Former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Borje Salming has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, the team announced Wednesday.
“I have received news that has shaken my family and me,” Salming said in a statement. “In an instant, everything changed.”
Salming, who played 16 seasons with the Leafs (1973-1989) and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, said he recognizes that there is no cure for the disease but says there are treatments available to slow the progression.
“I do not know how the days ahead will be, but I understand that there will be challenges greater than anything I have ever faced,” Salming said in a statement. “I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day.
“Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so.”
ALS is progressive nervous system disease that leads to paralysis, the inability to swallow, respiratory failure and finally death, usually in two to five years from the onset of symptoms.
Salming, 71, is receiving treatment in his native Sweden, where there are more than 800 patients living with ALS.
“ALS is a devastating disease that not only affects the muscles but can also affect personality and cognitive functions,” Dr. Caroline Ingre, Salming’s physician, said in a statement.
“In about 70 percent of diagnoses, the disease starts with symptoms from the spinal cord, which increasingly weakens the patient’s arms and legs, while in about 30 percent it starts around the mouth and throat, leading to slurred speech and difficulties swallowing,” she said. “These patients also often have an associated emotional impact that manifests itself as uncontrollable laughter or crying.”
Ingre, chief physician within the Neurology Department at the Karolinska University Hospital near Stockholm, said most ALS patients experience difficulty breathing, with symptoms most often appearing first at night. Other typical symptoms include morning headaches, daytime sleepiness, and shortness of breath during the day or when lying flat on the back.
The ALS Society of Canada estimates that 3,000 Canadians live with the disease.
Salming, a pioneering European star, played 1,099 games with the Leafs and ranks fourth among the team’s career scoring leaders with 768 points.
“Borje paved the way for all the Swedish players in the National Hockey League,” former Leafs captain Mats Sundin, another Hall of Famer, said of Salming in 2014.
Salming’s likeness is included on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Legends Row monument, which honours the team’s greatest stars, outside Scotiabank Arena.
In 2017, he was voted as one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history by a panel that included former players, coaches, executives and media members.