Opinion | Icon. Trailblazer. Mentor. How Börje Salming changed hockey for the better

There was barely enough time to say goodbye and you are loved, so loved.

Less than a fortnight removed from a poignant Hall of Fame weekend tribute to Börje Salming in Toronto, the legendary Maple Leafs defenceman has passed away at age 71, peacefully, surrounded by his family. His death was confirmed Thursday by the club.

Salming’s battle against Lou Gehrig’s Disease was never one he could win. Unlike all the other obstacles arrayed against him as a hockey player who grew up in a small Swedish mining town 145 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis was an opponent too voracious and unyielding. It was only in August that a stunned Salming revealed he’d been diagnosed with ALS — and, as was later disclosed, a particularly aggressive form of the fatal neuromuscular disease.

Some people with ALS survive for a decade. Salming got three months.

“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 then. “I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure some 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.”

The glacial burg that, just a few days ago, renamed a street after Salming — the street where he’d lived as a child, almost next door to the rink.

For those who never saw him play, witnesses to a quite inspiring team amidst the fallow decades which followed, it is difficult to convey the majestic presence “The King” had on the ice, this lean, lanky fellow with the chiseled cheekbones and the long almost mournful face. He nearly single-handedly made the Leafs worth watching in their most wretched of days as the club transitioned towards an era that boasted the likes of Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, Mike Palmateer and Salming’s D-partner Ian Turnbull.

The silkiness of his skating, the end-to-end rushes, the defensive ferocity, all whilst fending off assaults in a time of profound NHL violence when adversaries nightly set out to drive this upstart — and trail-blazing — European into the boards or separate him limb from limb. Chicken Swedes, he and compatriot Inge Hammerström had been mockingly dubbed by the hockey establishment after the Leafs had reached all the way to Scandinavia for roster help.

He never backed down, never gave an inch, dropped the gloves when ambushed or hassled. Blocked shots fearlessly and countered the abuse with all-game brilliance. He earned respect from even the most skeptical of antagonists.

Devotion for Salming, certainly hereabouts, was encapsulated in a memorable moment from 1976 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Salming dressed in Swedish colours for a Canada Cup game. He received a standing ovation from the Canadian audience, a salute that brought home to the nation of his birth how avidly this foreigner had been embraced by another country.

The floodgates to Europeans had opened because Salming changed the game, melding Swedish slickness with North American ruggedness.

Statistics, accolades and achievements — which, sadly, never included a Stanley Cup — speak to his marquee career, 16 years a Leaf before one season in Detroit, but they don’t fully capture Salming’s luminary aura in this city at that time. He was hero-worshipped as few others have been and he wore it with unassuming dignity, even overcoming opprobrium for a 10-day suspension (originally, season-long) after admitting to cocaine use.

The hundreds of stitches he took from a blade that had slashed him face from eye socket to chin, a jagged scar he carried for the rest of his life, actually made him look more mythic, like a Viking of yore. Yet in person he was kind and gentle, always receptive to reporters, willing to yak the hours away.

By leading where so many others would follow, venturing across an ocean, Salming also became a mentor to those who came after. Mats Sundin, who occupies the same firmament of Swedish superstars, recalled at the induction ceremonies two weeks ago how Salming contacted him after he was traded to the Leafs from the Quebec Nordiques. In drafted by first overall by the Quebec Nordiques in 1994, Sundin worried about fan reaction to the departure of beloved Wendel Clark in the exchange.

“He gave me a lot of assurance and said, ‘You’re coming to the best hockey team in the world to represent the best hockey town.’ But also, when I was asked to be the captain, I remember I talked to Börje and he helped me with the decision. So he’s been there for me through my whole career.”

Sundin was too distressed at the news of Salming’s death to talk. But he relayed a statement via his agent. “I’m in shock and devastated over Börje’s suddenly passing. Börje was an incredible role model for me on and off the ice. He was equal parts humble, brave and strong. My deepest condolences are with Börje’s family at this time.”

At least Sundin — and Sittler and McDonald — were blessed with the enduring memory of standing at centre ice with Salming for the overwhelmingly emotional commemoration organized by the Leafs to coincide with the Hall of Fame weekend fête. Salming, looking fragile but still beautifully Börje, forever The King, had leaned heavily into both of them as the applause cascaded around Scotiabank, his own stirring Lou Gehrig moment, if without words — ALS had robbed him of speech and he could no longer swallow food.

Sittler movingly helped raise Salming’s arm so he could acknowledge the crowd, as his family looked on with tears in their eyes — wife Pia and his adult children.

It was a two-night celebration for the Hall of Famer, actually, before consecutive Leaf home games, and each time the ovation was thunderous, wave upon wave. Salming wept too, unabashedly, the pathos almost unbearable. Few witnessed, later, when Salming shuffled off the ice — hugged by players in awe all along the Leaf bench — and into a waiting wheelchair.

It had cost Salming a great deal to make what was, for him, an arduous trip overseas. Not just for the tribute but also to obtain cutting-edge drugs for ALS treatment not available in Sweden.

The family said afterwards Salming would make no further public appearances. It was clear we’d never see him again. But still the rapid slide to death was unexpected.

The Maple Leafs issued a statement mourning the loss of Salming and extending condolences to his loved ones.

“Börje Salming was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” lauded team president Brendan Shanahan. “He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.”

Half a century ago Salming had arrived in Toronto as a hockey curiosity that turned into found treasure.

As a Leaf, the two-time Norris Trophy runner-up and all-star set a club record for most assists, while registering the most goals, points and playoff points by a defenceman in franchise annals. He was the first Swedish player inducted into the Hall of Fame and his No. 21 hangs from the rafters.

He is an immortal. Godspeed B.J.

Rosie DiManno is a Toronto-based columnist covering sports and current affairs for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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