Iconic Maple Leafs defenseman Börje Salming dies at 71

Legendary NHL defenseman Börje Salming, who was a fixture on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line for 16 years, has died. He was 71 years old.

The Maple Leafs announced Salming’s death Thursday afternoon.

“Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” President and Alternate Governor Brendan Shanahan said 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.

“Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara, and brother Stieg.”

Salming was diagnosed with the progressive nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, earlier this year. He had been receiving treatment in his native Sweden.

A pioneering European star from the northern Swedish town of Kiruna, Salming played 1,099 games with the Leafs and ranks fourth among the team’s career scoring leaders with 768 points.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs players and members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Darryl Sittler, left to right, Borje Salming and Mats Sundin take part in a pregame ceremony prior to NHL hockey action between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, in Toronto, Friday , Nov.  11.
Former Toronto Maple Leafs players and members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Darryl Sittler, left, Borje Salming, middle and Mats Sundin, right, take part in a pregame ceremony in Toronto, on Nov. 11. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In 1997, he was voted one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history by a panel that included former players, coaches, executives and media members.

Salming’s number 21 hangs in the rafters at Scotiabank Arena, after it was retired in 2016 alongside other Leafs greats like Dave Keon, Johnny Bower and Doug Gilmour. He was also the fourth former Maple Leaf to be immortalized with a statue in the team’s Legends Row in Maple Leafs Square, alongside icons like Bower, Darryl Sittler and Ted Kennedy.

Emotional final tributes in Toronto

His importance to the Maple Leafs and the city of Toronto was clear during emotional tributes and standing ovations earlier this month, as he attended games in Toronto for the last time.

Salming, with his family and former teammates by his side, received roars of applause from appreciative crowds at two separate games. In an especially poignant moment before a game between the Leafs and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins, fellow former Leaf Sittler tearfully raised Salming’s arm to ensure he could wave to the crowd of thousands.

Sittler told CBC News that he knew those games might be the last time he ever got to see his teammate and friend.

“It was a magical moment. People who watched that, and the people who participated in it, they’ll remember that for the rest of their lives,” he said.

WATCH | Salming receives emotional ovation from Leafs fans:

Borje Salming gets an emotional standing ovation at the NHL Hall of Fame Game

The long-time Maple Leafs’ defenseman received a warm welcome from the Toronto crowd as he battles ALS.

Robbed of his speech and some mobility, Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly left the ice at his final appearance with the team, before a second game against the Vancouver Canucks.

Former teammate and NHL great Lanny McDonald told CBC News that it was “a gift” for Salming’s family to be able to see just how much he was looked up to when he was celebrated in Toronto this month.

“It was such an honor for him to be able to have his family understand how much everyone loved and respected him,” McDonald said.

“More than anything he was such a great teammate, both on and off the ice.”

Salming was the fourth former Maple Leaf to be immortalized with a statue in the team’s Legends Row in Maple Leafs Square. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Salming’s strong two-way play made him one of hockey’s elite defensemen. He was also one of the most popular players in team history.

“Wearing the Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for 16 seasons was a great honor,” Salming said in part in a statement made upon the announcement of his statue in 2014.

“I always look back on my time in Toronto with fondness and enjoy the chance to visit every chance I get.”

A trailblazer

Former Maple Leafs captain and countryman Mats Sundin previously said that every Swede respects Salming and holds him in high esteem for his wealth of accomplishments.

“For us — Swedish hockey players — he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a trailblazer,” Sundin said.

Although European players are now commonplace in the NHL and among the league’s biggest stars, that wasn’t always the case. Starting back in 1973, Salming helped open doors to North American hockey for his countrymen — who hockey fans once looked down upon with the childish nickname “chicken Swedes” — thanks to stereotypes that they couldn’t keep up with the physicality of the North American game.

WATCH | NHL legend Lanny McDonald remembers his friend and teammate:

‘He would do anything for you’: Leafs legend Lanny McDonald on Börje Salming

Toronto Maple Leafs legend Lanny McDonald paid tribute to his late teammate Börje Salming as ‘one of the greatest to ever play the game.’ McDonald said he was grateful to be with Salming and his family recently at an emotional Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Toronto.

Salming helped annihilate that stereotype by not just surviving but thriving in the NHL, earning the nickname “King.” In 16 seasons with the team before a final season in the league with the Detroit Red Wings, Salming accumulated a team-record 620 assists, alongside 148 goals.

“When Borje came [to the NHL], he was a target. The game was different back then,” Sittler said. In the shower after games, it was obvious how much abuse Salming took, he said, from the numbers of welts and scars all over his body.

“The next night he’d just go back out and do it again,” Sittler said.

“He had a love and a passion for the game like no other.”

Salming was also named to the league’s first all-star team once and five times on the second all-star team, which was similarly a team record. He came just shy of enough votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman in 1980.

In a statement Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Salming the first Swedish star to play in the league, and as “physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted.

“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,” Bettman said.

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