Borje Salming, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Hall of Fame defenseman who became the N.H.L.’s first Swedish star and a pioneer for the various European players who’ve modified the face of the league, died on Thursday in Nacka, Sweden. He was 71.
The Leafs said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, generally known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, said in an announcement that Salming “blazed the trail that lots of the best players in N.H.L. history followed while shattering all the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973.”
Fiddling with the Leafs for 16 seasons and the Detroit Red Wings in his final season, Salming was named to the N.H.L.’s first all-star team in 1976-77 and the second all-star team five times. He was a two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s leading defenseman, ending behind the Montreal Canadiens’ Larry Robinson every time. In 1996, he became the primary Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Once they called me I used to be actually crying,” Salming recalled in a 2017 video for “100 Biggest N.H.L. Players presented by Molson Canadian.” “We showed Canadians we could play hockey.”
Playing in 1,099 regular-season games for Toronto, Salming set a franchise record for many assists (620) while registering essentially the most goals (148), points (768) and playoff points (49) by a defenseman in Leafs history. But his teams never reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Salming, who was also an excellent shot blocker, was named one in all the 100 best N.H.L. players in 2017, when the league celebrated its centennial.
Anders Borje Salming was born on April 17, 1951, within the northern Swedish city of Kiruna, a son of Erland and Karin Salming. His father died in a mining accident when he was 5.
The Maple Leafs signed Salming in May 1973 after a scout spotted him and believed he could thrive within the North American form of hockey, which featured a hard-hitting game in contrast to the Europeans’ emphasis on finesse.
“Opponents abused him, his body was covered with welts, but he’d just say, ‘I’m positive, I’m OK,’” Lanny McDonald, the Hockey Hall of Fame’s chairman and an inductee as a player for his years with the Leafs, told N.H.L.com upon Salming’s death.
“You bought a whole lot of low cost shots, but that was only a part of the sport,” Salming said within the Molson video.
For all of the discuss European hockey players of his time being soft, Salming was anything but that. In November 1986, his unprotected face absorbed a skate blade from Detroit’s Gerard Gallant, now the Rangers’ coach, when Gallant was knocked over a prone Toronto defenseman during a goal-mouth scramble on the Leafs’ net. It took an estimated 250 stitches to shut the wound. Two weeks later, wearing a visor, Salming returned to motion.
Salming played for Sweden in 4 International Ice Hockey Federation world championships, three Canada Cups and the 1992 Winter Olympics. He was inducted into the federation’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and named to its centennial All-Star team in 2008. It recognized the six most eminent players within the history of international ice hockey.
Salming flew together with his family to Toronto from Sweden in early November for extra medical treatment and likewise attended Hall of Fame inductions held there. The Salmings visited the Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena when Toronto faced the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 12. The Leafs showed a video tribute to Salming, and though ALS had severely debilitated him, he dropped the puck for a ceremonial face-off. The Leafs began an all-Swedish lineup that night to honor him.
Salming’s No. 21 jersey, which had been retired, hangs from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena.
Salming’s survivors include his wife, Pia; their children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara; and a brother, Stig.
When the Leafs faced the Minnesota Wild in a road game on Friday, their players wore patches honoring Salming. They featured “BORJE” in yellow letters across a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag. That crown was a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.