Swedish hockey player
Anders (Borje) Salming was the first European player to achieve fame in North American professional hockey. In his sixteen seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Salming galvanized a struggling team and became a crowd favorite at its legendary home venue, Maple Leaf Gardens. A six-time National Hockey League (NHL) All-Star player, Salming opened the door for a new generation of foreign-born hockey stars.
Played in Top Swedish League
Salming was born in Sweden in 1951, and played in the minor leagues there for six years as a teen and young adult. He was first with Kiruna AIF of the Swedish Second Division, and moved to Brynas IF Gavle in the Swedish Elite League while attending technical college. At the 1972 World Championships, Salming impressed a scout for the Maples Leafs with his toughness on the ice, and he and teammate Inge Hammarstrom were acquired for $50,000 transfer fees to the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation.
Salming's first appearance in the Leafs' jersey came on October 10, 1973, in a game against the Buffalo Sabres before a crowd that included Sweden's ambassador to Canada. Salming and Hammarstrom were not the first Europeans to skate in the NHL—the year before, the Detroit Red Wings had signed a Swede, Thommie Bergman, to their roster—but there was a blatant prejudice against foreign players. The League had been dominated by Canadian-born or Canadian-raised players until the 1960s, and national pride ran high still. In the late 1950s and again in 1964, a few outstanding Swedes had been given tryouts, but they had been treated viciously on the ice. There was still a certain scrappiness to the game in the early 1970s, and the pacifist Swedes were considered too soft to play in the League. "Swedes just don't know how to fight," Salming recalled in an interview with Peter Gammons a few years later in a Sports Illustrated article. "In Canada kids are brought up fighting. In Sweden, never. It is the philosophy we have about the game."
Slammed and Sliced
Not surprisingly, Salming was given his own trial by fire: at the Leafs' next match, against a tough Philadelphia Flyers team whose ice style was so fierce they were nicknamed the "Broad Street Bullies," Salming was body-checked, sticked, taunted as a "chicken Swede," and even punched. At 6'1" and 190 pounds, Salming was physically imposing enough to handle the abuse, and his fortitude quickly endeared him to Toronto fans. In an article titled "New Immigration Policy: Sign a Swede" by Sports Illustrated 's Mark Mulvoy, even Maple Leaf coach Red Kelly admitted he had his initial doubts about signing Salming and Hammarstrom. "Then I saw them skate and many of my doubts disappeared. They did things with their feet that you can't teach players." Kelly called Salming "an outstanding shot-blocker" who once took a puck in his stomach fired from just ten feet away, and noted that there was a certain grace to his skating style as well. "When he makes a turn on the ice, he does it with the style of a figure skater, moving his upper body first, not his legs."
Salming's talents as a defenseman proved so impressive that he won the Molson Cup after his rookie NHL season. Over the next few years he made the All-Star team six times, and by 1976 had become the Leafs' most famous player, as well as the crowd favorite. That year, he was signed to a new five-year contract totaling a cool $1 million. Gammons called him "the Swedish Bobby Orr ," equating him with the exceptional Boston Bruins defenseman and hockey's biggest star of the 1970s; both were quiet men who spoke infrequently to the press. "Like Orr, he plays with remarkable instinct and flair, displaying a recklessness that seems beyond reason or science," Gammon asserted about Salming, and noted he had become "the player around whom the Maple Leafs revolve—offensively and defensively."
|1951||Born in Kiruna, Sweden|
|1966-73||Plays in Swedish leagues|
|1973||Signed by Toronto Maples Leafs|
|1975-80||Makes NHL All-Star Team|
|1986||Briefly suspended for admitting prior drug use|
|1989||Signs with Detroit Red Wings|
|1990||Retires from NHL play|
|1996||Inducted into National Hockey Hall of Fame|
Oldest Player in League
Salming played for Sweden again on several occasions during the Canada Cup game. Twice he came close to winning the James Norris Memorial Trophy for outstanding defense, and by 1980 was the Leafs' highest earner at $275,000 a year. The subsequent decade, however, proved a difficult one for Toronto, and they made continually abysmal showings. His final seasons were problematic: in September of 1986, the Leafs suspended him for the entire season after he admitted in a newspaper article that he had used cocaine; team management relented, however, and he was reinstated after eight games. The following year, he and three other teammates were ejected from a Minnesota hotel after noise complaints, and Salming again missed some games. Despite the absences, he achieved an NHL first a few months later when, in January of 1988, he became the first European player to play 1,000 games in the League. At the end of that season, he ended his Leafs career with a franchise defense record for all-time goals (148) and assists (620).
Salming played the 1989-90 season, his last, with the Detroit Red Wings. At 38 years old, he was the oldest player in the NHL at the time, and was widely rumored to be ready to retire. True to form, Salming refused to speculate on his future. "I just go year by year," he told Detroit Free Press sports writer Keith Gave. "I'm not saying this is the last year. But if it is, I don't want to make a big deal about it, either. I just want to leave quietly." In the end, Salming did retire and returned to Sweden with his two teenaged children and wife Margitta. He played again for the Swedish Elite League, putting in two seasons with AIK Solna Stockholm and part of third before retiring from the ice for good. His last appearance was playing for the Swedish national team during the 1992 Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France. Four years later Salming became the first European player to be inducted into the National Hockey Hall of Fame.
Following his retirement, Salming returned to Sweden, where he owns a hockey equipment business and runs a youth hockey school. He is also involved with a Stockholm wine-import business, Bornicon and Salming.
Twenty years after Salming's star years, Scandinavian, Russian, Czech, and Slovak players had emerged as some of the NHL's most exciting players. Nicklas Lidstrom, the Wings' Swedish defenseman, won the Norris Trophy two years in a row, and in 2002 was one of forty-seven Swedes in the League. European-born players were so commonplace in the NHL that in 1998 it abandoned its format of Eastern versus Western Conference teams for the All-Star Game; instead, the contest pitted North American players against a World team.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1975, 1978-79, 1981||NHL Molson Cup winner|
|1975-76, 1978-80||Named to NHL Second All-Star Team|
|1976||Canada Cup All-Star Team|
|1977||Swedish World All-Star Team|
|1977||Named to NHL First All-Star Team|
|1996||Inducted into National Hockey Hall of Fame|
|DRW: Detroit Red Wings; MPL: Toronto Maple Leafs.|
Address: c/o Bornicon and Salming, Box 45438, S-1043 Stockholm, Sweden.
Gammons, Peter. "The Swedish Invasion." Sports Illustrated (October 18, 1976): 38.
Gave, Keith. "Salming Finds New Life with Wings." Detroit Free Press (September 15, 1989): 1D.
Gleason, Bucky. "Europeans Make a World of Difference." Buffalo News (February 6, 2000): C1.
Mulvoy, Mark. "New Immigration Policy: Sign a Swede." Sports Illustrated (October 29, 1973): 95.
"Salming Stays Out Despite Apology." New York Times (October 18, 1987): C11.
Schoenfeld, Bruce. "The NHL's most exciting players are Russians Serge Federov and Pavel Bure." The Sporting News (April 17, 1995): 50.
Alumni Bios, http://www.torontomapleleafs.com/tradition/alumni/alumni_salming.html (December 10, 2002).
"Borje Salming," http://www.hockeysandwich.com/salming.html (December 10, 2002).
"Leaf Legend: Borje Salming," http://www.penaltybox.com/legends/borje_salming.html (December 10, 2002).
Sketch by Carol Brennan