At The Scrum Sports, we cover all things Lightning. But there are instances where a story transcends the boundaries of one team’s fan base. Stories that are shared by the entire hockey world. The life and career of Swedish defense legend Borje Salming is one of these stories.
Paving the Way for Swedish Defensemen
The Tampa Bay Lightning have an award-winning Swedish defenseman- Victor Hedman. Hedman is a five-time James Norris Memorial Trophy finalist- having won it once, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and of course, a two-time Stanley Cup Winner. After being selected second overall in the 2009 NHL draft, Hedman quickly rose to stardom with the Lightning. Hedman is following in the footsteps of other top Swedish defenseman over the years from around the league. But without question, the player who paved the way for the Swedish defensemen of today was Borje Salming.
Salming signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the age of twenty-two. Leaf scout Gerry McNamara was in Sweden to check out other potential additions to the team when Salming caught his eye. He made his debut with the Toronto Maple Leafs at the start of the 1973-1974 season. His first game featured a Leaf win over the Buffalo Sabres, after which Salming was named the player of the game. Prior to Salming’s breakthrough, there was a consensus in the NHL that European players lacked the toughness required to play in our league. In some circles, the Swedish players were referred to as “Chicken Swedes”, preferring skating, passing, and shooting over brawling. Salming did his part to eradicate that reputation. In just his second NHL game, Salming took on the Philadelphia Flyers’ toughest player, Dave “the Hammer” Schultz, proving he was not afraid of a little brawl.
Borje Salming’s career statistics prove his status as a true trailblazer. He played 16 seasons for the Maple Leafs and finished his NHL career with a one-year stint in Detroit with the Red Wings. Salming holds all-time Leaf records for most career points and goals for a defenseman. When comparing Swedish defensemen in the history of the NHL, Salming ranks second overall in games played, assists, total points, and penalty minutes. He is third overall in goals, and fourth in plus/minus. Clearly, he excelled in every aspect of the game. He could defend. He could score. And he could fight when he needed to.
The Toughest Fight of All
Throughout his NHL career, Borje Salming was never one to shy away from any battle. But sadly, Salming is now facing a much different kind of fight. One he knows he cannot win. In mid-July of 2022, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. His symptoms progressed rapidly. In mid-October, he used an iPad to communicate to the public that he was no longer able to speak and now relied on a feeding tube for his meals. A few weeks later, he made the trip into Toronto for the annual Hall of Fame induction game. In a highly emotional moment during the pregame ceremony, Salming’s lifelong friend, Darryl Sittler, helped Salming lift his hand to wave to the adoring Toronto crowd.
A standing ovation at Scotiabank Arena.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) November 12, 2022
That weekend in Toronto would be Borje’s last public appearance. Shortly afterwards, his wife informed the media that he no longer had the energy for such appearances, and that it was time to focus on family.
ALS is unrelenting. It is a rare neurological disease that primarily affects the nerve cells (neurons) responsible for controlling voluntary muscle movement. It is progressive. There currently is no cure and no effective treatment to halt or reverse its progression. Approximately thirty-five years ago, I had the misfortune of seeing the ravages of ALS first-hand, as the fatal disease attacked my beloved grandmother. Despite continued research into this deadly disease, not much has changed since that time. There is still no treatment. And still no cure.
One Hockey Community
There are thirty-two teams in the NHL today. Each has its own fan base. But although our team loyalties may be different, we remain united in some very important ways. We all love the game of hockey and we share a respect for the true legends of the game- regardless of their team. Borje Salming was one such legend. He was a trailblazer who paved the way for so many future Swedish defensemen and forwards around the league. Throughout his hockey career, he fought every battle that came his way with heart, strength, and determination. He continues to fight that way now in his personal life.
As Bolts fans, we stand together with Leaf fans and fans of every other team in the NHL as one hockey community. We pay tribute to a true hero both on and off the ice. And we pray for a cure to this horrible disease.
Borje Salming, the Tampa Lightning community salutes you and your contributions to the league. We send our love and prayers and we wish you and your family continued strength as you endure this relentless battle.
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