Remembering Borje Salming: “King” of Maple Leafs’ Defensemen

Borje Salming played 16 seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1973 to 1989. In his more than 1,000 regular-season games (1,099 to be exact), he scored 148 goals and 620 assists for 768 points. More remarkable, he ended his Maple Leafs career with a plus-minus of plus-155. What makes that high plus-minus so remarkable is that, during his last ten seasons with the Maple Leafs, the team was horrible, seldom close to having a winning season.

Substack Subscribe to the THW Daily and never miss the best of The Hockey Writers Banner

During the 1976-77 season, Salming set career highs in assists (66), points (78), plus-minus (plus-45), and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy (he lost to the Montreal Canadiens’ Larry Robinson). Interestingly, he was also a finalist for the Norris Trophy again in 1979-80 but again lost to Robinson. After Salming left the Maple Leafs, he played a final NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings and three more seasons in the Swedish Elite League before retiring in 1993.

What Salming Means to the Maple Leafs

How much does Salming mean to the Maple Leafs? To fans who watched him play, it is no surprise that a banner with his likeness, name, and number (21) hangs in the rafters of the Scotiabank Arena. He holds the franchise record for all-time assists. In 1996, he became the first Swedish player inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Borge Salming, defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs
Swedish-born professional hockey player Borge Salming, defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs, on the ice during a game, 1980s. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

As the story goes, the Maple Leafs didn’t know about Salming when they went to scout Inge Hammarstrom in Sweden in 1973. But, when scout Gerry McNamara went to see Hammarstrom, he also saw Salming in the same game. After the game, McNamara burst into the team’s dressing room with one question for Salming: “Do you want to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs?”

Related: Maple Leafs Trivia

Latest News & Highlights

The rest is history. In his first game with the team, Toronto defeated the Buffalo Sabres 7-4 and Salming was voted the first star. At the end of his rookie season, he had scored 39 points, excellent numbers for a defenseman.

Adjusting to the North American Game

When Salming joined the Maple Leafs in 1973, there were few Swedish NHL players. The Summit Series took place in 1972, and Canadian players had gained a reputation as being very physical. Salming, as an NHL trailblazer, took his lumps. Both Salming and Hammarstrom knew what was coming when they signed to play with the Maple Leafs.

Sign up for our free ‘Maple Leafs Substack Newsletter‘ for all the latest.

In a TSN interview in Nov. 2014, upon revealing that his statue would be the fourth statue in the Maple Leafs’ Legends Row, Salming remembered, “That was part of the game. We knew that when I was coming over, me and Inge Hammarstrom.” But, he added, “I don’t think we knew it was going to be that rough like it was in the beginning of the ’70s. That wasn’t the way we played in Europe. But you had to adjust.”

Borge Salming
BOSTON, MA – 1970’s: Borge Salming #21 of the Toronto Maple Leafs skates against the Boston Bruins at Boston Garden. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Still, Salming remembers fondly playing with the Maple Leafs: “Playing in the ’70s was fantastic, we had such a good team,” he said of the Leafs. “I played with Lanny (McDonald) and Darryl (Sittler), and Tiger (Williams). It was great times. But in the ’80s too, of course.” It’s not surprising that Salming passed over the ’80s as it was a tough time to play in Toronto. The team had a losing record in every season Salming played in that decade.

Salming Led the Team in Stitches

One almost disastrous event is legendary in Salming’s career. In a hockey “melee” in 1986, Red Wings forward Gerard Gallant accidentally stepped on Salming’s face with his skate. The result was a 250-stitch slash and a lingering scar. When Salming returned to the lineup two weeks later, he wore a visor.

Related: Darryl Sittler – Toronto Maple Leafs Legend

A Sportsnet report noted the irony in Salming’s most prominent scar being accidental, given all the malicious intent directed his way. However, the report suggested that Salming’s “neck never suffered under the strain of constant cheek-turning. The man nicknamed “King” had the strength of a horse and the body fat of a greyhound, and he certainly didn’t hesitate to reciprocate some of the special treatment he was receiving.”

Salming Remembers and Is Remembered

When Salming’s statue was placed in the team’s Legends Row, he was the fourth former Maple Leaf to be so enshrined. His bronze statue stands alongside Maple Leafs’ luminaries Darryl Sittler, Ted Kennedy, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Syl Apps, Mats Sundin, Dave Keon, Turk Broda, Tim Horton, Charlie Conacher, Red Kelly, Frank Mahovlich, and Wendel Clark.

As Salming said in a press release, “Wearing the Toronto Maple Leaf sweater for 16 seasons was a great honour, but to be recognized among some of the top players with a statue on Legends Row — especially with my teammate Darryl Sittler — is something I couldn’t have imagined.” He added, “I always look back on my time in Toronto with fondness and enjoy the chance to visit every chance I get.”

You may also like:

On Twitter, Chris Johnston noted that Mike Babcock’s favorite Maple Leaf player growing up was Salming. Babcock said, “I thought he was an unbelievable player and warrior. Just incredible, actually.”

George Armstrong, a 21-season Maple Leaf player and the captain of four Stanley Cup-winning Maple Leafs teams, said of Salming: “He was the most talented player to ever wear the Toronto Maple Leafs uniform.”

Finally, fellow Swede Mats Sundin, the former captain who began his hockey career in Salming’s hockey school in Sweden, notes, “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.”

In Summary

Salming was one of the first European players to impact the NHL. He was one of the top defensemen of his era and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. In a 2017 poll, he was named one of the “100 Greatest NHL Players” in history. That’s his NHL summary.

Perhaps the best Maple Leafs summary was the fans’ appreciation. One of the greatest recorded standing ovations in sports history took place in the Maple Leaf Gardens during the 1976 Canada Cup, just before Salming’s Team Sweden played Team USA.s’ However, it won’t last as long as Salming’s stellar reputation in Toronto.