Maple Leafs legend Borje Salming has died, and he was living with ALS

Borje Salming, legendary NHL defenseman and pioneer of European-born players in North America, has passed away. He was 71 years old and was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year.

Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom Salming played the bulk of his career, A statement was issued Thursday to announce the death of Salming.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs mourn the loss of Börje Salming,” said Brendan Shanahan, Leafs president and alternate governor. Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon of unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness. He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and made himself known through his play on the ice and through his contributions to society.

Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be part of the hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife Pia, his children Teresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara, and his brother Stig.”

Salming’s NHL decorating career spanned 17 seasons from 1973 to 1990 between Toronto and Detroit, with a resume of 1,148 games and 787 points. A two-time runner-up in the Norris Cup, Salming became the first Swedish-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 and two years later inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame. The blueliner was a first-team NHL All-Star in 1977 and a five-time NHL All-Star between 1975 and 1980.

For 16 of his 17 NHL carries, Salming was the “King of Toronto,” patrolling the Maple Leafs’ blue line with a physicality and grit that flew in the face of common stereotypes that Swedish skaters like him were too soft to be. They can get to bruises in the NHL. Salming had made an immediate impression when Leafs scout Jerry McNamara spotted him playing overseas in 1973. McNamara was in Sweden scouting for Inge Hammerstrom. He ended up signing Salming to a free agent deal instead.

The defender quickly became a fan favorite in Toronto and his popularity there embraced. In January 1998, Salming became the first European-born player to reach the 1,000-game mark. The following year, Salming signed a one-year free agent deal with the Red Wings to end his career. Salming’s legacy remained in Toronto as the franchise’s defensive leader in assists (620) and points (760), though, and his number 21 has since been retired by the organization.

After his retirement, Salming remained an active part of the hockey community, which was devastated when he learned of his ALS diagnosis in August. A progressive disease of the nervous system, ALS affects cells in the brain and spinal cord and leads to a loss of muscle control. Salming originally began experiencing symptoms in February, and his health rapidly declined from there. Last month, Salming revealed that he had lost the ability to speak.

Despite his illness, Salming’s resolve remained unaltered. He was determined to attend Hall of Fame Weekend in Toronto earlier this month when three more Swedish players were inducted. Salming pulled it off, and the Maple Leafs honored him with a pre-game tribute against Vancouver. Defeated Salming came to the ice surrounded by family to a standing ovation. The ceremonial puck drop was performed by Swedish-born Oliver Ekman-Larson and William Nylander, and Leafs coach Sheldon Cave drafted the starting lineup that included all six Swedish-born Toronto players.

This was the second event in as many nights as Salming was honored. The night before, at the annual Hall of Fame game between Toronto and Pittsburgh, Salming was aided by his good friend and former teammate Darrell Sittler, who broke down in tears as he watched Salming cheer on the court. Salming met with Sittler in September and said he wanted to be in Toronto for the weekend that would include three Swedish-born recruits: Henrik from Vancouver, Daniel Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson from Ottawa.

Salming was a pioneer in every sense of the word, making it possible for today’s European players to thrive in the North American world.

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