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A pioneer with an unbreakable spirit

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Toronto Maple Leaf Porgy Salming waves to the crowd at a tailgate party in Toronto on November 11.Canadian Press

Borgje Salming, the man whose hockey career will be remembered for his class, courage, skill and perseverance, died Thursday in Sweden at the age of 71, five months after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral multiple sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

A pioneer for fellow Swedes and other European players who followed him into the NHL, Salming was the first Swede to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, in 1996. He played for the Maple Leafs for 16 seasons from 1973 and played in Detroit. red wings. for a year after that.

The greatest defenseman to ever wear a Toronto jersey, he holds six team records and was named an All-Star six times during his career.

Although terminally ill, Salming’s death came as a surprise as he had flown to Toronto less than two weeks earlier prior to the annual induction game to the Hockey Hall of Fame. He received a standing ovation when he was introduced before the Maple Leafs v Penguins game on November 11, and the next night was the subject of a long and poignant tribute at Scotiabank Arena.

Known as King, Salming was a great player for the Maple Leaf at a time when the team wasn’t doing well.John McNeil / The Globe and Mail

A good friend and former teammate of Salming’s, Darryl Sittler, accompanied him on the ice and helped him raise his hand to identify the cheers. Tears flowed down the stands and from Salming’s eyes as well.

“You don’t have a soul if you’re not touched by this,” Elliott Friedman, Sportsnet’s NHL hockey reporter, said Thursday.

On November 14, three Swedes – Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel and Henrik Sedin – were recruited by the name of Salming and his family in an adjacent room.

At a party honoring Borje Salming, Leafs greats get their very own Lou Gehrig moment

“He loved his Hall of Fame weekend and wanted to be there,” Friedman said. “People in the Hall of Fame told him he had nothing to do that he didn’t want to do, but he was involved in just about everything. It was very meaningful to him.”

In February, Salming began experiencing unusual muscle spasms. In mid-July, he was diagnosed with ALS, a progressive disease of the nervous system. He disclosed the diagnosis through the Maple Leafs organization on August 10 and in October said his condition worsened because he had lost the ability to speak and was dependent on a feeding tube.

His death was announced jointly by his family and the Maple Leafs.

“Borg was a pioneer of the game and an icon of unquestionable spirit and perseverance,” Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. “He identified himself with his game on the ice and his contributions to society.”

Salming was a pioneer for fellow Swedes and other European players who followed him into the NHL.STF/The Canadian Press

The Toronto players were informed of Salming’s death at a pre-practice meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the Maple Leafs will face the Minnesota Wild on Friday afternoon.

“It’s hard to deal with,” said William Nylander, a Canadian-born Swedish right-winger in Toronto. “It really amazed me. We saw that a few weeks ago. It’s very disturbing.”

On the night of November 12, Nylander participated in Puck Night with Oliver Eckman-Larson of the Vancouver Canucks. Salming threw the imp between them and Nylander took it and handed it to him and hugged him gently.

That night, the Maple Leafs’ opening roster consisted of six Swedish players for the first time in franchise history.

“It’s really sad news,” said Erik Calgren, the Swede, who faced Toronto against Vancouver. “I am glad the organization took the time to bring him to Toronto and show him how much they value him. I feel for his family and all his loved ones.”

Salming signed as a free agent with Toronto in the summer of 1973. Although he had been a star of the Swedish Premier League for years before, he was expected to be sweet – a common misconception against European players. He took a few hits in his first year but unleashed his punishment and changed the perception of foreign players.

Maple Leafs great Paul Henderson, who was an NHL veteran when Salming arrived in Toronto, remembers the 22-year-old as a physical specimen.

“He had the best body I’ve ever seen,” said Henderson. “He had 5 percent body fat, and I was like, ‘Who is this guy?'” »»«

“He did everything very well. It was very cool.”

Salming holds nearly all of the Maple Leafs’ defensive franchise records.Gary Hirschhorn/The Canadian Press

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman also paid tribute. He described Salming as “an extraordinary presence and transformative figure in the history of the League”.

“Burg Salming was as tough physically and mentally as he was skilled,” Pittman said in a statement. “He followed the path of many of the greatest players in NHL history while shattering all stereotypes about dominating Europeans in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival.”

Salming holds nearly all of the Maple Leafs’ defensive franchise records, including goals (148), assists (620) and points (768). He played in 1,229 NHL games, regular season and playoffs, retiring the number 21 jersey and wearing it to the rafters in 2006.

Known as the King, Maple Leaf was great at a time when the team wasn’t doing well. Oh my God, that was hard. Once he cut his face with a ski blade and the wound required 300 stitches. His face looked like a streetcar map of downtown Toronto.

Ron McClain, CBC sportscaster best known as host Hockey night in CanadaAnd remember how enamored the Canadians were with Salming when he landed in the NHL.

“The league was very cohesive and it was ambiguous,” McLean said. “Everything about him shocked us. His big slap, his elegant skating… He not only played our sport, he perfected it.”

McClain will never forget the nights of November 11th and 12th, when Salming returned home to Toronto for the last time.

“These two nights were magical,” McClain said. “Seeing the love in his eyes that he gave to his captain, Daryl Sittler, said it all.”

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