Borje Salming, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Hall of Fame defenseman who became the N.H.L.’s first Swedish star and a pioneer for the numerous European players who have changed the face of the league, died on Thursday in Nacka, Sweden. He was 71.
The Leafs said the cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Gary Bettman, the N.H.L. commissioner, said in a statement that Salming “blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in N.H.L. history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973.”
Playing with the Leafs for 16 seasons and the Detroit Red Wings in his final season, Salming was named to the N.H.L.’s first all-star team in 1976-77 and the second all-star team five times. He was a two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the league’s leading defenseman, finishing behind the Montreal Canadiens’ Larry Robinson each time. In 1996, he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“When they called me I was actually crying,” Salming recalled in a 2017 video for “100 Greatest N.H.L. Players presented by Molson Canadian.” “We showed Canadians we could play hockey.”
Playing in 1,099 regular-season games for Toronto, Salming set a franchise record for most assists (620) while registering the most goals (148), points (768) and playoff points (49) by a defenseman in Leafs history. But his teams never reached the Stanley Cup finals.
Salming, who was also an outstanding shot blocker, was named one of the 100 greatest N.H.L. players in 2017, when the league celebrated its centennial.
Anders Borje Salming was born on April 17, 1951, in the northern Swedish city of Kiruna, a son of Erland and Karin Salming. His father died in a mining accident when he was 5.
The Maple Leafs signed Salming in May 1973 after a scout spotted him and believed he could thrive in the North American style of hockey, which featured a hard-hitting game in contrast to the Europeans’ emphasis on finesse.
“Opponents abused him, his body was covered with welts, but he’d just say, ‘I’m fine, I’m OK,’” Lanny McDonald, the Hockey Hall of Fame’s chairman and an inductee as a player for his years with the Leafs, told N.H.L.com upon Salming’s death.
“You got a lot of cheap shots, but that was only part of the game,” Salming said in the Molson video.
For all the talk about European hockey players of his time being soft, Salming was anything but that. In November 1986, his unprotected face absorbed a skate blade from Detroit’s Gerard Gallant, now the Rangers’ coach, when Gallant was knocked over a prone Toronto defenseman during a goal-mouth scramble at the Leafs’ net. It took an estimated 250 stitches to close the wound. Two weeks later, wearing a visor, Salming returned to action.
Salming played for Sweden in four International Ice Hockey Federation world championships, three Canada Cups and the 1992 Winter Olympics. He was inducted into the federation’s Hall of Fame in 1998 and named to its centennial All-Star team in 2008. It recognized the six most outstanding players in the history of international ice hockey.
Salming flew with his family to Toronto from Sweden in early November for additional medical treatment and also attended Hall of Fame inductions held there. The Salmings visited the Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena when Toronto faced the Vancouver Canucks on Nov. 12. The Leafs showed a video tribute to Salming, and though ALS had severely debilitated him, he dropped the puck for a ceremonial face-off. The Leafs started an all-Swedish lineup that night to honor him.
Salming’s No. 21 jersey, which had been retired, hangs from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena.
Salming’s survivors include his wife, Pia; their children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara; and a brother, Stig.
When the Leafs faced the Minnesota Wild in a road game on Friday, their players wore patches honoring Salming. They featured “BORJE” in yellow letters across a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colors of the Swedish flag. That crown was a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.