The Slender Swede, Borje Salming
I still can recall the front page picture of a 1973 Toronto Telegram, or it might of been the Toronto Star. It was a black and white photo of the Toronto Maple Leafs newest acquisitions.
Two players from Sweden, Inge Hammerstrom and Borje Salming, they were pictured with Leaf General Manager Gerry McNamara walking through the Toronto Airport.
Most Leaf fans were sceptical to the fact that two unknown players from a Scandinavian country would be able to compete in the fast, violent, gruelling National Hockey League. The league at this time was soon to be dominated by the Philadelphia Flyers also known as The Broad Street Bullies (need I say more?)
Borje Salming was by far the better player of the two that arrived that day and he quickly established himself as the Leafs and one of the NHL’s best defenseman.
Borje was the first star in his first game played as a Leaf. Salming's second game was in Philadelphia and it was this game that the chicken Swede tag would forever never be pinned on Borje after a fight with tough guy Dave Shultz.
The fight was a draw but really it was a win for Borje. Here is this rookie Swede holding his own against the "Hammer" Shultz. No one could believe it.
Overnight he became a fan favourite with the Gardens faithful and also of then owner, Harold Ballard. Salming quickly became Ballard’s only untouchable player; he would be a Leaf for life.
Although Ballard had not much praise for the other Swede Inge, his now famous quote still resonates with Leaf fans from that era to this very day when he proclaimed that "Hammerstrom could go into a corner with six eggs in his pocket and come out with none broken.” That hurt but the nickname “chicken Swede" seemed to apply to the timid number eleven.
All the scepticism Leaf fans had concerning Swedes playing in North America was proven right by Inge but proven totally false by Salming. Never one to hog the limelight, Salming shied away from the ever present in your face Toronto media always preferring to do his talking on the ice where he spoke fluidly.
In his early career he had very little command of the English language and would more or less communicate with constant head nods and a very limited selection of words he had brought with him from Sweden.
Any Leaf fan during the mid seventies and eighties could never forget Salming’s all out leaving everything on the ice style of play. Blocking shots, pinpoint passes up the middle, slalom rushes and did I mention blocking shots.
Salming would drop flat on the ice to block a low slapshot from the point, only to get up and drop again to block another shot destined for the Toronto goal. Blocking three shots on just one shift was not a rare occurrence for the slender Swede much to the amazement of teammates that were often bewildered by Borje’s routine suicidal antics.
By seasons end Salming appeared drained and his gaunt face could not conceal his frustration of playing for a continually losing team.
A former Swedish all-star Borje jumped at the opportunity to play for his native country during the 1976 Canada Cup. The highlight for Borje as well as Leaf fans was the night Sweden would play Team Canada right on Maple Leaf Gardens ice.
During pre game introductions Salming received a five minute standing ovation more than any player on the ice that night or during the entire tournament.
It was a memorable moment for “King” the nickname Salming was given while playing for the Leafs. I always considered “King” the perfect nickname since in my books Salming was king of the blue liners.
Borje would suffer many serious injuries during his eighteen year NHL career. The two that immediately come to mind was eye injury during the 78-79 playoffs against the Islanders. Borje had almost been blinded in one eye after getting an accidental high stick by Lorne Henning.
Salming made front page in the Toronto papers being rushed to the hospital by ambulance with his equipment still on. Leaf fans were overjoyed to find out that Borje would be back the following season.
Probably one of the most gruesome pictures I have ever seen was the front page of The Toronto Sun the Saturday edition after a game in Detroit the night before. Salming`s face had been stepped on by Gerard Gallant during a goal crease scramble. Salming had received over three hundreds stitches that criss crossed his already battle scarred face.
Taking advantage of the situation my friend Jim Phillip had taken the coloured front page picture and mounted it on a piece of cardboard then he hung it in front of the Collegiate Sports store in the Yorkdale Mall that he managed.
Underneath the picture Jim placed every hockey visor he had in the store and by the afternoon had sold every single one. The picture was repulsive and the shoppers that day could not help but notice it.
Borje would go onto play eighteen seasons in the NHL, all with the Leafs except the final year when he played for Detroit trying to win the Stanley Cup that had forever eluded him in Toronto. It just did not seem right seeing Borje play in the red and white and after one year he retired and moved back to his native Sweden after the 89-90 season.
Borje was also named a first team all-star once in 1977, as well as five second team All-star selections. Borje would only play in three all star games preferring the rest that the mid season game provided players who did not play.
After his career, Borje returned to Toronto in November of 96 to accept his nomination and to be officially honoured as a member of The Hockey Hall of Fame. He returned in October of 2006 to have his number twenty-one honoured by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
I personally have met Borje on a few occasions and have always been impressed with his friendly down to earth demeanour. Borje was not my favourite player but he was a close second to Wayne Gretzky. Borje was and always will be my favourite all time Toronto Maple Leaf player, bar none.
Watching him play, one could never accuse Salming of not giving his best year in and year out. He was a real pro and although his compatriot Inge only lasted four seasons with the Leafs before ending his career with two seasons in St Louis, Borje Salming was a permanent fixture on the Maple Leaf blueline.
He was a fixture in the City of Toronto as well and could often be seen walking home from the subway to his High Park area home. Summer months Borje was often seen riding his bike in High Park, always gesturing a wave or a head nod to his many fans that would notice him whizzing by.
I would never of thought that front page picture back in 73 that I was looking at the first truly great European player that would pave the way for all the future great Europeans to come over and play in the NHL for big money contracts.
I hope they all send Borje a thank you card because had it not been for Salming breaking the myth that European players were not tough enough to play in the NHL, it might of never happened.
"King" may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.
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