Leaf of the Day - Mar 16, 2009 - 1978-79 - Borje Salming

Mar 16, 2009 - 1978-79 - Borje Salming

(Note: Mondays, we'll have players from the 1978-79 team, 30 years ago this year. They'll appear in alphabetical order.)


I missed the best years of Borje Salming. 

By the time we came to Ontario and I began watching Leaf games with regularity, Sittler, McDonald et al were gone and the Leaf defense was basically Borje Salming and the Cast of Thousands - the caveat being that the Cast of Thousands was generally made up of child actors.  Salming would play half the game, and the rest would louse up the rest of it.  His plus/minus figures from those years don't look like a whole lot, but given the context and those kinds of minutes, anyone else is probably a triple-digit minus.

As a case in point, look at 1984-85.  Salming was 33.  The rest of the starters, with their age in parentheses, were:

Jim Benning (21)
Gary Leeman (20) (I believe the switch to the wing was the next season)
Al Iafrate (18)
Gary Nylund (20)
Bob McGill (22)

Spare parts included
Jim Korn (27) - also spent time on the wing
Bill Kitchen (23)
Bill Root (24)
Todd Gill (18)

There were others, but you get the point.

By the time the Leafs started to come around again, Salming's offensive game was in decline and injuries became a factor - the most obvious of these being the 200-odd stitches he took to the face after being stepped on by Gerard Gallant.  There was the bizarre suspension from the NHL for admitting to cocaine use years previously.  Yet through it all, he was out there, logging tons of ice time and being one of the saner factors.  Now and again you'd get this flash of offensive brilliance, and the announcers would say, "Now THAT'S vintage Salming."  I wish I'd seen more of it.

Salming wasn't the first European in the NHL, or even the first Swede.  Detroit had Thommie Bergman in 1972-73.  (Juha Widing came to Canada to play junior.)  Salming was, however, the first impact European and Swede and he put up with an awful lot in the early days.  Even if he wasn't a fighter, he had to be tough as nails because he had to survive.  Toronto regularly got into wars with Philadelphia in the 70s and the prime Leaf target was Salming.  Through it all, he didn't just play, he was a star.  He was an NHL All-Star every year between 1975 and 1980, mainly on the second team, but a first in 1977.

Borje should have been the Leaf captain.  He was offered it and turned it down, not sure whether Leaf fans would take to a European captain despite the ovation he'd gotten in the 1976 Canada Cup (see below).  This, and his one season not in blue and white, were his two biggest regrets.

Salming's number is up in the rafters, where it belongs.  He is the top offensive defenseman in club history, the Leafs all-time assists leader, and one of their top handful of players, period.  Tomas Kaberle, currently third all-time in scoring for defensemen, would need to keep up his 50-point pace for the next seven years to catch up.

Every time they show some veteran or other visiting at a game, some announcer always says, "he looks like he could still be playing."  In Salming's case, at least, they're probably right.  He'd probably be a plus, too.

Salming video from the HHOF:

Salming getting a huge ovation at MLG in the 1976 Canada Cup.  This upset a lot of people.  Shouldn't have, really.  Orr got a huge ovation as well, and he was booed all the time at MLG.  In Sweden, though, that ovation went over HUGE.  Nobody could believe a European would get that kind of response in Canada.  Opened a lot of eyes.

Salming vs. Lapointe in 1978.  Iffy competition, but Borje wins:

Borje's stats:

1967-68 Kiruna AIF Sweden-2
1967-68 Sweden EJC-A 5 1 0 1 4
1968-69 Kiruna AIF Sweden-2
1968-69 Sweden EJC-A 5 0 0 0 8
1969-70 Kiruna AIF Sweden-2
1970-71 Brynas IF Gavle Sweden 14 0 5 5 6 13 2 1 3 16
1971-72 Brynas IF Gavle Sweden 14 1 1 2 20 14 0 4 4 30
1971-72 Sweden WEC-A 4 0 0 0 6
1972-73 Brynas IF Gavle Sweden 14 2 3 5 10 12 3 1 4 24
1972-73 Sweden WEC-A 10 4 6 10 8
1973-74 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 76 5 34 39 48 +38 4 0 1 1 4
1974-75 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 60 12 25 37 34 +4 7 0 4 4 6
1975-76 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 78 16 41 57 70 +33 10 3 4 7 9
1976-77 Sweden Can-Cup 5 4 3 7 2
1976-77 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 76 12 66 78 46 +45 9 3 6 9 6
1977-78 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 80 16 60 76 70 +30 6 2 2 4 6
1978-79 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 78 17 56 73 76 +36 6 0 1 1 8
1978-79 NHL All-Stars Ch-Cup 3 0 0 0 2
1979-80 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 74 19 52 71 94 +4 3 1 1 2 2
1980-81 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 72 5 61 66 154 0 3 0 2 2 4
1981-82 Sweden Can-Cup 5 0 2 2 10
1981-82 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 69 12 44 56 170 +4          
1982-83 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 69 7 38 45 104 -3 4 1 4 5 10
1983-84 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 68 5 38 43 92 -34          
1984-85 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 73 6 33 39 76 -26          
1985-86 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 41 7 15 22 48 -7 10 1 6 7 14
1986-87 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 56 4 16 20 42 +17 13 0 3 3 14
1987-88 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 66 2 24 26 82 +7 6 1 3 4 8
1988-89 Toronto Maple Leafs NHL 63 3 17 20 86 +7          
1988-89 Sweden WEC-A 8 1 1 2 8
1989-90 Detroit Red Wings NHL 49 2 17 19 52 +20
1990-91 AIK Solna Sweden 36 4 9 13 46
1991-92 Sweden Can-Cup 6 0 0 0 10
1991-92 AIK Solna Sweden 38 6 14 20 98 3 0 2 2 6
1991-92 Sweden Olympics 8 4 3 7 4
1992-93 AIK Solna Sweden 6 1 0 1 10
Leaf Totals   1099 148 620 768 1292 +155 81 12 37 49 91
NHL Totals 1148 150 637 787 1344 +175 81 12 37 49 91

First All-Star Team Defense (1977)
Second All-Star Team Defense (1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1980)

- Signed as a free agent by Toronto, May 12, 1973.
- Signed as a free agent by Detroit, June 12, 1989.

the HHOF take on Borje:

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."


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