October 02, 2013
Borje Salming: Hockey's Most Important Player
This is Borje Salming, the Toronto Maple Leafs Hall of Fame defenseman. He may not have been the greatest player of all time, but his legacy argues he may have been the most important.
While a handful of Europeans preceded him, Borje Salming was the National Hockey League’s first great European player. He excelled at his game while never backing down from the rough and tumble play of the 1970s National Hockey League. By doing so he quickly diminished stereotypes and blazed the trail for more Swedes and all Europeans to come the NHL. The impact was far reaching, and still being explored today.
The influence of the European skill game took hockey from the dark era of 1970s goon hockey to a more skilled game that has evolved into what we have today. The league that was once ruled by hard working, small town Canadian boys was greatly enhanced by influx of European players and their different schools of the sport. The acceptance of the European player, thanks in large part to Salming's play, has also greatly enhanced hockey’s global status, spurring on generations of new players and fans worldwide. Fans and future stars on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean worshiped the likes of Pavel Bure, Jari Kurri, Peter Forsberg, Niklas Lidstrom and Alexander Ovechkin.
Lance Hornby of the Toronto Sun recently revisited Salming's impact.
Leafs scout Gerry McNamara was sent to Sweden during Christmas of ’72, ostensibly to bring back slick winger Hammarstrom from a tournament that included the great Barrie Flyers senior team. But he widened the scope when he saw Salming trade jabs and hacks with the belligerent Flyers. The lanky defenceman showed off an effective checking game, blocked shots and covered so much ice on breakouts. Just as noteworthy to McNamara was Salming in the thick of the scrums.
“I trusted Gerry opinion very much and put Salming on our team list that moment,” said (Jim) Gregory, now an NHL executive. “In addition to Gerry’s reports, I sent (head scout) Bob Davidson over there and he verified it (watching Salming in the ’73 world championships in Moscow). I already heard some good reports about Salming from Father David Bauer (coach of Canada’s national team).
“At that time, the North American market for players had been picked over. Russians and Czechs were off-limits, so teams had begun looking elsewhere (Thommie Bergman, a defenceman older than Salming, had made a low-key debut with Detroit the year before). We knew the Rangers were looking at Swedes and Finns, too. So I got the go-ahead from Stafford Smythe to sign Borje and Inge.”
Hockey had already allowed Salming to escape the dreary life of a mine worker in Kiruna, in the farthest northern reach of Lappland. His grandfather had herded reindeer, his father was a miner until a work accident took his life when Borje was five. Salming’s mother urged him to seek another profession — above ground — and his athletic prowess was the ticket to club hockey and the national team.
Hornby provides a great bio on Salming before diving back into his long term impact on the NHL game:
“Every Swede who draws a big NHL paycheque today should send a portion to Salming,” analyst Harry Neale is fond of saying.
“I wish I’d signed a contract based on that,” chuckled Salming when Neale’s quip was relayed. “It’s nice they say that about me. But I was just happy to be someone from Northern Sweden, who was good enough to come over and play. My life changed, but I’m happy with the rewards it gave me.”
In the 1976 Canada Cup, the ovation Salming received in a game against Russia nearly blew the lid off 60 Carlton St. Watching from a Stockholm suburb, phone repairman Tommy Sundin called his five-year-old son Mats to the TV to see a Swedish player get a standing ovation in another country.
Fantastic stuff from Lance Hornby. Here's the full article, including Salming's relationship with Harold Ballard, and a brief bio of countryman Inge Hammarstrom.