As we embark on our annual TLN Top 20 Prospects series, it’s important to remember and recognize the special players that paved the way for tomorrow’s stars. Over the next few weeks, we will be announcing our first ever TLN All-Time Greatest Leafs Team, announcing a new player every day until we’ve filled out our 23-man roster.
It’s one thing to be really good at sport, but it’s another thing altogether to make an impact on the sport itself. Thankfully for the Leafs, Borje Salming was both. In his time with the blue and white, Salming was one of the league’s best defencemen, which subsequentially paved the way for millions of young Scandinavians to dream of one day playing in the NHL.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way; if Borje Salming’s name was actually Bob Spaling, and he was from Kenora, Ontario rather than Kiruna, Sweden, he would still be the best Leafs defenceman of all time.
Salming was, in a way, the European answer to Bobby Orr. The game was starting to allow for defencemen who wanted to hop into the offensive zone and make a difference, and Salming was very, very good at doing just that. Just look at his stretch between 1977 and 1981; he puts up an outrageous 364 points in 380 games! In that five-year stretch, only Denis Potvin puts up more points among defencemen. Players like Larry Robinson and Brad Park are left trailing behind. That’s amazing.
Even as Salming’s point production began to dwindle, he transitioned his way into becoming a steady, tough as nails presence on the back end. His fall in production wasn’t helped by the fact that the Leafs themselves were becoming godawful, giving him fewer options to pass to. By the time he played his last game in Toronto, his legacy was cemented.
Most Memorable Moments
A particularly well-known moment is the incident that created the above photo. No, it wasn’t a cocaine bender (though he admitted trying it in an interview once and was suspended for eight games as a result). In a game in 1986, Salming’s face met the skate of Detroit’s Gerard Gallant, and needless to say, it took over two hundred stitches to repair.
Salming moved on from the incident as if nothing happened, because, well, he’s Borje Salming.
Another great moment would be the standing ovation he received during a Canada Cup appearance at Maple Leaf Gardens:
- Most points by a defenceman (768)
- Most goals by a defenceman (148)
- Most assists, any position (620)
- Most assists in a season by a defenceman (66)
- Highest plus/minus, career (+155)
Salming, despite being a defenceman, also ranks fourth all-time in total points as a Leaf, and trails just George Armstrong and Tim Horton for most games played.
Salming’s legacy is bigger than the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is probably bigger than his underwear company. While scouts will admit that their original target in Sweden was Inge Hammerstrom, the fact that the Leafs were even making trips to check out European talent in the early 1970’s is pretty groundbreaking.
Hammarstrom still managed 427 NHL games between Toronto and St. Louis, but Salming was the first true European star player in the league. He paved the way for generations to follow; guys like Mats Sundin, Daniel Alfredsson, Peter Forsberg and Niklas Lidstrom looked to Salming as their idol, and aspired to reach the heights that he did.
It’s crazy that, despite finishing top five in voting for seven consecutive years, Salming never managed to win a Norris Trophy. I guess it speaks volumes about an era that developed some of the greatest defencemen we’ve ever seen, company that he definitely still a part of.
Really, his only flaw is that he finished his career by spending an incomplete season with Detroit. We’ll be nice and assume that he had a good reason for it.