Collector's Corner: Borje Salming Paved the Way for NHL's European Invasion
This edition of the Collector's Corner was written by Joe Garcia!
The raspy-throated voice said it all and the accent was unmistakable. There was no need to turn around and check the TV screen to see who was speaking. The “King,” number 21, had returned to Toronto. The city he seemed to own from 1973 to 1989 as he dazzled teammates, opponents, and fans alike with his style, grace, poise, determination, and superb athleticism. He was back, back in town for a Hockey Hall of Fame Game at the Air Canada Centre.
Borje “BJ” Salming, now 68 of Kiruna, Sweden, paved the way and opened the doors over 45 years ago for European players to show they belonged in the best hockey league in the world. He may not have been the first young man to trek across the Atlantic and give it a shot, but he was the first one to last and prove he belonged in the NHL.
Salming was discovered in 1972 along with teammate Inge Hammarstrom by former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager and then-scout Gerry McNamara. Salming and Hammarstrom debuted for the Leafs in the fall of 1973 and made an instant impact on the team and the NHL.
Hammarstrom, a smooth-skating forward, scored 20 or more goals for Toronto several times before being traded to St. Louis in 1977 by Harold Ballard. The Leafs owner didn’t take too kindly to Hammarstrom's graceful, but the so-called soft style of play. Ballard once stated that Hammarstrom could skate his way into a corner with a pocketful of eggs without breaking any of them.
Salming was different though. He gave as good as he got and though he wasn’t a skilled fighter, often found himself going toe-to-toe with the likes of Dave 'The Hammer' Schultz and Mel Bridgman of the Broad Street Bullies (Philadelphia Flyers), thus endearing himself to Leaf fans and Ballard.
Salming never quit. He’d be back on the ice the very next shift to take more physical and verbal abuse from less-skilled players to prove that brains and skill would win out over brawn. Ballard fell in love with the smooth-skating Swede and later announced he wouldn’t trade Salming for God himself.
'The King' was a superbly-conditioned athlete, attested to by playing 17 seasons in the NHL. He gave his heart and soul to the Leafs by throwing his body in front of shots, taking and giving hits, and anchoring the blue line with amazing offensive and defensive skills for almost two decades, often playing while injured.
Salming broke the heart of Leafs fans when he signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent for the 1989-90 season though, his last in the NHL. It would be a move he later said he regretted. However, it wasn’t his last season in pro hockey as he returned to Sweden and played for AIK from 1990 to ’93.
He enjoyed a 23-year pro career and was a six-time NHL all-star (one first team, five seconds) and represented Sweden in three Canada Cups. He is the highest-scoring Leaf defenceman in history and arguably the best blueliner to ever play for the team.
Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 becoming the first Swedish player to be voted in.
His expedition to the NHL opened the floodgates to skilled Europeans, and his countrymen will never forget it.
"Every Swede respects Borje and pays him tribute for what he has done. For us - Swedish hockey players - he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a trailblazer," said former Maple Leafs captain Mats Sundin.
Salming currently holds six single-season and career records with the Maple Leafs. These include most career goals and points and most single-season assists (66) by a defenceman as well as most assists by a Leaf and the best career plus-minus in franchise history at +150.
He skated in 1099 games with Toronto and racked up 148 goals and 620 assists for 768 points with another 12 goals and 49 points in 81 playoff outings. Salming notched two goals and 17 helpers in 49 games in his final NHL season in Detroit. He then returned to Sweden for two more full seasons before finally hanging up his skates when he reached the age of 42.
When the NHL released its list of the 100 greatest players in 2017 Salming was deservedly on it. He earned many franchise, NHL and international honors throughout his distinguished career and won the 1982 Charlie Conacher Humanitarian Award.
Although he earned many votes for the James Norris Trophy throughout his days in the NHL Salming controversially, never won the award as the league's best defenceman. He was undoubtedly a fan favorite in Canada's biggest city though and that was proven in 1976 during the Canada Cup tournament. When Salming was introduced for Sweden at Maple Leaf Gardens he was taken aback with the lengthy standing ovation he received.
It's something he would get used to as he's inevitably treated the same way every time he returns to town.
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