Borje Salming started to cry when thinking about Jim Gregory.
For Salming, Gregory was far more than the general manager who first brought the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman over from Sweden to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs 46 years ago.
He's always been family to Salming. And now he's gone, having died Wednesday at age 83.
[RELATED: Gregory, Hockey Hall of Famer, dies at 83 | Gregory made impression on Hall of Famer Keon]
"He was like a second father to me," Salming said, crying during a phone interview from Sweden. "I love that man …"
Salming paused for several seconds, trying to regain control of his emotions.
"People don't understand," he said. "In 1973, I came to a new country, a new league, a new city, a new culture, a new language, a new everything. And he was always there for me. Without him, I'm not sure I could have coped …"
Gregory spent 10 seasons as Maple Leafs GM from 1969-79 before becoming an NHL executive for the next four decades. In the course of that illustrious career, one of his most notable accomplishments was bringing Salming and forward Inge Hammarstrom, also a Swede, to the NHL in 1973, two of the first Europe-born players to play in the League.
Gregory had sent scout Gerry McNamara to check out Hammarstrom at a tournament in Europe one year earlier. When McNamara sent back a report that a kid named Salming had caught his eye during the event, Gregory eventually got permission from Toronto ownership to sign each of them.
The rest is history.
"[Gregory] was like family," said Salming, now 68. "No, he was family. He'd make sure I was settled in and had everything I needed. If I needed anything, I'd come to him. That was it.
"I remember one of the first times I was going back home after I'd joined the Leafs. I wanted to bring some souvenirs back to Sweden with me. He just sent me downstairs where all the jerseys and things like that were and said, 'Take whatever you like.'
Video: Former Maple Leafs GM Jim Gregory dies at 83
"I was so far from home. So far. And he did everything in his power to make Toronto feel like my second home any way he could."
Salming spent 16 seasons with the Maple Leafs (1973-89) before finishing his career with the Detroit Red Wings (1989-90). He had 787 points (150 goals, 637 assists) in 1,148 NHL games and became the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Even after Salming's career ended, the two shared a special bond that spanned five decades. Even his friends from Sweden quickly learned that.
"I was in Toronto a couple of years ago with some buddies, and we were watching practice," Salming said. "Suddenly there was [Gregory]. He came over immediately, and we had a huge hug and both [of us] started crying.
"My buddies were asking, 'Who's this guy? He must be someone special to you if you are both crying like that.'
"They were right. He was special. And he'll always be someone special to me. That will never change."
Video: Teams around the NHL pay tribute to Jim Gregory