It’s always good to read and hear about former Maple Leafs that we loved, admired, and respected when the news is uplifting. But it’s much more difficult when the reports have to do with failing health.
We heard today from Pia, the wife of former Maple Leaf great Borje Salming, about the increasing difficulties he and Pia face daily and constantly, as he battles this terrible disease. The video that accompanies the story is heartbreaking.
As with so many tragedies in life, only those families that have dealt with ALS truly know the devastation the disease causes.
Maple Leafs Hot Stove founder Alec Brownscome will highlight some important ways to try to help a bit further below. But Alec asked if I could perhaps pen a few memories here first about Borje — some things that, to this day, still stand out to me, more than three decades after his retirement from the NHL.
His stellar 17-year career was capped, deservingly, with his call to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Those, like myself, who followed the Leafs passionately during Salming’s career, which ran from 1973 through to 1990, know well that he played 16 of those years in the blue and white. They also know that that particular period in the team’s history was one filled, at various points, with rebuilds, turnarounds, never-ending owner meddling, some intense playoff series, and some pretty bleak seasons—particularly in the early 1980s.
But almost always, there was hope that next year would be better. And the constant thread that kept our hopes alive through that era of sometimes difficult Leaf fandom was Borje Salming.
When Salming arrived with fellow Swedish international Inge Hammarstrom in the summer of 1973, he was part of a massive facelift for a team that, record-wise, had been quite awful in 1972-73. Captain Dave Keon had his last truly great season that year, but the World Hockey Association had seen the Leafs lose a lot of young, emerging talent. Other than a rising Darryl Sittler, the cupboard was not nearly full enough with promising youngsters to really compete against the top rosters of the time.
But that summer of 1973 changed everything. In came Hammarstrom and first-round draft picks Lanny McDonald, Bob Neely, and Ian Turnbull. Over time, the latter three would all make an impact in Toronto to varying degrees— one even became a Hall of Famer.
For his part, Hammarstrom was a gifted skater and playmaker and was assumed to be the real prize that had been uncovered by Leaf scouts in Europe. (I think Gerry McNamara may have been one of the scouts to spot the duo, but I’m not fully sure— it was a long time ago.)
But the player who instantly turned heads that early in 1973-74 season was Salming.
To understand why he stood out, we first have to provide a bit of context. In those days, European players were widely derided for not really being good enough to play in the NHL. Many fans thought the European stars, even the great ones, were “too soft.”
Whatever drove that attitude at the time, I can’t say for sure. But if there is one thing (and there was a lot more than just one thing) you can say about Borje Salming in his magnificent career with the Maple Leafs, it is most certainly this: he was not soft.
His mettle was tested early and often in his rookie season. His second career game was played in Philadelphia. They tried to run him out of the rink.
He was called, along with his friend Inga, a “Chicken Swede.” The “Broad Street Bully” Flyers (and others) tried to intimidate Borje at every turn. He was not a player raised to fight with his fists on the ice, so his way of dealing with the often very dirty and over-the-top physical play against him was to out-think and outplay his opponents.
Oh, he surely took a lot of punishment. That couldn’t be avoided. But his ability to control the puck, make plays, use his stick artfully, and dance around the ice was something spectacular to witness.
His was an era of some outstanding defensemen, for sure— Bobby Orr had arrived a few years earlier, and there was Denis Potvin, Brad Park, and Montreal’s “Big Three” of Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and Guy Lapointe. All such wonderful, talented players.
And Borje was our guy. At his best, he was about as good a player as you could ever want in a Maple Leaf uniform.
Salming was a bit different from Orr in this one particular move they each mastered; with Orr, it was that very tight “stop and turnaround” move that for years baffled onrushing checkers inside the opponent’s blueline. (There was also Serge Savard’s “Savardian Spino-rama” as Montreal play-by-play great Danny Gallivan used to call it.)
But Salming had his own unique way of, as they used to say in football in the olden days, “giving you a leg and then taking it away,” when you rushed him to hit him or check the puck away from him.
He would look like he was absolutely moving in one direction, but he would then contort himself in a Gumbi-like way to twist and turn his way past the onrushing checker. It was something to see— and very hard to defend, even if you knew it might happen.
But Salming was about so much more than that one move. He was tough, indefatigable, stylish, driven, and ultra-competitive. He constantly dove to block shots. He put himself in danger for the team. He played hurt and because of his hard-driving style, he sometimes would get hurt.
There was a language barrier, as I recall, in his early years in Toronto, but he grew more comfortable with his role on the team. Over time, he became a player that others looked up to and went to for advice.
