Every journey to 1,000 games begins with, well, the first game.
Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming became the first European to play 1,000 NHL games on Jan. 4, 1988, against the Vancouver Canucks. But when he made his NHL debut on Oct. 10, 1973, he wasn’t the first European-trained player, nor was he even the first Swedish defenseman in the League. Forward Ulf Sterner played four games for the New York Rangers in 1965 and defenseman Thommie Bergman made his NHL debut with the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 7, 1972.
Salming wasn’t the first but he was the best. And the toughest. Starting with his first game, he would conquer the hearts of Toronto’s people.
“Toronto is up 7-4, with 10 seconds left in the game,” Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot wrote the night of Salming’s NHL debut. “Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”
Salming had a Hall of Fame career for the Maple Leafs. But in 1989, following his final season in Toronto, he stepped into Sweden’s dressing room at the 1989 IIHF World Championship more of a myth than a legend. It was his first national team appearance in eight years, and the first time many young people in Sweden would see him play.
“The federation gave him a photo book with everybody’s names so he could learn our names in advance,” said Hakan Sodergren, a forward who was a regular for Sweden from 1983 to 1989.
Toronto Maple Leafs alumni Borje Salming
At the time, Sweden had two TV channels, both public service, and newspaper reports from the NHL were few and far between. That deprived Swedish hockey fans a chance to follow Salming’s career as closely as they would have liked. On the other hand, it also helped turn Salming into a larger than life figure.
Even today, playing for Sweden in national competition is where heroes are made. Winning the Stanley Cup and individual awards will get you the respect of a nation but it won’t get you its love. Salming, however, is loved and respected, and he’s admired because of what he did on the ice.
He’s also admired and respected in Canada.
That was never more apparent than in 1976, when Salming played for Sweden in the Canada Cup. As the public address announcer at Maple Leaf Gardens introduced Sweden’s starting lineup, Salming received a long standing ovation. Sweden’s No. 5 stood on the blue line for a couple of minutes, then bowed his head and started to skate in circles, visibly uncomfortable with all the attention.
“After a couple of minutes, it got to be embarrassing. I didn’t know what to do,” he told Swedish paper NSD a few years ago.
After the game, Salming received another, just as thunderous, standing ovation as first star of the game. Those ovations are still part of Swedish hockey lore, more than any individual shot, goal, hit, or blocked shot Salming ever had.
It’s the way the sold-out crowd at Maple Leaf Gardens cheered and stomped their feet to show their appreciation of the … foreigner, a non-Canadian, a Swede that dumbfounded his fellow Swedes and made them realize what a success he became. He was hockey’s answer to Greta Garbo, the first Swedish actress to be nominated for an Academy Award.
Salming wasn’t the first Swedish born and trained player to get to 100 games in the NHL, either — Bergman beat him to it — but he was the first to reach 200. And 300, 400, and 500. By the time he played 500, during the 1979-80 season, Salming had played 100 more games than the next Sweden-born player, Inge Hammarstrom. By the end of 1983, he was 295 games ahead of Stefan Persson.
Toronto Maple Leafs alumni Borje Salming
He played for Sweden in 1981 in another Canada Cup, but the tournament was a disappointment for both Salming and his country. By 1988, when he played his 1,000th regular-season game, he hadn’t played for Sweden in seven years, which was the only way for fans at home to see him play.
“NHL was something that you only saw on 35mm film at a year-end event. Between 1973 and 1989, Borje wasn’t really involved with Swedish hockey and a whole player generation had passed in Sweden,” Sodergren said.
Salming may have been out of sight but he wasn’t out of mind. When the King returned home in 1989 and took the nation by storm, a future King was at home watching him.
“I was 7 years old [during the 1989 World Championship] and even then I understood that he was a big part of Swedish hockey,” New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told NHL.com in an email. “I learned from him that hockey players were tough. No matter how many pucks or skates he got hit with, he just got stitched up and went back out again. He always gave everything for his team and we admired him for that.”
Naturally, the major Swedish papers were at Maple Leaf Gardens on Jan. 4, 1988. Salming’s big brother and former defensive partner, Stig, was also in the stands to see Borje become the first European, the fifth Maple Leaf, and the 62nd player to play 1,000 NHL games. Before the game, the crowd again greeted Salming with a standing ovation but there was no video greeting, no special ceremony. Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was on vacation but told his staff that he wanted to be a part of a celebration of Salming.
Then, Hammarstrom drove a Jeep onto the ice on Jan. 27. After he handed Salming the keys to the car, its door opened, and out came Borje’s mother Karin. She hugged her son, who was ready to play in his 1,011st regular-season game, against the Los Angeles Kings.
It was fitting that King Salming was the only European player in the game.
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First published on nhl.com.