Borje Salming would not be intimidated.
The slick defenceman from Kiruna, Sweden showed no fear on the ice, laying to waste the boorish notion of “chicken Swedes” commonplace in the NHL of the early 1970s with each welt he sustained and cut he suffered.
Over time Salming proved that European players could not only survive, but thrive in the rough-and-tumble North American game by evolving into a star on the Toronto Maple Leafs blue-line.
“I knew it was going to happen, I knew it was tough to play hockey over here,” Salming said Wednesday, before the Maple Leafs honoured him by raising his No. 21 up to the rafters at the Air Canada Centre. “I knew it was going to be a lot of fighting and that kind of stuff.”
Also recognized by the Maple Leafs were Leonard (Red) Kelly and the late Clarence (Hap) Day, who both wore No. 4. The trio join the 10 players already feted with tribute banners and two others who had their numbers retired.
“When I was here to play in a couple of oldtimers games, you see the banners up there and you think maybe one day my banner will be up there,” said Salming. “It’s a great thing. You just feel it inside, especially when you play here for 16 years.
“That’s a lot of memories, a lot of things happened, a lot of good things.”
Salming and countryman Inge Hammarstrom joined the Maple Leafs in 1973-74, a year after Detroit Red Wings defenceman Thommie Bergman became the first European-trained professional to play regularly in the NHL.
Just 22, Salming impressed immediately by recording five goals with 34 assists in 76 games. In 1976-77 he set career-highs with 66 assists and 78 points. He scored a career-best 19 goals in 1979-80.
Salming was inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 after amassing 150 goals and 637 assists in 1,148 games, earning respect from his peers and coaches along the way.
“After a couple of years, they didn’t want me to fight because they wanted me out on the ice,” said Salming. “They said don’t drop the gloves. I didn’t have to fight but sometimes you had to drop the gloves and you had to be there when there were brawls. But fortunately I didn’t have to fight, really.”
Salming spent 16 of his 17 NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs, wrapping up his North American career with a year in Detroit. He played three more seasons with AIK Solna Stockholm before hanging his skates up for good.
The legacy he left behind remains appreciated by today’s Swedish NHLers.
“He paved the way for a lot of us Swedish guys and maybe even Europeans with his play,” Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said. “He’s definitely one of the pioneers for us.”
Added Maple Leafs forward Alexander Steen: “I’ve seen it on tape and the abuse he took some nights was unbelievable. He was the pioneer for every Swede who’s come over. The things he accomplished were just incredible.”
Sometimes, Swedes even educate others on Salming’s accomplishments.
Leafs forward John Pohl, who wears 21 now, didn’t realize the significance of his number until a conversation with teammate Staffan Kronwall last year.
Pohl asked if Leafs captain Mats Sundin was the best Swede ever and Kronwall replied, “probably, but the other guy would be Borje.”
“I didn’t know who Borje was. I never knew he wore 21 until this year,” Pohl, a native of Rochester, Minn., said sheepishly. “I’m honoured. It sounds like he was a great player and a good man. I’m happy that they let me wear it.”
The respect of a new generation flatters Salming, whose focus is more on his family and his businesses than hockey nowadays. He has a line of underwear and swimwear for men and women plus a company that sells sports equipment.
“I was one of the pioneers and to have them say that is really, really good,” he said.
The one hole in his hockey resume is a Stanley Cup, something he never really got close to. The Maple Leafs had some competitive teams in the ’70s but were mostly awful in the 1980s.
“You can’t win everything,” Salming said. “I’ve been inducted to the Hall of Fame and now I get the banner up here. I’m doing well, I think.”
Hard to argue with that. It’s a long way from Kiruna, a former prospector town north of the arctic circle, to hockey icon.
“He’s a legend,” said Steen. “This is a big night for all his family and everyone who watched him play over here. He did an incredible job and I’m very happy for him.”