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Borje Salming the subject of portrait series by Swedish graffiti artist

NHL.com @NHL

TORONTO - Posing for cameras in his underwear seems to have become a regular part of Borje Salming's post-hockey life.

Hey, if at 56 you've still got it, why not flaunt it? "He's got a pretty good body," says Swedish artist Johan Wattberg, who spent the past year painting 31 portraits of the Hall of Fame defenceman.

Salming's chiselled physique - which puts most men half his age to shame - is on display in many of Wattberg's G-rated works, 21 of which were unveiled Tuesday at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The other 10, recently shown in Stockholm, sold for $15,000 apiece within an hour of their release. The remaining pieces are to be sold via auction, with bids starting at $8,000.

Wattberg, a graffiti-inspired artist, worked from sketches he made of Salming plus some 400 photos he took of his subject. Salming, owner of a garment company that bears his surname, had no issue stripping down to his skivvies.

"I've also modelled underwear," he said, "but I'm too old for that. I was used to taking a lot of pictures with underwear on, so there was no big deal, really."

The tough part was convincing the former Toronto Maple Leafs star that the portraits were a good idea. Mats Juhlin, his close friend, first came up with the idea after attending one of Wattberg's exhibitions.

"I really liked the personality that came through in his paintings," said Juhlin. "Salming has such a good personality, I thought it would be perfect."

Salming, on the other hand, wasn't sold on it until he saw Wattberg's portraits of Swedish singer and actress Regina Lund. Impressed with the abstract nature of the work, he accepted.

"I sort of got hooked and said 'OK, let's do it,"' said Salming. "I think it's so different from just doing a portrait. Everything is completely different, that's why I like it."

Wattberg, who turns 29 in November, had his first exhibition at 13 and the Salming pieces mix the grittiness of street tagging with the grace of traditional portraits - part of his aim with this collection.

"I've seen Borje play, it's pretty hardcore, just like the way I paint," he said. "Borje as a person is very calm, he doesn't want to be in the spotlight very much so I painted him in one of the corners in most of the paintings and then you see the more abstract, all the colours and everything, that more reflects his way of playing."

Salming, who helped prove that European players could handle the rough-and-tough play of the NHL when he and countryman Inge Hammarstrom joined the Maple Leafs in 1973-74, remains hugely popular in both his native Sweden and in Toronto, where he starred for 16 years.

The 21 portraits, a solely commercial venture, that remain for sale will be displayed at the Air Canada Centre before the Maple Leafs open the new season Wednesday night, giving fans a chance to check them out.

"I really like it," said Salming. "He's going to paint one for myself."

Wattberg, who was nearly consumed by the project over the past year, will be happy to do that before turning back to other work.

"I paint often girls that I know or persons I know, in this kind of way," he said. "Sometimes it's more abstract than this. I never painted a man before (in portrait style). It was no problem."

But it's more fun painting girls?

"Yeah," he smiled, "of course."

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On the web: www.wattberg.com

For information on bidding on the paintings, contact: borjesalming-art(at)torontomail.com

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