TORONTO — Hall of Fame defenceman Borje Salming, who starred for the Toronto Maple Leafs over 16 NHL seasons and was a trailblazer for Europeans who later made their mark in the world's top pro hockey league, has died at 71 after a battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
The Maple Leafs confirmed Salming's death Thursday in a statement.
Team president Brendan Shanahan said Salming opened the door for Europeans in the NHL.
"Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness," Shanahan said. "(Salming) defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community."
Toronto signed Salming as a free agent before the 1973-74 season.
The native of Kiruna, Sweden, went on to play 1,099 regular-season games with the Leafs, establishing team records for assists (620) and goals (148), points (768) and playoff points (49) by a defenceman.
Hockey Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald, who was a Maple Leafs rookie in 1973, says Salming's skill and toughness caught everybody by surprise that first season.
“Our first impression was ‘where did this guy come from?’ and what a warrior he was,” said McDonald, who played seven season in Toronto. “From Day 1, he had all the tools … and he was a fearless competitor.
"But as great a teammate as he was on the ice, he was the same off the ice. He always greeted you with the big-ass grin that told you he was so happy to see you.”
Leafs great Paul Henderson, who was an 11-year NHL veteran when Salming arrived in Toronto, said the then 22-year-old Swede was a physical specimen.
"He had the best body of anybody I'd ever seen. He had five per cent body fat and I thought, 'Who is this guy?' Obviously his skill level was beyond reproach, he just did everything well," said Henderson.
"He was among the first of the Swedes to come over here and, man oh man. He wasn't heavy but he was strong as all get out. He passed the puck, he did everything. He was really impressive."
A two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy, losing both times to Montreal Canadiens great Larry Robinson, Salming was named to the NHL's first all-star team in 1976-77 and the second all-star team on five occasions.
He ended his time with the Leafs with a plus-minus rating of plus-155, a statistic made more remarkable as the Maple Leafs were a vastly underperforming team for much of the 1980s.
Salming spent a 17th NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring after the 1989-90 season.
“A superior all-around defenceman and the first Swedish star ever to play in the league, Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skilfully gifted," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. "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."
In 1996, he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and was honoured as one of the '100 Greatest NHL Players' in 2017.
McDonald says few players had a bigger impact on the game than Salming.
"To be able to establish that not only Swedish players — but all European players — could not only play but excel in the NHL. He paved the way for so many players,” he said.
In August, Salming announced he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease.
"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," Salming said at the time. "I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day.
"Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so."
Salming was honoured earlier this month at a pre-game ceremony honouring this year's Hall of Fame inductees — which included Swedes Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson — before a game between the Maple Leafs and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. The former defenceman was flanked by fellow franchise icons Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin.
With tears streaming down his cheeks, Sittler raised Salming's arm so he could wave to the crowd.
The next night, Salming made a final appearance at centre ice before a Leafs game against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Arena.
Salming, with his family by his side, received a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd as a video chronicling his career played on the scoreboard before puck drop.
Robbed of his speech and some mobility, Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly departed the ice.
Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe started an all-Swedish unit against the Canucks as part of the tribute, with Leafs winger William Nylander and Canucks defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson performing the ceremonial faceoff.
“To just see how a guy like Borje was embraced by the fans and just what he did for this organization in his time here and what he still means to the city, I think that puts a lot of things into perspective for us as players playing here,” Leafs forward Auston Matthews said after the game.
“To have guys like him and others that have paved the way for us, it means a lot. You could just see it and feel it.”
Following the Hall of Fame induction ceremony and before Salming flew back to Sweden, McDonald says he got to spend an hour laughing and reliving the glory days with old friend and his wife Pia.
“It was just a chance to talk about old times, how great the weekend was and, most of all, how much I loved and admired him,” he said.
A hockey icon in Sweden, Salming represented his home country at four IIHF World Championships, three Canada Cups and the 1992 Winter Olympics.
He was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1998 and, and was named to the IIHF's Centennial All-Star Team in 2008.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2022.