Borje Salming, 1951-2022
by Andrew Podnieks|24 NOV 2022
Borje Salming represented Sweden at Olympic Games, World Championships and Canada Cups and was admired by fans on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
photo: IIHF Archive
He started with an act of superhuman courage and ended with an act of courage perhaps even more superhuman, and in between Borje Salming made himself a legend on both sides of the Atlantic for a career on ice that had far-reaching implications off it. In the end, he lost the only unwinnable battle he ever had to fight, succumbing to ALS today, 24 November. He was just 71 years old.

“With the death of Borje Salming, the ice hockey world did not only lose a pioneer and game changer but also a great person. A top defender of his time with braveness and mental toughness, Salming broke stereotypes during a time when making the NHL remained a mere dream for even the most skilled European players. He became the first NHL star from the continent and opened the door for hundreds of players who crossed the ocean after him,” said IIHF President Luc Tardif. “Despite suffering from severe illness, he showed his dedication to the global hockey family this month at recent events in Stockholm and Toronto, which became an emotional farewell. Today is a sad day for hockey and we send our deepest condolences to his family.”

Salming was a member of the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was named to the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team in 2008 during the Federation’s 100th anniversary, and just last week he received a similar honour from the Swedish Federation during its 100-year celebrations. In 2017, when the NHL celebrated its centennial, Salming was on the league’s list of top 100 players of all time.

The honours were earned over a career that spanned two decades, but what is still not easy to understand and accept is how this marvel of an athlete, who was as strong and physically perfect during his career, could be so ravaged by such a cruel illness as ALS. 

“Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” said Leafs’ president Brendan Shanahan in a statement. “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.”

"A superior all-around defenseman and the first Swedish star ever to play in the League, Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973… The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Borje, a towering presence and transformational figure in the game's history. We send our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia; his children, Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara; all who marveled at his exploits, and the many NHL players who stand on his shoulders."

Salming started his NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1973, enduring the rigours of the league – fisticuffs and “targeted” play and whatever else it could challenge him with – all the while playing a starring role on the Leafs’ blue line, often logging half a game on ice, leading the defence in goals, assists, and points, season after season.

It was Salming who proved to everyone – coaches and GM’s in North America; players in Europe – that Europeans had the skill and determination to play in the NHL. It was Salming’s success that led to the opening of doors in North America, first Swedes, then Finns, then Eastern Europeans. Prior to his third season of play, the fans at Maple Leaf Gardens accorded Salming one of the greatest ovations in the game’s history, right along side Gordie Howe’s at the 1980 All-Star Game, when “BJ” was introduced for the first time prior to a Sweden-United States game at the inaugural Canada Cup. 

"I'll never forget our game in Toronto,” he later recalled. “The fans gave me a standing ovation during the introductions. I was representing my country and Canadian fans gave me a standing ovation. Sometimes hockey has no country.”
Borje Salming poses for a portrait as player of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
photo: HHOF Images
Salming was part of a core of Leafs players in the 1970s that included fellow Hockey Hall of Famers Darryl Sittler and Lanny McDonald, a team that came close to going back to the Stanley Cup finals. He was with the team through the toughest years in the 1980s, and when he ended his NHL career with a season in Detroit in 1989-90, his 17th, no one criticized or complained his decision to leave the Blue and White. In all, the “King” played 1,148 regular-season games, the first European to pass the 1,000-game threshold. Five times he amassed more than 100 penalty minutes in a season. Skilled but tough as nails, he had to prove himself every game. And he did.

Salming returned whence he came, finishing his career in the Swedish league, where he had been playing when the Leafs discovered him during Team Canada’s two exhibition games in Sweden during the midway point of the 1972 Canada-Soviet Union Summit Series. He had won a silver and bronze medal at the 1972 and 1973 World Championships, the only two WM events of his career, but he played in the first three Canada Cups as well as the 1992 Olympics. 

It was only this past August that Salming announced through the Leafs that he had been diagnosed with ALS. “I have received news that has shaken my family and me," he said in a statement. "The signs that indicated that something was wrong in my body turned out to be the disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. In an instant, everything changed. 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."

His decline was rapid, and by October he could no longer communicate or swallow food on his own. Yet somehow he rallied. Somehow he gathered the energy to attend the Hockey Hall of Fame induction celebrations in Toronto in early November. He came onto the ice prior to a Canucks-Leafs game at Scotiabank Arena, where he received another tremendous ovation from the loving Toronto crowd reminiscent of 1976. 
Honoured Member Borje Salming alongside fellow Honoured Members Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin saluted the crowd prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Pittsburgh Penguins game on 11 November.
photo: Dave Sandford / HHOF Images
Unable to acknowledge the fans on his own, Sittler and Mats Sundin raised his arms in a triumphal moment that will never be forgotten by those who watched. The next night, Salming was given a further tribute of his own, leaving not a dry eye in the house. Then last week, in a final extraordinary effort, he attended the Swedish Federation’s celebration. 

And then, quiet. The King had passed. But he will live on in the mind’s eye, in the highlights, in the game’s ongoing history, in the memories of those who watched him play, and those who watched him fight this cruel disease right to the end.

"That Borje came to Toronto this month tells a whole lot not only about the hockey player, but about the man," Lanny McDonald, now Chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame, said this afternoon. "To summon up that strength … I'll cherish those moments forever."