Börje Salming showed his strength, on and off the ice, until the end


His voice at the time reduced to a raspy whisper, so low listeners had to lean in to hear him, Börje Salming instead opted for hand gestures to make his points.

He was going to be the namesake of this foundation, one being started in the hopes of making a difference for many years to come, so he was going to have his say by any means necessary.

There he was sitting in a board room, turning his thumbs up or down to ideas pitched.

“There’s a sadness around it, but it’s good that he’s there,” Karin Karlström, a Swedish entrepreneur who initiated the foundation, said.

Shortly after Salming revealed his ALS diagnosis in August, Karlström reached out to his family and leaders in Sweden’s business and hockey circles. The idea was to create something that would help those suffering from the dreadful neurological disease and their loved ones alike.

The Börje Salming ALS Foundation was established, with Karlström as the founder.

Salming’s whisper faded away and his body weakened, but that didn’t stop the foundation’s face from having his voice heard.

It was Salming’s idea to set up a family fund so patients and their families will have all the resources they need in one place.

“This is not for Börje himself because he cannot take advantage of this research, medicine or anything,” Karlström said. “But this is for you and me — for other people. He’s doing it for others, not for himself.

“This is exactly the way Börje is.”

Salming died on Nov. 24 at age 71. His initial work on the foundation was just the latest and final piece of his legacy. He was someone who battled no matter how tough the circumstances were so others could benefit.

Thousands of Swedes should feel the effects of the work Salming and those around him did in his last days for years to come.

Countless hockey players have already gained from Salming’s determination and resolve.

“He was the player who opened up for other players to go to the NHL,” said Peter Forsberg, vice-chairman of the Swedish Ice Hockey Association and a board member of the foundation. “He played with a lot of emotion. He had real courage. He showed how to play with a big heart.”

Salming had this larger-than-life aura to the next generation of Swedes when he played for the Maple Leafs, said Hockey Hall of Fame defenceman Nicklas Lidström.

Lidström dreamed of being just like Salming when he was on the outdoor ice as a little boy. He’d seen just a few highlights in pre-internet days. Most of what he knew were stories told by his father, Jan-Erik, of this living legend who was now doing spectacular things half a world away from home.

“You’re dreaming or pretending you’re Börje Salming,” Lidström said. “It’s one of those things as kids. You’re using your idol’s name when you’re playing. Börje was my guy when I was 8, 9, 10 years old, pretending to be in the NHL. He’s always been my idol.”

Salming wasn’t the first European player to play professionally in North America. Thommie Bergman, for instance, was a feisty and aggressive defenceman who joined the Red Wings a year earlier.

But Salming, as part of that first wave of Swedish imports, rewrote the Maple Leafs record book and is on the shortlist of the best blueliners of his era. Salming ranks first in goals and points by a Maple Leafs defenceman and holds the club mark for career assists. He was a four-time Norris Trophy finalist and cracked the postseason all-star teams five times — once on the first team. He’s No. 54 on The Athletic’s NHL99 list

“I believe that Börje was one of the top seven or eight defencemen of all time,” former Maple Leafs teammate Lanny McDonald said.

Salming showed his strength in a different way than Bergman.

Seldom did try to match an opponent’s physicality — legal or otherwise — or verbal taunts. He’d sometimes exhibit his strength with sheer brawn, but it was his determination to push through whatever was thrown his way that made him one of the toughest players in NHL history.

“He deserves a medal for being able to survive the onslaught that being one of the first Europeans to play and the amount of abuse that he took, and just kept coming back for more,” McDonald said.

Former WHA Winnipeg Jet and Salming’s former Swedish national teammate Anders Hedberg believes the 1972 Summit Series was the impetus for Salming and his countrymen to try professional hockey across the Atlantic.

Salming and Hedberg were the youngest players on the Swedish squad that played against Canada in exhibition contests partway through the series. Salming learned he could withstand the Canadian players’ brute force and still succeed.

“You learn quick. You have no choice,” said Hedberg, who would follow Salming to North America. “Börje wasn’t a physical player. Neither were most of the European players, myself included. But we were not afraid. If you had any signs of being afraid, you didn’t survive.

“Börje certainly wasn’t afraid — not one bit.”

