Nicklas Lidstrom on his 'idol' Borje Salming and joining fight against ALS
As Borje Salming continues his fight with ALS, fellow Swedish legend Nicklas Lidstrom shared memories of Salming's impact on European NHLers. Photo by Nathan Denette/CP.

The cheer echoed so loudly through Maple Leaf Gardens that it helped plant a dream more than 6,000 kilometres away.

Börje Salming was wearing his country’s yellow and blue when he received a standing ovation lasting longer than any given to a member of the host nation during the 1976 Canada Cup — an occurrence so unlikely it almost seemed impossible to believe back home in Sweden.

That’s when Nicklas Lidström first came to learn of a man he would one day follow into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“I remember my Dad telling me when Börje got the standing ovation at the old Maple Leaf Gardens there and it wouldn’t stop. I was six at the time,” Lidström said in an interview over the weekend.

“That’s when he became my idol, my boyhood hero.”

In the ensuing years, the seven-time Norris Trophy winner would come to know Salming as an opponent, a mentor, a teammate and ultimately a friend.

And with Salming, the former Maple Leafs star, now battling ALS (also called Lou Gherig’s disease), Lidström is taking the opportunity to give back to a man he believes paved the way for all European players in the NHL.

Last week, Lidström joined the board of the newly created Börje Salming Foundation. It's a not-for-profit organization launched by the Salming family to raise funds for ALS research and establish a family centre to provide resources for those caring for a loved one with the disease.

Consider it a pebble of hope laid down under extremely difficult circumstances. Salming’s ALS diagnosis arrived over the summer, and he’s already lost the ability to speak entirely. When Lidström visited his idol’s Stockholm apartment last Wednesday, they communicated with the help of pen and paper.

“You can see in his eyes if he’s happy or if he’s sad,” Lidström said. “It was just nice to get a chance to see him and meet him in person again.”

The invitation to join the foundation’s board came out of a text Salming sent after the Leafs publicly announced the ALS diagnosis on Aug. 10. Lidström was “shocked and in disbelief” over the news and simply wanted to send his best wishes.

He’d gotten to know Salming on a deeper level after moving back to Sweden following the end of his own spectacular playing career with the Red Wings in 2012.

"I view him as a great hockey player, but after I was done playing I’ve had a chance to meet him more often and you see what a kind and gentle and caring person he is,” Lidström said. “I wanted to help out in any way I could when he reached out to ask if I could be part of this.”

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Salming was the kind of idol worth meeting. Lidström first crossed paths with the legend during the 1990 season when they faced each other in the Swedish Elite League. Later, Lidström enjoyed the thrill of a lifetime by becoming teammates with Salming on Tre Kronor’s entry into the 1991 Canada Cup.

Lidstrom was 21 at the time, while Salming was 40.

And they played together.

“I was really shy when I first met him at that training camp,” Lidström recalled. “Then, when we were paired together, I almost felt obligated to get him the puck all the time. He made me feel real comfortable and confident by telling me, ‘You’re going to be part of the offence, I’m going to stay back and take care of the defence. You can join the rush, you can do whatever you do offensively because I’m going to back you up any time we’re out there.'"

Nicklas Lidstrom, who became a seven-time Norris Trophy winner, skated with Salming in the 1991 Canada Cup as a 21-year-old. Photo by Chuck Stoody/CP.

One of the lasting memories Lidström carries from the event is making the short walk from the team hotel to Maple Leaf Gardens for practice and disrupting traffic. The appreciation that would ultimately see Salming’s No. 21 retired by the Leafs and a statue of him placed in Legends Row was on full display that fall.

“We didn’t know at the time that people would stop in the streets,” Lidström said. “They would get out of the car and yell ‘There’s Börje! Hi Börje!’

“We heard he was big, but we didn’t realize he was that big in Toronto.”

Lidström has a theory about what made Salming so popular: “He was a team player. I played with him and against him when he was 40 or 41 and he would block shots, lay down, sacrifice his body and it was all for the team all the time. He would give it all.”

At Salming’s ultimate time of need, it is time for the hockey community to return the favour.

There will no doubt be considerable focus on his condition and his foundation during the Nov. 11-14 Hockey Hall of Fame induction weekend. The latest class includes three of Salming's countrymen — Henrik Sedin, Daniel Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson — to bring the total number of enshrined Swedes up to seven.

They, like many others, owe a debt of gratitude to Salming.

“Börje has meant so much for not only Swedish players, but European players,” Lidström said. “The way he conducted himself, the way he was kind of a pioneer, the way he came over from Europe to play in the early '70s when there were not many Europeans.

“It was really tough, but he fought through it and he became a star over there and really made it in the NHL. He paved the way.”


More information about the Börje Salming Foundation can be found at:

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