As great (and they most surely were) as Sittler and McDonald were before they were unceremoniously sent on their way— I won’t go into detail, but let’s just say when Punch Imlach returned to Toronto for a second time as General Manager, the team was dismantled over a fairly short period of time and it took a long time for them to truly become competitive again— Salming was the guy who somehow endured and thrived through all the various ups and downs of hockey life in Toronto.
He was a battler to the end of his time in Toronto and throughout his career.
If I can share one specific memory, of a particular play at a particular point in time fairly early on during his Leaf career, I’d like to do that.
It was at a time when Lanny, Darryl, and Turnbull were in their ascendency as legitimate stars in Toronto. Salming, too, of course. Sittler was the team leader, no doubt, on and off the ice. But Salming was always a driving force at both ends of the ice.
It was the spring of 1976. The playoffs pitted the rising young Leafs, with ex-Hab Wayne Thomas in goal, against the rough and rugged two-time defending champion Flyers— led by Bobby Clarke and Bernie Parent, among many other stars. They were a very tough but also very talented squad.
The Leafs lost the first two games of the series at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. But the Leafs came back at Maple Gardens to win Game 3.
Game 4 at the Gardens was the “Borje moment” for me.
By the way, I really liked this particular Leaf squad. They had guys like Scott Garland, a tough, young winger who gave everything he had every night. “Kids” like Jack Valiquette and Tiger Williams helped already. Feisty Pat Boutette. And they also had Claire Alexander, who had played his hockey in the old Ontario Senior “A” loop, until he played for the Leafs’ minor league squads in Tulsa and Oklahoma City before he joined the big club at the age of 27.
But that April evening in the spring of 1976, in Game 4, provided a lifelong Leaf memory for me and it came from none other than Borje Salming.
With the game tied at 1-1 with less than five minutes to go in the second period, Sittler hit Salming with a perfect pass as Salming flew, with his sweeping strides, past the Philly defense.
He was suddenly in alone on All-Star netminder Parent, the ex-Leaf (one of those young stars lost to the WHA a few years earlier). Salming whipped a rising shot past Parent. It was so quick and so dramatic.
The Gardens went wild. It was a sudden, game-changing, and absolutely lovely hockey play. Such a great goal.
At the time, I was sitting in the old basement of the house a bunch of us then young university students were renting in the King and Dufferin area of Toronto. I was watching the game on television with my friend Paul (a Hab fan), who is still a dear friend. I jumped out of my chair like the Leafs had just won the Stanley Cup. (The other “jump out of your chair” Leaf moment for fans in that decade was McDonald’s overtime winner in Game 7 of the quarter-finals against the Islanders two years later, in the spring of 1978, but that’s a memory for another day.)
It was pure Salming—a huge play at a critical moment in the playoffs against a major Leaf rival at the time, and the Leafs went on to win the contest 4-3 and tie the series.
The goal itself, the celebration by Salming and his teammates, and the reaction from the crowd was something you don’t forget.
And it had come against the very team that had taunted and hammered Salming more than any other when he entered the league just three seasons before.
The Leafs, unfortunately, lost the series in Game 7 in Philadelphia, but they had made coach Red Kelly and Leaf supporters proud. (Old-timers like myself who were already in their 20s will also remember this was the spring of “pyramid power” in Toronto, something coach Kelly, the former Red Wing and Leaf all-time great, had concocted to create a media story in order to take some of the pressure of his underdog—and somewhat out-manned—Leafs in that series.)
While Salming remained a splendid player throughout his Leaf career—and there were some very nice playoff memories for Salming when the Leafs did manage to win a playoff round or two in the mid and later ‘80s— for me, the goal against the Flyers that so electrified his teammates, the Gardens faithful, and Leaf fans around the hockey world always reminds me, looking back, of what a remarkable player and Maple Leaf he was.
I recognize that we refer to athletes in various sports as “warriors” too often perhaps. Maybe that is a term that should be reserved only for those, for example, who put their lives on the line when called upon to defend their country.
But in hockey terms, I remember Salming as exactly that—a warrior. Someone that fought the fight against the odds, was an underdog, who came back time and again after being knocked down. Who used all the toughness, smarts, cunning, and talent he had to overcome so many obstacles. Someone that inspired others and whom teammates went to for advice.
Someone with heart, drive, and determination.
Salming was never on a Cup champion in the NHL, though he helped Sweden win a few medals throughout his distinguished international career.
But Borje was without question a Leaf legend. As a fan, he was someone you look back and say, it was an absolute pleasure to watch him and follow his career, all those years ago.
I know I’m not alone in saying I’m so thankful he was a Maple Leaf. And I’ll be one of countless Leaf fans that will always remember him fondly while hoping for, pulling for, and praying for him and his loved ones at an impossibly difficult time for them all.
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