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100 Greatest Players

Borje Salming: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Pioneering Maple Leafs defenseman first European star in League

by Bob Duff / Special to

The man who put European players on the NHL map didn't even have the League on his radar when he was breaking into pro hockey in his native Sweden.

"You know what?" Borje Salming said. "Where I come from (Jukkasjärvi) is in the north of Sweden. I came down from there and I played two years in the second division (with Kiruna AIF) and then I came down and played in the top league (for Brynas). I didn't really have time to think about the National Hockey League.


Video: Borje Salming was pioneering European star


"[Toronto Maple Leafs scout] Gerry McNamara came down to the Christmas tournament in my last year in Stockholm [in 1972]. He came in and asked me if I wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was sort of the first time I ever thought about it and I thought, 'Wow. That would be fun to play there.'

"Before that I was never even thinking of the National Hockey League. I'd heard of it but never thought I was going to play there."

Play there? How about dominate there?

During a 17-season NHL career -- 16 with the Maple Leafs and one the Detroit Red Wings -- from 1973-74 through 1989-90, Salming performed at an All-Star level, contended for the Norris Trophy and proved wrong those who suggested European players couldn't make it in the rugged NHL, becoming the first European-trained League player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.


Games: 1,148 | Goals: 150 | Assists: 637 | Points: 787


"Borje Salming was my big hero growing up," said Nicklas Lidstrom, a fellow Swede and Hall of Fame defenseman.

Although he's rightfully proud of his accomplishments, Salming doesn't consider himself to be a pioneer, pointing out that he wasn't the first European to play in the NHL.

"I never reflect on that thing at all," Salming said. "Not really. It's more other people telling me and asking me about what I did."

On the one hand, Salming has a point.

Sweden's Ulf Sterner played four games for the New York Rangers in 1964-65, and Czechoslovakia's Jaroslav Jirik played three games for the St. Louis Blues in 1969-70.

"Honestly, I'm not the first Swede that made it," Salming said. "[Defenseman] Thommie Bergman with the Detroit Red Wings played the year before (1972-73)."

On the other hand, none of those who arrived before Salming instantly became stars. Salming was an elite NHL player almost immediately.

He was selected to the NHL Second All-Star Team in 1974-75, his second season in the League, the first of six consecutive seasons when he was either a First or Second All-Star Team choice. His lone First All-Star Team selection came in 1976-77, when he finished second in Norris Trophy voting. Salming also was second in Norris voting in 1979-80, the seventh and final time he finished in the top five.

Before any of that, Salming would first be required to defend his honor. Every tough guy on every team was determined to find out just how much punishment the NHL's first European star could take without cracking.

"We knew when we came over here there was going to be fights and all that stuff," said Salming, who was joined on the Maple Leafs in 1973 by Swedish forward Inge Hammarstrom. "But it's part of it. It was something that I had no problems with. You wanted to play hockey but that was something that was part of the game.

"All you did was you'd keep on playing. That's all."

Salming sought to follow that policy but occasionally things got out of hand and he entered the fray.

Salming's second NHL game was at the Spectrum against the Philadelphia Flyers during the height of the "Broad Street Bullies" era. Barely seven minutes into the game, he found himself accepting the challenge of Dave "The Hammer" Schultz, the reigning heavyweight champion of the League.

"That was crazy," Salming said. "That was not the only team -- there was a lot of teams that had some crazy guys -- but Philly had more.

"They had sort of half the team that was completely crazy. That was something we knew but I don't think we thought it was going to be so many crazy guys on one team."

Salming made a smooth transition on the ice, though.

"Actually I had no problem at all," Salming said. "The only thing with me was that the rink is smaller but for me, for a defenseman, I don't know, I had no problems at all with that. We were in training camp here for 2-3 weeks, so you adjusted pretty quick.

"I adjusted pretty good. The only problem I had was with my English."

