Legendary NHL defenceman Börje Salming, who was a fixture on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ blue line for 16 years, has died. He was 71 years old.
The Maple Leafs announced Salming’s death Thursday afternoon.
“Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” President and Alternate 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 with the progressive nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, earlier this year. Salming had been receiving treatment in his native Sweden.
A pioneering European star from the northern Swedish town of Kiruna, Salming played 1,099 games with the Leafs and ranks fourth among the team’s career scoring leaders with 768 points.
In 1997, he was voted one of the 100 greatest players in NHL history by a panel that included former players, coaches, executives and media members.
Salming’s number 21 hangs in the rafters at Scotiabank Arena, after it was retired in 2016 alongside other Leafs greats like 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 icons like Bower, Darryl Sittler and Ted Kennedy.
Emotional final tribute in Toronto
His importance to the Maple Leafs and the city of Toronto was exemplified by emotional tributes and standing ovations earlier this month, as he attended games in Toronto for the last time.
WATCH | Salming receives emotional ovation from Leafs fans:
Salming’s strong two-way play made him one of hockey’s elite defencemen. He was also one of the most popular players in team history.
“Wearing the Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for 16 seasons was a great honour,” Salming said in part in a statement made upon the announcement of his statue in 2014.
“I always look back on my time in Toronto with fondness and enjoy the chance to visit every chance I get.”
Former Maple Leafs captain and countryman Mats Sundin previously said that every Swede respects Salming and holds him in high esteem for his wealth of accomplishments.
“For us — Swedish hockey players — he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a trailblazer,” Sundin said.
Though European players are now commonplace in the NHL and among the league’s biggest stars, that wasn’t always the case. Starting back in 1973, Salming helped open doors to North American hockey for his countrymen — who hockey fans once looked down upon with the childish nickname “chicken Swedes” — thanks to stereotypes that they couldn’t keep up with the physicality of the North American game.
Salming helped annihilate that stereotype by not just surviving but 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 accumulated a team-record 620 assist, alongside 148 goals.
He was also named to the league’s first all-star team once and five times on the second all-star team, which was also a team record. He came just shy of enough votes for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman in 1980.
In a statement Thursday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman called Salming the first Swedish star to play in the league, and as “physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted.
“He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL 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,” Bettman said.