Borje Salming, who played for Leafs for 16 years, dies at age 71

TORONTO (AP) — Hall of Fame defenseman Borje Salming, who played over 16 NHL seasons for the Toronto Maple Leafs and pioneered Europeans who went on to make their mark in the world’s premier pro hockey league, has passed away at 71- year of age. He had Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The Maple Leafs confirmed Salming’s death in a statement Thursday. Team president Brendan Shanahan said Salming opened the door for Europeans in the NHL.

“Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon of unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” said Shanahan. “(Salming) defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.”

Toronto signed Salming as a free agent for the 1973–74 season.

The Kiruna, Sweden native went on to play 1,099 regular season games with the Leafs and set team records for assists (620) and goals (148), points (768) and playoff points (49) by a defenseman.

A two-time Norris Trophy runner-up, losing both times to Montreal Canadiens great Larry Robinson, Salming was named to the NHL’s first all-star team in 1976–77 and five times to the second all-star team .

He finished his time with the Leafs with a plus-minus rating of plus-155, a statistic made even more remarkable as the Maple Leafs were a hugely underperforming team for much of the 1980s.

Salming’s 17th NHL season was with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring after the 1989–90 season.

“A superior all-around defenseman and the first Swedish star to ever play in the league, Borje Salming was as strong and skilled both physically and mentally,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “He paved the path followed by many of the greatest players in NHL history while shattering all the stereotypes about European players that were prevalent before his arrival in 1973 in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans.”

In 1996, he became the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In August, Salming announced that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I don’t know what the next few days will be like, but I understand there will be challenges greater than anything I’ve ever faced,” Salming said at the time. “I also recognize that there is no cure, but countless global studies are underway and there will be a cure one day.

“Since I started playing ice hockey in Kiruna as a little kid, and throughout my career, I gave everything. And I will continue to do that.”

Salming made one last appearance on center ice in Toronto earlier this month for a Leafs game against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Arena. Salming, with his family and former teammates by his side, received a standing ovation as a video about his career played on the scoreboard.

Deprived of his speech and some mobility, Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly left the ice.

“To see how a guy like Borje was embraced by the fans and what he did for this organization in his time here and what he still means to the city, I think that puts a lot of things into perspective for us as players playing .here,” Leafs forward Auston Matthews said after the game.

“It means a lot to have guys like him and others who paved the way for us. You could just see and feel it.”

A hockey icon in Sweden, Salming represented his home country at four IIHF World Championships, three Canada Cups and the 1992 Winter Olympics. He was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame in 1998 and the 2008 Centennial All-Star Team of the IIHF.

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