Borje Salming, a true pioneer who helped change the perception of Swedish hockey players, died on Thursday following a short battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He was 71.
Salming was diagnosed with ALS at the end of April but did not announce it publicly until August. 10.
“I have received news that has shaken my family and me,” Salming said in a statement at the time. “The signs that indicated that something was wrong in my body turned out to be the disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an instant, everything changed. 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.”
After an outstanding junior and domestic career in his native Sweden, the Maple Leafs took a chance on Salming after watching him play in exhibition games against Canadian junior teams. Although Salming showed his immense skill in those games, it was his willingness to play the physical North American style that convinced the Maple Leafs to bring him to Canada.
Salming had a respectable rookie season in 1973-74, getting 39 points (five goals, 34 assists) in 76 games, but more importantly, he established himself as a hard-nosed player who could hang with the physicality of the League.
By the end of his career, which spanned 17 seasons, Salming was known as a true two-way talent on the blue line and perhaps the best shot blocker of his era.
Salming finished with 787 points (150 goals, 637 assists) in 1,148 regular-season games with Toronto and the Detroit Red Wings, and 49 points (12 goals, 37 assists) in 81 Stanley Cup Playoff games. He was voted to the NHL First All-Star Team once (1977), the NHL Second All-Star Team five times (1975-76, 1978-80), and was twice the runner-up in voting for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman.
Salming was also a three-time recipient of the Viking Award (1976, 1977 and 1979) as the top Swedish player in the NHL/WHA as chosen by a poll of players from his own country.
“A superior all-around defenseman and the first Swedish star ever to play in the League, Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a League populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973.
“Salming owns nearly every franchise record for Maple Leafs defensemen, including, goals (148), assists (620) and points (768), and was voted to the NHL’s First or Second postseason All-Star Teams six consecutive seasons. He was named one of the top 10 players in Leafs history in 2016. Soon after, he was selected one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players during the League’s Centennial celebration. In 1996, he became the first European-trained skater inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Borje, a towering presence and transformational figure in the game’s history. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia; his children, Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara; all who marveled at his exploits and the many NHL Players who stand on his shoulders.”
Lanny McDonald, who is the Hockey Hall of Fame chairman and entered the NHL with Salming with the Maple Leafs in 1973, said his former teammate was “a warrior.”
“It is a pleasure to speak about Borje,” McDonald said on the road from Calgary to visit family in Montana. “For him to find a way, the strength and the determination to come over and be honored, not only by the Hall of Fame but by the Maple Leafs. … What that team did for him and his family was phenomenal, fantastic and so appreciated by all of us.
“The courage that it took when he first came to North America, to see him after a game. … Opponents abused him, his body was covered with welts, but he’d just say, ‘I’m fine, I’m OK .’ I think he knew what it was going to take to get through it. And oh my gosh, did he pave the way for so many other great players to be able to play in the National Hockey League.”
Former Maple Leafs captain Dave Keon agreed.
“We played together in Toronto for two years when he came over (in 1973),” Keon said. “He was fearless, one of the forerunners of the Swedish wave of players who came to play in the NHL. Borje arrived with (forward) Inge Hammarstrom and he flourished. He met the challenge and he was successful.”
Salming was in Toronto during the 2022 Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend earlier this month, and prior to their 3-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 12, the Maple Leafs played a video tribute for Salming before he dropped the puck for the ceremonial face-off.
Toronto then sent out an all-Sweden starting lineup for the first time in its history.
“That Borje came to Toronto this month tells a whole lot not only about the hockey player, but about the man,” McDonald said. “To summon up that strength … I’ll cherish those moments forever.
“Especially now, we’re all so relieved now that Borje is at peace. To struggle the last six and a half months, and especially the last few weeks, how tough it was.”