Salming showed up in Toronto in 1973 and, along with McDonald, was one of five rookies to make the Maple Leafs that fall. McDonald remembers Salming being “skinny as a rail.”

“The first time I saw him, I was thinking, ‘How is this guy ever going to survive?’” McDonald said. “Well, pound for pound, he was as tough as anybody. You really found out in a hurry when you started practicing or in scrimmages against him how strong the guy was.

“He would not take any s—, which was pretty damn cool. That’s what endeared him so quickly to everyone.”

Salming didn’t have an issue proving that no opponent would ever hold him back. It was mostly charming to his teammates, but it also drove Maple Leafs tough guy Tiger Williams nuts.

Salming would let other players hit him to show that he couldn’t be intimidated. Williams often chided him for giving lesser skaters a chance to push him around. Salming’s response: “It doesn’t bother me.”

“I think he just did it to show us that he could take it,” Williams said. “A lot of these kids playing today, they have no idea. They wouldn’t have lasted 10 games. For him to play over 1,000 games is phenomenal.

“He was a tough son of a bitch, mentally and physically. A lot of guys would have packed their bags and gone home in a New York second. Börje could deal with it. Some guys couldn’t.”

Börje Salming after he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. (Colin McConnell / Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Remember, this was perhaps the roughest era in hockey history. As Salming’s good friend and ex-Leafs teammate Darryl Sittler said, “donnybrook brawls were the norm.”

The Big Bad Bruins or the Broad Street Bully Flyers took plenty of runs at Salming.

“Because he was a Swede, this North American mentality was to try to more or less injure him, get him off his game, intimidate him,” Sittler said. “He’d come off the ice and you look at him in the dressing room under the shirt off and he’d have these red welts all over his body from guys spearing with their stick or blocking shots or whatever it is.”

Never did Salming relent after a cheap shot or xenophobic slur.

“On the ice, he would just laugh it off,” McDonald said. “People would call him ‘Chicken Swede’ or try to run him through the boards. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, he comes off a check like that — ‘I’ll be back.’ Nothing bothered him.”

There were two on-ice incidents at either end of his career that stood out above all.

As a rookie, Salming fought the Flyers’ Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, arguably the most feared scrapper in NHL history. Schultz tried alternating left- and right-handed punches, more than a dozen in all, but Salming fended off each one.

“Börje was strong as an ox,” McDonald said. “At no time did he ever land a punch on Börje. It really sent a message not only to their team but to the entire league.

“This guy will drop the gloves. But you’ll never get to him.”

And then there was the skate cut — which is putting it mildly.

Red Wings winger Gerard Gallant accidentally sliced Salming’s face with his skate in front of the net during a November 1986 game in Detroit. The impact could have been catastrophic; it was just an inch away from his right eye. Still, Salming needed roughly 250 stitches to close the gnarly gash but was back on the ice only two weeks later.

Sittler, who was playing for Philadelphia at the time, wasn’t surprised by how fast Salming returned to action.

“He came back and played lots after that, too,” Sittler said.

Of course, Salming wasn’t just the ultimate warrior with an incredible pain threshold and a thick skin. He could also play.

According to McDonald, Salming could “do it all” on the ice.

“He was a phenomenal passer,” McDonald said. “He’d throw it over like four guys’ sticks, land it flat as you’re breaking up the right wing. He had a great shot.”

Added Sittler: “The more he played, the better he was — and the better chance we had of winning.”

Salming wouldn’t have been viewed the same way if he wasn’t the complete package. That’s what gives him such a grand legacy.

“He has made an impact on Swedish hockey, and the way Swedish hockey is looked upon worldwide,” Hedberg said.

“He showed the world, and he showed the Swedes, how to play ice hockey,” Forsberg said.

Salming was already revered in Sweden based on what he’d accomplished in the NHL. And then he came home.

After a season with the Red Wings in 1989-90, Salming, then 39, decided to finish his career in Sweden.

He was planning to play for Brynäs IF. That was his last team before he joined the Maple Leafs. Brynäs is in Gävle, a smaller city located 200 kilometres north of Stockholm.

But Hedberg convinced him to play for the team he was managing, AIK, on the outskirts of the country’s capital, where he’d have more anonymity and maybe wouldn’t be perceived as such a big celebrity.

“People are going to be intimidated,” Hedberg told him. “Neighbours won’t even have the guts to come over and say hello.”

