Borje Salming, legendary NHL defenseman and pioneer of European-born players in North America, has passed away. He was 71 years old and had been diagnosed with ALS earlier this year.
The Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom Salming played most of his career, released a statement Thursday to announce Salming’s passing.
“The Toronto Maple Leafs are mourning the loss of Börje Salming,” said Brendan Shanahan, Leafs chairman and deputy governor. “Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon of unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness. He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and distinguished himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.
Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara and brother Stieg.”
Salming’s decorated NHL career spanned 17 seasons from 1973 to 1990 between Toronto and Detroit, with a resume that included 1,148 games and 787 points. A two-time Norris Trophy runner-up, Salming became the first Swedish-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 and the IIHF Hall of Fame two years later. The blueliner was an NHL first-team All-Star in 1977 and a five-time NHL second-team All-Star between 1975 and 1980.
For 16 of his 17 NHL campaigns, Salming was “The King” of Toronto, patrolling the Maple Leafs blue line with a physicality and determination that defied the common stereotypes that Swedish skaters like him were too soft to make it in the bruises NHL. Salming made an immediate impact when Leafs scout Gerry McNamara saw him play abroad in 1973. McNamara was in Sweden scouting Inge Hammarstrom; instead, he signed Salming to a free agent deal.
The defender quickly became a fan favorite in Toronto and embraced his popularity there. In January 1998, Salming became the first European-born player to reach the 1,000 game mark. The following year, Salming signed a one-year free agent contract with the Red Wings to complete his career. However, Salming’s legacy in Toronto as the franchise’s defensive leader in assists (620) and points (760) endured, and his number 21 has since been retired by the organization.
After his retirement, Salming continued to be an active part of the hockey community, learning of his ALS diagnosis in August, much to his dismay. ALS, a progressive disease of the nervous system, affects cells in the brain and spinal cord and leads to a loss of muscle control. Salming started experiencing symptoms in February and from then on his health rapidly deteriorated. Last month, Salming revealed he could no longer speak.
Despite his illness, Salming’s determination remained intact. He was committed to attending Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto earlier this month when three more Swedish players would be inducted. Salming made it and the Maple Leafs honored him with a pregame tribute ahead of their game against Vancouver. A vanquished Salming came to the ice surrounded by family to receive the standing ovation. The ceremonial puck drop was made by Swedish-born Oliver Ekman-Larsson and William Nylander, and Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe put together a starting lineup that included all six of Toronto’s Swedish-born players.
That was the second event in as many nights in which Salming was recognized. The night before, at the annual Hall of Fame game between Toronto and Pittsburgh, Salming was helped onto the ice by close friend and former teammate Darryl Sittler, who broke down in tears as he watched Salming being cheered by the arena. Salming met with Sittler in September and said he wanted to spend the weekend in Toronto with three Swedish-born inductees: Henrik and Daniel Sedin of Vancouver and Daniel Alfredsson of Ottawa.
Salming was a pioneer in every way and made it possible for today’s European players to thrive in the North American realm.