Salming wasted little time showing that he would be an impact player in the NHL. He scored 12 goals in 1974-75, the first of six consecutive seasons when he'd reach double digits. Between 1976-77 and 1980-81, he averaged 59 assists and 73 points.

He also got a rapid education on just where the Maple Leafs rated in Canadian pop culture.

When asked if he had any notion of how massive the Maple Leafs were across Canada when first arrived in Toronto, he said, "Not at all."

He knows now.

"Today, I always say to everybody this is the mecca of hockey," Salming said. "To play here -- and I say that, all the years I played with Toronto, everybody who got traded there, who came there, everybody said, 'My dream as a hockey player was to be playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.'

"That's when I sort of understood that I was lucky to play with them for 16 years."

Yet perhaps his most memorable moment at Maple Leaf Gardens came not while wearing a Maple Leafs sweater but as a visitor. As Sweden's lineup was introduced before its game against Canada in Toronto during the 1976 Canada Cup, Salming received a 30-second standing ovation.

Salming, who also received a rousing ovation at the Maple Leafs home arena before Sweden's game against the United States, seemed almost embarrassed by the lengthy cheers, circling the ice with his head bowed as the noise reached a crescendo.

Decades later, he has come to embrace the warmth the fans showed him, and its significance.

"At the time, of course I understood what they did but now I understand it better," Salming said. "How they could give me a standing ovation against the U.S. and the Canada game? How could they do that? That was incredible.

"I know they love Canada and they love the Canadian team and here I'm playing for Sweden and they give me a standing ovation.

"That was hard to understand from the beginning but now afterwards, I appreciate it so much. I must have done something right. It was an amazing thing."

Toronto loved Salming, and he loved Toronto back with an equal fervor and passion.

"When I was playing there, they treated me nice at all times," Salming said of Maple Leafs fans. "I was so happy about that, too. But what is the best of everything is after I quit Toronto and I came back, they have done so many things -- they've been treating me like gold.

"Since I came there in 1973 until today, they are so good to me. I come over there and they do anything for me and I'm so happy about that, especially for me and my family.

"It is fantastic to play for Toronto. That was amazing."

Salming holds Maple Leafs franchise records for assists (620) and rating (plus-155), and for goals (148), assists and points (768) by a defenseman. His 66 assists in 1976-77 stand are the most in one season by a Maple Leafs a defenseman, and Salming also holds the League record for points by a defenseman who wasn't selected in the NHL Draft.

Salming's only regret is that he couldn't help bring a Stanley Cup to Toronto.

"In the '70s we had such a good team with Darryl [Sittler] and Lanny [McDonald] and Tiger [Williams] and everybody," Salming said. "I had such a good time. We had such a good team and we were so close to the finals and winning the Stanley Cup.

"We were only shy one or two players and then we would have gone all the way. But it was tough luck and we didn't do it."

After leaving the NHL in 1990, Salming returned home to play and appeared for Sweden in the 1992 Albertville Olympics. In 2008 he and Russia's Viacheslav Fetisov were named the defensemen on the IIHF Centennial All-Star Team, and in 1996, Salming received what he considers his greatest honor: enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Going into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in Sweden they don't understand how big that is in Canada," Salming said. "I was so extremely happy about that. When they called me I was actually crying. I couldn't believe it.

"I thought I would never make it -- well, maybe later on -- but three years after I quit hockey I got in and that was really incredible."

Salming has continued to be honored in retirement.

A statue of Salming was unveiled on the Maple Leafs "Legends Row" outside Air Canada Centre in 2015, and Toronto raised his No. 21 to the arena's rafters in October, 2016.

"The banner up in the ceiling, and the statue," Salming said. "I felt never, ever would I get a statue. That's pretty cool.

"Basically when I'm gone, my grandkids and everybody can go there and say, 'I know that guy.' That's fantastic."

Toronto will never forget what Salming meant to the Maple Leafs. And European players will never forget what Salming's success in the NHL meant to them.


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