Maple Leafs News & Rumors: Salming, Wickenheiser & Abruzzese

In this edition of Toronto Maple Leafs News & Rumors, I’ll share some bad news. The great Maple Leafs’ defenseman Borje Salming has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

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

Second, I’ll take a look at one of the Maple Leafs’ most unique – but perhaps best – hires. That’s the multi-talented Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser. Third, I’ll take a quick look at an older-than-average prospect in Nick Abruzzese. Where will he land this season? Finally, I’ll comment on the hirings of Jason Spezza and Rich Clune.

Item One: Borje Salming Diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease)

Borje Salming, who is now 71 years old, was a six-time All-Star defenceman for the Maple Leafs. He first suited up for the team in the 1973-74 season and his last Toronto game was in 1988-89. Salming went on to play his last NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings. 

Sign up for our regular 'Maple Leafs Newsletter' for all the latest.

In 1,148 NHL career games, Salming put up 150 goals and added 637 assists (for 787 points). Salming was also a trailblazer. He was one of the first Swedish players to play in the NHL. Many Swedes have followed his lead.

Salming is a Maple Leafs’ legend. In his 16 seasons with the team, his toughness and his skill are storied. Sadly, he’ll need more toughness in the upcoming years. The news was just released that Salming had been diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). The condition is also known more widely as Lou Gehrig’s disease. 

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)

Salming released a statement himself. He noted: “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.”

Without going into too much detail about ALS, it’s a disease of the nervous system that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, the disease deteriorates the motor neurons responsible for voluntary movements such as talking and walking. It progressively leads to a loss of muscle control, respiratory failure, and death. 

Related: Stan Mikita: A True Chicago Legend

Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager Hayley Wickenheiser, who’s also a medical doctor, sent Salming a note on Twitter. Her message was to “Hang in there legend. You were tough as nails on the ice — I’m sure it will be no different off of it.”

Although he wasn’t responding to Wickenheiser, Salming’s statement echoed that same sentiment. He noted: “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.” 

Salming added, “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.”

Item Two: Maple Leafs Lucky to Have Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser

Speaking of Wickenheiser, in early July this year the Maple Leafs promoted her to the role of AGM. She joins a small but growing list of women in NHL front office roles. Cammi Granato and Émilie Castonguay have similar jobs in the Vancouver Canucks’ front office. Meghan Hunter works for the Chicago Blackhawks and Kate Madigan works for the New Jersey Devils. All were part of the action on the floor of the 2022 NHL Entry Draft recently.

Hayley Wickenheiser Team Canada
Hayley Wickenheiser, Team Canada (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images)

The Maple Leafs’ Wickenheiser is not just any woman. She’s a medical doctor, who completed medical school after her hockey playing career ended. And what a playing career it was.

Wickenheiser is probably the greatest woman hockey player to ever play. She won four Olympic gold medals. She’s Canada’s all-time leader in international hockey, scoring 168 goals and adding 211 assists (for 379 points). She also scored a goal in a men’s professional league. 

Related: Canadiens Strike Gold With Hiring of Marie-Philip Poulin

What’s as important is that, in her role in player development, she has the respect of the young men who she coaches. From listening to them at the team’s recent development camp, they speak highly of her and listen intently to her directions. That’s wise.

Item Three: Nick Abruzzese Needs More Experience to Hit Maple Leafs Roster

Nick Abruzzese is an overage prospect who played nine games for the Maple Leafs last season after his second season at Harvard University ended in the spring. He only scored a goal; but, according to his head coach Sheldon Keefe, he has some traits that are valuable to the team.

Nick Abruzzese Toronto Maple Leafs
Nick Abruzzese, Toronto Maple Leafs (Photo by Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

Keefe noted that Abruzzese grew more comfortable with the pace of NHL play the more he played, and his strengths began to reveal themselves. Specifically, Keefe noted after Abruzzese’s sixth game against the Philadelphia Flyers:

“Virtually every time he (Abruzzese) touched the puck, the next guy to touch it played on our team. That was really nice to see. He is a really calm little passer. He keeps the play moving. I like that about him. . . When he has the puck on his stick, it seems like it lands on someone else’s stick on our team after. He keeps the play moving. Other guys fight it. They overthink it or the pressure closes on them quickly, they can’t escape, and the play dies or we are chasing it a little bit.” 

Related: Maple Leafs Could Shake It Up By Trading for Patrick Kane

Since he was drafted, many Maple Leafs’ fans have been concerned about his lack of size – another one of general manager Kyle Dubas’ hobbits. But Abruzzese has blossomed as a scorer at every level he’s played thus far. He’ll likely play with the Toronto Marlies this season because he does need more experience to find his game at the professional level. 

Still Abruzzese is a player to watch. He’s faced doubts and hurdles on his quest to become an NHL player. But he has skill and smarts. His career trajectory will be one to keep an eye on this season.

What’s Next for the Maple Leafs?

There are some great stories with this version of the Maple Leafs. I’m looking forward to seeing where the two recently-retired players – Jason Spezza and Rich Clune – land on the team. For a myriad of reasons, these hires seem like good ones to me.

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

I’ve noted before in a highly-speculative post, wouldn’t it be great to see Spezza be given a young fourth line to work with and coach? There are power-play coaches, penalty-kill coaches, and goalie coaches. Why not Spezza as a fourth-line coach among his other duties? 

For me, it’s going to be a fun season of watching this version of the Maple Leafs play.