Borje Salming becomes the first European superstar — paves the way for other Euros
1973-74 — Toronto, Canada
No one knew exactly what to expect. In the summer of 1973, the Toronto Maple Leafs poached two young Swedish players from their league in the hopes these rising stars of European hockey could adapt to the NHL and make a solid impression. It was a gamble. After all, the man who scouted defenceman Borje Salming and forward Inge Hammarstrom, Gerry McNamara, was the same who scouted Vladislav Tretiak prior to the 1972 Summit Series — and gave a resoundingly poor report! As well, Ulf Sterner had barely stirred North American interests when he tried to crack the NHL in the early 1960s, and another Swede, Thommie Bergman, had proved a decent, but hardly spectacular, player with the Detroit Red Wings the previous year, 1972-73.
But Salming and Hammarstrom reported to Maple Leaf Gardens in remarkable physical condition, ready to play right away. This was a far cry from the standard of the day. Salming had the tougher time because he was supposed to be a rushing defenceman, a great skater, and a slick puckhandler. In the NHL in 1973, there was only one man who fit that description, and that was Number Four, Bobby Orr.
Orr was also tough as nails and fought his own fights, and that’s just what the rest of the NHL was going to put Salming through. The Leafs’ first away game of the season was against the Broad Street Bullies, the Philadelphia Flyers, and Salming was virtually assaulted all night long. Battered and bruised, he held his own, and over time the attacks became more infrequent and his ability to dominate the game became more obvious. Hammarstrom didn’t fare quite so well. He couldn’t handle the physical play, and the 80-game season and constant travel took a toll on his body.
Salming, though, earned his stripes one shift, one hit, one fight at a time. He was so perfectly conditioned that the long season and 30-minutes of play every night were demands he could handle. He proved the scouting reports correct with his end-to-end rushes, great passing, one-timer from the point on the power play, and gritty play inside his own blueline. Salming did this not for a game or a season, but for 17 seasons. It was his ability to survive first and excel thereafter which gave the next generation of all Europeans the confidence to know it could be done. Scouts and managers took note as well, and they started drafting and signing more Swedes, more Finns, more Europeans. Europeans not only could play in the NHL; they could succeed. Those who followed had Salming as pioneer, mentor, and inspiration to thank.
About the Top 100 Stories
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.