming’s death during a team meeting before practice in St. Paul, Minn. The Maple Leafs play the Minnesota Wild on Friday afternoon.
“It is hard to process,” said William Nylander, Toronto’s Canadian-born Swedish right wing. “It really caught me by surprise. We just saw him a few weeks ago. It is very upsetting.”
On the night of Nov. 12, Nylander took part in a ceremonial puck drop with Oliver Ekman-Larsson of the Vancouver Canucks. Salming dropped the puck between them and then Nylander scooped it up and handed it to him and gave him a gentle hug.
That night, the Maple Leafs’ opening lineup was made up six Swedish players for the first time in franchise history.
“It is really sad news,” said Erik Kallgren, a Swede, who was in Toronto’s net against Vancouver. “I am glad the organization had the time to bring him to Toronto and show how much it appreciated him. I feel for his family and everyone close to him.”
Salming signed as a free agent with Toronto in the summer of 1973. Although he had been a star in Sweden’s top league for years before, he was expected to be soft – a prejudice commonly held against players from Europe. He took some beatings in his first year but gave out as much punishment as he received and changed the perception of foreign players.
Maple Leafs great Paul Henderson, who was an 11-year NHL veteran when Salming arrived in Toronto, remembers the then 22-year-old as a physical specimen.
“He had the best body of anybody I’d ever seen,” Henderson said. “He had five-per-cent body fat and I thought, ‘Who is this guy?’
“He did everything well. He was really impressive.”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman offered a glowing tribute as well. He called Salming a “towering presence and transformational figure in the league’s history.”
“Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skilfully gifted,” Bettman said in a statement. “He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about Europeans that had been prevalent in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival.”
Salming owns nearly every franchise record for Maple Leafs defencemen – including, goals (148), assists (620) and points (768). He played in 1,229 NHL games, regular season and playoffs included, and had his jersey No. 21 retired and raised to the rafters in 2006.
Known as The King, he was a great Maple Leaf in an era when the team wasn’t very good. My goodness, he was tough. He once had his face opened up by a skate blade and the wound required 300 stitches. His face looked like a streetcar map of downtown Toronto.
Ron MacLean, the sportscaster for CBC best known as the host of Hockey Night in Canada, recalls how infatuated Canadians were with Salming when he landed in the NHL.
“The league was so homogeneous and he was mysterious,” MacLean said. “Everything about him shocked us. His big slap, his elegant skating … not only had he taken up our sport but he had mastered it.”
MacLean will not forget the nights of Nov. 11 and Nov. 12, when Salming went home to Toronto for the last time.
“Those two nights were magical,” MacLean said. “To see the love in his eyes that he gave to his captain, Darryl Sittler, said it all.”