One last on-ice tribute to Borje Salming took place Saturday where his pro hockey career first took off in Sweden.
With Jon Henrik Fjallgren singing his Sami native ballad ‘My Home Is My Heart’ accompanied on keyboard and cello, Salming’s No. 17 banner for the Brynas club was raised to the rafters of the 8,000-seat team arena in Gavle, prior to a tribute game involving Maple Leaf and Swedish stars.
As the pictorial flag of the young, robust Salming was slowly elevated, there was not a dry eye in the house, including three former Maple Leafs captains Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler and Rick Vaive.
Salming’s wife Pia, their family and a number of Swedish legends were also at centre ice.
All proceeds of the game, which was televised in Sweden along with a Salming documentary, were to support for ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a disease which took Salming this past November at age 71.
Other Leafs present on Saturday included Salming’s teammates through his 16 years in Toronto, Tiger Williams, Al Iafrate and Todd Gill. Salming’s elder brother Stig, who was also a national team player, was in attendance and the Leafs who made the trip were hosted at a special dinner Friday at Karlberg Palace in Stockholm.
Salming played for Brynas, north of Stockholm, between 1970-73, where he was scouted by the Leafs around Christmas of ’72 after the Canada – Russia Summit Series opened up Europe for National Hockey League teams. Toronto’s Gerry McNamara had come to Sweden ostensibly to check on goalie Curt Larsson, but took in a Brynas exhibition game against the visiting Senior ‘A’ Barrie Flyers.
Salming immediately stood out on defence.
“I couldn’t believe what I was watching,” McNamara told the Toronto Sun in a previous interview.
Ironically, Salming was ejected from that game with a few minutes to play when he shoved the referee during an altercation with a Barrie player, which convinced McNamara this was no ‘chicken Swede’. McNamara also noted his Brynas teammate, winger Inge Hammarstrom.
“I followed Borje to the room, knocked on the door, the trainer opened it. I handed Borje my card and said, ‘You … play for Toronto Maple Leafs?’ He said, ‘Yeah’. Then I said, ‘Inge play for the Leafs?’ He said, ‘Yeah, go see Inge. Speaks better English’.
“I phoned home and said to get them on our negotiation list.”
The pair were signed and came to Canada eight months later for Leaf camp. Salming would play more than 1,000 games for the Leafs and is still the franchise assists leader with 620.
Though he knew he was dying of ALS, Salming and Pia used his last months to highlight the struggles of ALS sufferers and loved ones who were supporting them, in particular a faster way to get government approval for treatment drugs.
Salming was able to make a final trip to Toronto in early November to attend the Hockey Hall Of Fame inductions (he was the first Swede elected to the Hall in 1996) and was recognized in a pre-game ceremony by the Leafs.