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Hall of Fame

Salming creates emotional moment for fellow Maple Leafs legends, fans

Longtime defenseman suffering from ALS part of ceremony with former teammates at Hall of Fame game

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Even legends cry, given the proper motivation.

And so it was Friday at Scotiabank Arena, during the pregame ceremony for the annual Hall of Fame game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Toronto Maple Leafs.

There they were, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin, both Hockey Hall of Famers themselves, standing on the ice and fighting back tears while they clutched the arms of their friend, Borje Salming, who stood between them.

Salming, the first Swedish player elected to the Hall of Fame and one of the most popular players in Maple Leafs history, was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year. The disease has stripped him of the ability to speak.

With the crowd giving Salming a standing ovation, Sittler held up Salming's arm and helped him wave. The roar from the capacity throng grew louder.

"Nobody will ever forget this moment, this game, this night," Sittler said, his eyes welling up. "This is what Borje wanted. Even months ago, after he was diagnosed, he told us he wanted to be here for Hall of Fame weekend. And here he is.

"To be here standing beside him tonight was a special evening that I'll always remember. And I believe hockey fans will too."

According to Sittler, so will Salming, even if he can't express it outwardly because of his condition.

"He totally knew what was going on," Sittler said. "Knowing Borje like I do and doing FaceTimes with him and talking to him, he's well aware of everything. It's not like his mind is gone. The emotion in his face when he cries, he can't help it. It's part of the disease he can't control.

"He's fully aware though. I'll be talking to him, and he'll give a thumbs up. He knows, which is awesome. That's why he's here. That's why he wanted to be here."

Sittler said Salming could feel the love coming from the crowd. It was one of those moments that was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.

Much like Salming's story.

The defenseman played 16 of his 17 NHL 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 games and was the first Sweden-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.

The 71-year-old announced in August he'd been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. There are more than 800 patients living with ALS in Sweden, and another 250 Swedes receive an ALS diagnosis each year.

One of the first people to reach out to him was Sittler, who played with Salming in Toronto from 1973-82 and was inducted into the Hall in 1989. Sittler, who turned 72 Sept. 18, helped Salming write the original release documenting his condition and has been the point man in North America in the efforts to help his friend.

As part of those efforts, Sittler contacted Mark Kirton, a former NHL forward who played 13 games for the Maple Leafs from 1979-81 and was mentored by Salming. The 64-year-old, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2018 and requires a wheelchair, immediately got in touch with Salming to help he and his family absorb the shock and provide guidance for the road ahead.

A road that led him to Scotiabank Arena on Friday, much to the appreciation of Sundin.

Sundin, the Maple Leafs' all-time leader in goals (420), and points (987), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. For a youngster growing up in Sweden, he said Salming opened doors for generations of Swedish players to come to the NHL and flourish.

"I'm so glad he and his family could make it," Sundin said. "I think it's such a fantastic weekend. And you have to understand, he's done so much for hockey in Sweden and for the generations who came after him. He paved the way. And in this city, here in Toronto and for Maple Leafs fans, he was one of the absolute best players here for a long time.

"For him and his family to be here for this reception, it's fantastic."

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Sundin's voice began cracking with emotion. During his playing days, the 51-year-old was known for being stoic and poker-faced. Not on this night. Not with Borje locked arm and arm with him.

"It's tough to imagine what he's going through, what his family is going through," Sundin said, fighting back tears. "But I think this is a great way to pay tribute to him."

Several feet away from Salming was another Swede, Daniel Alfredsson. The former Ottawa Senators captain was being honored for being part of the Hall's Class of 2022. Yet, on what was a day the hockey world was paying tribute to his career, his thoughts were with Salming.

"He played his heart out all the time," Alfredsson said. "I think he changed the perception of not just Swedish players, but European players. He was a trailblazer for so many of us and I'm happy he got the reception that he got.

"You could tell he was touched by it. A great moment for a great person."

The Maple Leafs will have another pregame ceremony Saturday prior to their game against the Vancouver Canucks, this time to specifically pay tribute to Salming. It will be another chance for the fans and the player to bond, maybe for the last time.

"Borje was determined to be here, and here he is," Sittler said. "He deserves this."

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