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Börje Salming announces he has ALS

One of the greatest Leafs legends faces a tough battle.

Toronto Maple Leafs v New York Rangers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Börje Salming announced he has been diagnosed with ALS in a statement shared by the Maple Leafs:

The statement reads:

I have received news that has shaken my family and me.

The signs that indicated that something was wrong in my body turned out to be the disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an instant, everything changed. I Do not know how the days ahead will be, but I understand that there will be challenges greater than anything I have ever faced. I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day. In the meantime, there are treatments available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.

Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so.

Right now, I rest assured that I have my loving family around me and the best possible medical care.

I understand that there are many of you that would like to reach out, however I kindly ask you to respect our privacy in these trying times. Please keep us in your prayers. When the time is right and I understand more about my condition and future journey, I will reach out. So, until such a time, we kindly refrain from all contact.

I hope you understand and respect our decision.

Börje Salming

ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a disease of the nervous system. The disease affects the control of muscles as nerve cells break down. Salming told a Swedish paper in the spring that he was having trouble speaking, and he cancelled some charity games. At 71, he has remained active and still sometimes plays in alumni events. Motor or speech control is the usual first symptom of a disease that can lead to total paralysis.

The Legend

In the early seventies, Leafs scout Gerry McNamara went to Sweden to scout a winger named Inge Hammerström. In the game he was watching, a young defender was tossed from the game, and McNamara talked his way into the dressing room and asked him if he wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Salming said yes (so did Hammerström eventually) and they changed the NHL and the game of hockey forever.

Salming… and Hammarstrom arrived in Toronto for Training Camp in the fall of 1973. They both made the team, Borje was given legendary Leafs defenceman Bob Baun’s number 21 and on Opening Night, the Swedish Ambassador to Canada dropped the ceremonial first puck. The European invasion of the NHL was underway.

Salming was talented… he put up strong numbers in his rookie season but he had to endure a great deal of adversity along the way. Being a pioneer is never easy. The mid 70’s was a tough time to be a hockey player… to be an outsider… it was the era of the Broad Street Bullies. “It was tough because they really tried to kill you,” said Salming. “If they did some of those things today, they would be suspended for life.”

Salming is a Maple Leafs legend.

Borje Salming would enjoy 16 seasons in Toronto… playing in 1,099 games. He remains the highest scoring defenceman in Leafs history and the club’s all-time leader in assists. He also led the Leafs in stitches, receiving over 200 at once, following a skate to the face in a game versus the Red Wings in 86. Salming was twice a runner up for the Norris Trophy as the League’s Best Defenceman. He was named a First or Second Team All- Star on six occasions, a feat that no other Maple Leaf has ever achieved. In 1996 he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Ten years later his number 21 was raised to the rafters of Air Canada Centre.

He is also a Swedish legend. And the first person of Sami heritage (his father was Sami) to play in North American pro sports. Born in a mining town in the north of Sweden, he lost his father to a mine accident at age five. He and his older brother both played hockey, but it was Borje who had something special. Special enough to be the pioneer the NHL needed.

Eight years after the article quoted above was published, Salming still leads the Leafs is assists, but he’s being chased by Mitch Marner and Morgan Rielly, who are 303 and 316 behind him. Even Mats Sundin never caught him. But we can and should hope that when one of our two current stars does the deed, Salming will be there in the stands to see it, as he has been for many Leafs games.

In 2017, Gord Stellick wrote about the celebration of Salming’s 1,000th game in the NHL. You should give this a read to understand the atmosphere of the Leafs and the NHL in those days, and to really appreciate the feats Salming accomplished:

There aren’t a lot of good video highlights from that time, but this bit has some:

Leafs fans are all with Börje Salming and his family right now, wishing them the best.