During the 72/73 season the Maple Leafs dressed 26 players. Twenty-five of them were Canadian, the 26th was from Minnesota. The landscape of hockey was about to change… forever.
That same season, Leafs scout Gerry McNamara headed to Sweden to check out a young left winger named Inge Hammerstrom. During the game, McNamara's attention was caught by another Swede… 22 year old defenceman Borje Salming. When Borje was tossed out of the game, McNamara made his way down to the dressing room. "I don't know how he talked his way inside the door," Salming said. "But he gave me his card and asked right away, 'Do you want to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs?"
Salming… and Hammarstrom arrived in Toronto for Training Camp in the fall of 1973. They both made the team, Borje was given legendary Leafs defenceman Bob Baun's number 21 and on Opening Night, the Swedish Ambassador to Canada dropped the ceremonial first puck. The European invasion of the NHL was underway.
Salming was talented… he put up strong numbers in his rookie season but he had to endure a great deal of adversity along the way. Being a pioneer is never easy. The mid 70's was a tough time to be a hockey player… to be an outsider… it was the era of the Broad Street Bullies. "It was tough because they really tried to kill you," said Salming. "If they did some of those things today, they would be suspended for life."
It didn't take long for Borje to endear himself to all Leafs fans. No further proof to this truth was necessary, following the game between Sweden and Canada in the 1976 Canada Cup at Maple Leaf Gardens. When Salming was introduced, he received a thunderous ovation from the Canadian crowd… his was longer and louder than any other player received… even Bobby Orr. "I'll never forget our game in Toronto. 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." Meanwhile back in Sweden, the father of five year old Mats Sundin directed his son's attention to the television screen to witness the reception that a Swedish hockey player was receiving… on another country's ice.
Borje Salming would enjoy 16 seasons in Toronto… playing in 1,099 games. He remains the highest scoring defenceman in Leafs history and the club's all-time leader in assists. He also led the Leafs in stitches, receiving over 200 at once, following a skate to the face in a game versus the Red Wings in 86. Salming was twice a runner up for the Norris Trophy as the League's Best Defenceman. He was named a First or Second Team All- Star on six occasions, a feat that no other Maple Leaf has ever achieved. In 1996 he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Ten years later his number 21 was raised to the rafters of Air Canada Centre.
A veteran of 21 seasons and the Captain four Cup winning teams, George Armstrong would say of Borje Salming, "He was the most talented player to ever wear the Toronto Maple Leafs uniform".