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Believing In the 'Big Fellow'

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

by Mike Ulmer

October 4, 2006

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Once, Maple Leafs coach Red Kelly installed pyramids under the Maple Leafs bench to tap into their mystical powers.

Someone asked Borje Salming what he thought of all the fuss.

"I no believe in pyramids," he said. And then he tapped his chest. "I just believe in the big fellow."

More than most, Borje Salming's career was a career based on faith.

There would be barbs when came from a Swedish hometown so far North that he was treated as a rube.

Later, he would spend years as a hated outsider, the first European star to crash the NHL.

Through it all, the steady failures of the 1980s, the succession of coaches and teammates, often fearsome injuries, a chronic sinus condition that left him emaciated by every Christmas, Salming just kept on believing in the big fellow.

Salming's home town of Kiruna is the most northerly town in Sweden. His grandfather earned a living herding reindeer.

Salming's father died when he was five in a mining accident. His mother fed her family with the wages from her waitressing job while her son, Borje would grow into a six-foot-one man with exceptional grace and skating ability.

Leafs scout Gerry McNamara found Salming and his teammate Inge Hammarstrom by accident. The Swedish league game McNamara had planned on scouting was cancelled but McNamara learned of another game and went to watch. Soon he was calling his superiors back in Toronto about two prospects whose talents were at least those of any Canadian first rounders.

He arrived in 1973 and became an immediate epiphany. He was plus 40 in his rookie season.

"What do you expect a defenceman to do," asked Leafs forward Paul Henderson. "Protect his zone? He does that thoroughly. Set up plays? He's got 30 assists. Shoot from the point? He's got a hell of a shot. Block shots?  There's nobody in the league better at it."

"Salming is as important to us as Bobby Orr is to Boston, if not more important," Kelly said. "When we have him on the ice, he controls play in much the same way Orr does for the Bruins."

In first his six seasons, Salming was a first team all-star once and a second five times. In an era dominated by Orr, Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson, Salming was a two-time runner up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best.

In the early years, Salming was the subject of goon tactics and abuse. They called him Chicken Swede and ran at him with sticks and fists. "Borje pays a high price for greatness," observed Robinson.

"He was breaking the ice for a lot of the other people, a lot of the other Swedes and the other Europeans," said Islanders coach Al Arbour. "A lot of people would be after him and say "we're going to get a hold of that guy, we don't want these guys taking our jobs.' He had to take a lot of abuse in those days but he overcame everything."

"(Philadelphia enforcer) Dave Schultz took a run at him and Borje went toe-to-toe with him," remembered  longtime defence partner Brian Glennie. "He never took any guff and once he established that they left him alone."

Conn Smythe, a lover of tough hockey, admired Salming immensely not because he won his fights but because he fought them.

"If he fights back, he wins because they leave him alone.  He's like Britain. He doesn't win the battles but he wins the war."

When he played Canada Cup games in Sweden, Salming imported the rough tactics he learned here. "In Canada, people just think I'm a Swedish hockey player and a nice guy," he laughed "Over here, they say that I'm a rough, tough, Canadian hockey player."

Salming was a Maple Leaf for 16 years. He holds virtually every offensive record for Leafs defencemen. Only Tim Horton and George Armstrong played more games in blue and white.

Salming was only the second European (Vladislav Tretiak was the other) to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

But it was never easy, not on a team that struggled mightily through most of his tenure or in a league that distrusted anyone not born in Canada. Salming twice turned down the Leafs captaincy, a move that stands out as one of his few he regrets.

When Mats Sundin was asked to where the C, he sought out Salming who counseled him against making the same mistake he did.

"I shied away because of the language and all that, but I should have taken the captaincy," he said later.

Over those 16 seasons, Salming returned every slash and attempt to intimidate. He brought a style of defence that had never been seen before, a game built on exceptional range, flexibility and imagination.

And he was right. From his first day as a Leaf to his last, you could always believe in the big fellow.

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