The King of Sweden turned 60 Sunday and while Borje Salming accepts congratulations the birthday itself was modest: just a gathering with some friends and family.
It has been 22 seasons since Salming, King to his Leaf teammates, returned to Sweden and the successes have, if possible, accelerated. Salming, a pioneer for all the European players
who followed him, remains the Leafs all-time goalscorer and point-getter among defencemen.
For 20 years he has headed a company that ambitiously moved from hockey equipment to underwear and then apparel. His next frontiers are men’s fragrances, hair and body cleansers and sunglasses.
“I guess,” he said modestly, “I needed something to keep busy. It’s like I said as a player: I will keep going as long as my health holds up. I have 40 or so people working for me. It’s just like hockey, everything depends on the team you have around you.”
The course of Salming’s life was battered by the death of his father, Erland.
“My dad died in a mine accident when I was five,” Salming said. “He was 35 years old. A lot of other people lost their moms or dads but for me it meant nobody to coach me, nobody to train with. The game would be over and the fathers would be there with their sons and I would be by myself.”
When Salming and Inge Hammarstrom arrived to play for the Leafs in 1973, the two found immense hostility outside the Leafs dressing room and in. The two Swedes were not just run at in games, they had to defend themselves at practice as well.
“They (teammates) were like everybody. They would say ‘what are you doing here? You should go home.’ They were worried about their jobs and they came hard at us,” Salming said. “But when they realized we could play they accepted us. “
Salming was willing to fight back but the pounding took a terrible toll on Hammarstrom whose game was based on speed and finesse, not fighting through punches, knees and crosschecks.
“Inge should have been a hockey player in the 1990s instead of the 1970s,” Salming said. “He didn’t like it. He felt like people were trying to kill him every night.”
Salming’s toughness, at first ridiculed, became widely respected. In 1989 he took about 300 stitches when a skate blade chewed into his face but he returned to the ice soon after.
“His face,” teammate Steve Thomas said as he marveled at the Swede’s determination, “looked like a softball.”
Salming ignored long streaks of ineptitude and the constant hectoring of cantankerous owner Harold Ballard. It took years to banish the image of the Chicken Swede; night after night he was bated and tested.
Forged in hardship, Salming never stopped being his father’s son.
“When you grow up after you lose your dad, I think you find that he is still looking out for you. I knew he was with me in the tough times and I think that made me stronger, tougher.”
Salming has two children, 39 and 36 from his first marriage, two more, 15 and 12 from his second but they are far from his own legacy.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, a fraternity he joined in 1996 as the first Swedish player will soon be replete with Swedes: Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson and Markus Naslund are destined for consideration. All profited wildly from what Salming built, often in crushing isolation.
At 60, Albert Einstein wrote: “I live in that solitude which is painful in youth but delicious in the years of maturity.”
What made Borje Salming great was his ability to find his way past isolation, past hopelessness. It fashioned him as a child, in his teen years and as a pioneer in the NHL. He became the first athlete to make a second fortune selling jocks after he stopped being one.
There are no self-made men. The ones who seem to be, men like Borje Salming, are dependent on circumstance, on love and loss inexorably intertwined to bestow the tools for survival. “Because my dad died so young I tried to do as much as I could in everything I did,” Salming said. “I think it made me tougher.”
Salming still plays three or four times a year in charity events. Every winter morning he checks the newspaper to see how his old club is doing.
“It’s sad we haven’t made the playoffs lately,” he said. “I really want to see the team do better.”
And while he gets back to Toronto periodically, Borje Salming is willing to leave his kingdom for the one cause that after all these years, remains dear.
“If the Leafs ever made it to the Stanley Cup semifinals or finals,“ said the King of Sweden, “I would definitely be there.”