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Börje Salming photographed in 1986 by Boris Spremo.

The NHL’s Swedish King, Börje Salming

Written by
Allen Barnier
and
and
November 28, 2023
The NHL’s Swedish King, Börje Salming
Börje Salming photographed in 1986 by Boris Spremo.

Swedish hockey superstar turned legendary Toronto Maple Leaf, Börje Salming, had a nearly two decade-long NHL career—and is still impacting the sport, even a year after his death.

Börje Salming was born in Kiruna, a small mining town in Sweden, where he played hockey for the local AIF Juniors team growing up. He took influence from his older brother, Stig Salming, who was a heavy presence in the Swedish hockey scene at the time. At the age of 17, Börje played for the Swedish National Juniors, and helped the team earn second place at the Junior European Cup. He then joined the Swedish Elite League, leading them to winning the league championship during the 1971–1972 season. Salming represented Sweden at the World Hockey Championship in 1973, winning the title of Sweden’s most outstanding player, and scoring the goal that secured the team a silver medal.

Thanks to Maple Leafs talent scout Gerry McNamara, Salming started his first season as a Toronto defenceman in 1973. During this season, he accumulated a total of 39 points, and received the Molson Cup—a prize he would go on to win three more times over the course of his career. Starting in 1975, Salming qualified and played for the NHL All-Star team for six consecutive years, making the Second All-Star team five times, and the First All-Star team once in 1977. 

Salming made history during his time in the NHL, and paved the way for many future European hockey players. He was the league’s first European-trained player, and the first European player in NHL history to appear in 1000 regular season games—an achievement he earned during his last season playing for the Maple Leafs in 1989. Prior to Salming, European hockey players were seen as weaker than their North American counterparts, but Börje defied these expectations with his grit and brutal defence strategies—with the scars and injuries to tell the tale. His most severe injury was in 1986, when Red Wings’ centre Gerard Gallant was pushed, lost his balance, and Salming ended up with Gallant’s skate to the face, resulting in upwards of 250 facial stitches.

His achievements throughout his career are astonishing to say the least. In addition to being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, and the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1998, Salming was named one of the NHL’s greatest players of all time for the league’s centennial anniversary in 2017. During his 17 seasons in the NHL, Salming racked up a total of 1148 regular season games, 81 playoff games, 150 goals, and 787 points. Though he spent the last year of his career playing for the Detroit Red Wings, Salming is considered a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey legend, and has his retired jersey  in the rafters of the Scotiabank Arena to prove it.

Börje Salming was unfortunately diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) in July of 2022, and experienced rapid health decline over the next few months. By October of 2022, Salming had lost the ability to speak,but he never lost his love for the game of hockey. In his last weeks, he still remained an involved figure in the world of hockey. On November 10th, 2022, Salming attended the Hall of Fame induction of three Swedish players, and was brought to the ice by former teammate Darryl Sittler for a standing ovation. The next day’s Leafs game against the Vancouver Canucks opened with a heart-wrenching tribute and standing ovation for the legendary defenceman. Swedish Leafs players Oliver Ekman-Larrson and William Nylander ceremoniously dropped the puck alongside Salming, his family, and Maple Leafs alumni Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin. The game’s starting line-up featured Toronto’s six Swedish-born players, as a nod to Salming.

Less than two weeks after his appearances in Toronto, on November 24, 2022, Börje Salming sadly passed away in Nacka, Sweden at the age of 71.

A year after his passing, Börje Salming’s memory is still being celebrated worldwide. For two games after he passed, the Leafs wore “BÖRJE” patches, depicting a crown overtop of a maple leaf in colours of the Swedish flag—alluding to Salming’s nickname, “The King”. These patches have made a recent reappearance on Toronto’s jerseys during the Global Series in Stockholm Sweden on November 17th and 19th, 2023. The jerseys are now being auctioned off by RealSports, with all proceeds being donated to ALS. The ceremonial puck drop for the Leafs’ November 17th game in Sweden was also done by Börje’s son, Anders Salming.

This year, NHL’s Alumni Associated has also implemented a “Börje Salming Courage Award” for a European NHL alumnus that embodies Salming’s courageous dedication to the hockey community—presented to Sweden native, 20-season Red Wings defenceman, Nicklas Lidstrom.

Börje’s story is also making the big screen in a new miniseries entitled Börje: The Journey of a Legend. All six episodes premiered on Sunday, November 19th, and are now available on Swedish streaming service Viaplay. Prior to his death, Salming was heavily involved in the project—notably in coaching Valter Skarsgård, who plays Börje in the docuseries, through his process of learning how to skate for the role. The series features scenes shot in Toronto, Mexico, and Sweden, as well as footage of Salming and the Leafs during his time in the NHL. Maple Leafs players of past and present visited Stockholm on November 14th, 2023 to attend the premiere of the series.

Börje Salming was not only a defencive force on the ice, but his contributions to the game of hockey, and kindness off the ice let his legacy live on. 

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