Iconic Maple Leafs defenseman Börje Salming dies at age 71

Legendary NHL defenseman Börje Salming, who was a fixture on the blue line of the Toronto Maple Leafs for 16 years, has passed away. He turned 71 years old.

The Maple Leafs announced Salming’s death on Thursday afternoon.

“Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon of unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” President and Deputy Governor Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.

“Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara, and brother Stieg.”

Salming was diagnosed earlier this year with the progressive nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was undergoing treatment in his native Sweden.

A trailblazing European star from the northern Swedish city of Kiruna, Salming played 1,099 games with the Leafs and ranks fourth among the team’s scoring leaders with 768 points.

Former Toronto Maple Leafs players and Hockey Hall of Fame members Darryl Sittler, left, Borje Salming, center, and Mats Sundin, right, participate in a pregame ceremony in Toronto, Nov. 11. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

In 1997, he was named one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history by a panel composed of former players, coaches, executives and media members.

Salming’s number 21 is hanging from the rafters at the Scotiabank Arena, having been retired in 2016 alongside fellow Leafs greats Dave Keon, Johnny Bower and Doug Gilmour. He was also the fourth former Maple Leaf to be immortalized with a statue in the team’s Legends Row in Maple Leafs Square, alongside such icons as Bower, Darryl Sittler and Ted Kennedy.

Emotional final tribute in Toronto

His importance to the Maple Leafs and the city of Toronto became apparent during emotional tributes and standing ovations earlier this month when he attended games in Toronto for the last time.

Salming, with his family and former teammates by his side, received thunderous applause from appreciative audiences during two separate games. In a particularly poignant moment before a game between the Leafs and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins, fellow former Leaf Sittler tearfully raised Salming’s arm to make sure he could wave to the crowd of thousands.

LOOK | Salming receives emotional ovation from Leafs fans:

Iconic Maple Leafs defenseman Börje Salming dies at age 71

Borje Salming Receives Emotional Standing Ovation at NHL Hall of Fame Game

The longtime Maple Leafs defenseman received a warm welcome from the Toronto crowd as he battles ALS.

Deprived of his speech and some mobility, Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly left the ice on his final appearance, for a second game against the Vancouver Canucks.

Former teammate and NHL great Lanny McDonald told CBC News it was “a gift” to Salming’s family to see how much he was looked up to when he was celebrated in Toronto this month.

“It was such an honor for him to help his family understand how much everyone loved and respected him,” McDonald said.

He said Salming was a “warrior” who would routinely come off the ice with welts, punches and bruises – but he never complained.

“Most of all, he was such a great teammate, both on and off the ice.”

Iconic Maple Leafs defenseman Börje Salming dies at age 71
Salming was the fourth former Maple Leaf to be immortalized with a statue in the team’s Legends Row at Maple Leafs Square. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

Salming’s strong two-way play made him one of hockey’s best defenders. He was also one of the most popular players in team history.

“It has been a great honor to wear the Toronto Maple Leaf jersey for 16 seasons,” Salming said in part in a statement made when announcing his statue in 2014.

“I always look back fondly on my time in Toronto and enjoy the chance to visit every chance I get.”

A pioneer

Former Maple Leafs captain and compatriot Mats Sundin previously said that every Swede respects Salming and esteems him highly for his wealth of accomplishments.

“For us – Swedish hockey players – he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a pioneer,” said Sundin.

While European players are now commonplace in the NHL and are among the league’s biggest stars, that wasn’t always the case. Starting out in 1973, Salming helped open doors to North American hockey for his compatriots — whom hockey fans once looked down on with the childish nickname “chicken Swedes” — thanks to stereotypes they couldn’t keep up with the physicality of the North American game .

LOOK | NHL legend Lanny McDonald recalls his friend and teammate:

Iconic Maple Leafs defenseman Börje Salming dies at age 71

‘He would do anything for you’: Leafs legend Lanny McDonald on Börje Salming

Toronto Maple Leafs legend Lanny McDonald paid tribute to his late teammate Börje Salming as “one of the greatest the game has ever played.” McDonald said he was grateful to be with Salming and his family recently at an emotional induction ceremony for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

Salming helped dispel that stereotype by not only surviving but also thriving in the NHL, earning the nickname “King.” In 16 seasons with the team before a final season in the league with the Detroit Red Wings, Salming amassed a team-record 620 assists, in addition to 148 goals.

He was also named to the league’s first all-star team once and to the second all-star team five times, which was also a team record. He fell just short of enough votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman in 1980.

Maple Leaf defenseman Borje Salming (L) holds off Canadiens forward Yvon Lamber (R) as he chases the puck during the first period of a game in 1981.
Salming, left, restrains Canadiens forward Yvon Lambert, right, as he chases the puck during a game in Toronto in 1981. (Gary Hershorn/UPC/The Canadian Press)

In a statement Thursday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called Salming the first Swedish star to play in the league, and as “tough physically and mentally as he was skillfully gifted.

“He paved the path that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all the stereotypes about European players that were populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973 in a League,” said Bettman.

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