It could be argued that every European player collecting a salary in the NHL today owes a share to Borje Salming. Way back in 1973, he opened the doors to North American professional hockey for his fellow countrymen. At that time, after the first Summit Series, Canadians and Americans had come to respect the disciples of the Soviet hockey school, but the Scandinavian players were nicknamed "Swedish chickens." The joke was based on Sweden's national colors, but no doubt it had a double meaning. Borje Salming helped eradicate that stereotype. Six years after he retired in North America, the name of the "King" - his nickname in Toronto - was immortalized in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Salming was the first Swede to be so honoured.
Salming ended up in Canada quite by accident. In 1973 the Toronto Maple Leafs were interested in a different Swede, the winger Inge Hammarstrom. Leafs scout Gerry McNamara, who happened to be in Sweden at the time, saw Salming in action and immediately called his boss in Canada to tell him about another Scandinavian genius. Salming was too modest. In his first game with the team, Toronto defeated Buffalo 7-4 and he was voted the best player. At the end of his first season, the Swedish rookie had 39 points - an excellent result for a defenseman.
In 16 seasons with Toronto, Salming made 620 assists (a club record) and scored 148 goals for 768 points. He was included on the First All-Star Team once and fives times on the Second All-Star Team, again a Toronto record. In 1980 he came up a few votes short for the Norris Trophy as the season's best defenseman. In the history of the Toronto Maple Leafs, only two players appeared in more games than Salming - George Armstrong and Tim Horton. The King appeared in 1,099 games. He added two goals and 17 assists to his personal scorecard after a season with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent. Afterward, the 39-year-old veteran returned home and played for three seasons with AIK of Solna. The owner of a brewery and a garment factory, Salming has since abandoned hockey for business.
Salming is remembered for his slalom rushes across the rink and his powerful wrist shots in the style of Bobby Orr, as well as for his tricky but accurate passes so typical of the European game. Al Arbour, the great coach who in the early 1980s led the New York Islanders four times to the Stanley Cup, once commented on Salming when he was at the peak of his career. He called him a great athlete with an ability to perform excellently on both defense and offense. Yet, for a hockey player capable of gaining points on the offensive, his eagerness to be a human shield and stop a slapshot was quite incredible. And he did it without much hesitation. Arbour saw him for the first time in Moscow in 1973 and was highly impressed with his performance back then. But when his own team went up against Toronto, he lamented all those same qualities that made Salming a great player.
Another of Salming's strengths was his phenomenal stamina. Even at 38, while Salming was playing out his last season in Toronto, he would spend 30 to 40 minutes on the ice per game. In 1986, in a game against the Detroit Red Wings, he was badly injured when his face was cut with a skate. In photos taken at the time, Salming looked like a character out of a horror movie. But three days later he was back on the ice.
If Salming is so loved in Canada, what does he mean to Swedes? Mats Sundin, the Toronto Maple Leafs captain who began his hockey career in Salming's school, says: "Every Swede respects Borje and pays him tribute for what he has done. For us - Swedish hockey players - he is the man who showed us the right way; he is a trailblazer."