That ended up being the same on the ice. Opponents like Lidström and Daniel Alfredsson gawked at him in awe.

“That was a thrill playing against Börje Salming,” Lidström said. “I was 20 at the time and he was close to 40. I remember being in awe of him, seeing him play and seeing him skate.”

Lidström finally got the chance to meet his idol when they were teammates at the 1991 Canada Cup. Lidström was anxious meeting him in training camp but Salming made him feel at ease. The two players were defence partners for a few games in the tournament and Salming told Lidström to be offensive and play to his strengths. The veteran would worry about the defensive end.

“That gave me a lot of confidence,” Lidström said. “I was nervous to play with him. You feel like you have to give him the puck all the time. He was just the opposite. He made me feel really comfortable and made me believe I could do what I was really good at. Those words stuck with me and settled me down to be able the play the way I wanted to play.”

As amazing as it was for Lidström to play with Salming, it was something that happened before the tourney that will always resonate with him.

Cars honked and people rolled down their windows to yell as Lidström and the other Swedish players walked a few hundred yards with Salming from their hotel to Maple Leaf Gardens for practice. Traffic stopped.

Lidström had heard about the pregame ovations Salming got during the 1976 Canada Cup in Toronto. But that was at a hockey rink. This was something else.

“We couldn’t believe it. We knew he was big, but we didn’t know he could create havoc on the streets. But he did,” Lidström said. “We saw how big he was, first-hand, in Toronto, which was overwhelming and great for us to see as young players.”

Being back in Sweden helped Salming grow his brand and popularity. His then-wife was interested in marketing and sales. Using connections they’d made in Stockholm, Salming launched his own underwear line, which morphed into sportswear.

Those garments have made him as popular with young children today as he was with Lidström’s generation.

“Everyone knows Börje Salming,” Forsberg said.

Perhaps no one got to experience that more than Williams, who joined Salming on a trip to his hometown of Kiruna in 2016.

The two visited the mining town on the edge of the Arctic circle, so Salming’s No. 21 Maple Leafs banner could be hung at the local rink where he played growing up. This was part of the Leafs’ centennial season festivities.

One of the first things Williams saw were lights outlining the No. 21 on both sides of a mining building. That was just the tip of the iceberg.

“The young people drank and sang,” Williams said. “The whole town walked together to the arena — and I’m talking hundreds of people. There was so much respect, morning till night.

“They marched in that building and they sung all the way until Salming dropped that puck to open that game. It was phenomenal.”

Given Salming’s popularity and impact, it’s no surprise that his ALS diagnosis hit people like a ton of bricks.

Forsberg was brought to tears after reading about Salming’s condition.

The reception Salming received before back-to-back Maple Leafs games in November was so moving and heartbreaking.

Salming was first recognized before the Hall of Fame game as Sittler helped him raise his right arm to acknowledge the Toronto crowd. Sittler cried as the friends embraced. A night later, Salming got the stage to himself, and the Maple Leafs dressed an all-Swedish starting lineup.

He was recognized at a Swedish Hockey Federation event the next weekend, which was just as emotional for all involved.

“He is ‘The King.’ That’s his nickname. We call him ‘The King,’” Sittler said. “A lot of great Swedes have gone on and had great NHL careers, but Börje is the guy.”

There’s no question about that. There even is a biopic being made about Salming’s life that stars Jason Priestley as Gerry McNamara, the Leafs scout who discovered Salming. Sittler has been consulted for the film.

That’s why Salming knew he could put his stature to more good use when he was diagnosed with ALS.

Salming and his wife, Pia, were instantly on board when Karlström presented the idea for a foundation. They got it up and running just before he died.

Lidström is also on the foundation’s board. He didn’t have to think twice when Pia asked him.

“I know what Börje meant to me as far as being my idol and playing with him, but also what he did for all Swedish players — and Europeans for that matter — who came over after him,” he said. “He paved the way for us to be successful.”

That’s what makes the foundation so fitting to Lidström. A player who had one of the bigger impacts in NHL history could have a much more important effect on even more people in Sweden.

“That’s why Börje wants to do this,” Lidström said. “He might not get help from it, but someone along down the road is going to get help from it — which speaks volumes of him. He’s not thinking about himself but thinking about people down the road.”

(Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)


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