Farewell to The King: Hockey mourns 'towering presence' Borje Salming
It’s rare that we get a chance to say goodbye to a beloved figure. But that's what the hockey world got to do with Borje Salming. Photo by Christopher Katsarov/CP.

TORONTO – It’s pretty rare that we get a chance to say goodbye to a beloved figure.

Especially one known as The King.

The feeling inside Scotiabank Arena when Börje Salming was twice honoured by the Maple Leafs earlier this month is something I’ll never forget. I’ve spent hundreds of nights in that building and I’ve never felt even close to that level of emotion in there before.

That those Nov. 11 and 12 ceremonies came less than two weeks before Salming’s death should only make them more special and cherished.

It gave Salming the chance to stand alongside former teammate Darryl Sittler, with both men breaking down as the fans expressed their adulation. It allowed Sheldon Keefe an opportunity to pay unique tribute by starting an all-Swedish lineup on “Hockey Night in Canada,” and for Salming’s wife, Pia, and his four children to join him at centre ice for a tear-soaked ceremonial puck drop.

It provided us all with two more nights to show reverence and say goodbye.

We can only imagine how much strength it took for Salming to make the trip over from Stockholm in the late stages of his battle with ALS. He was too exhausted to attend the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony two nights after the second of those Scotiabank Arena tributes, but he had made a vow to former teammates that he’d find his way to Toronto the second weekend in November and he kept that promise.

Upon returning home, Salming made his final public appearance at the Swedish hockey federation’s centennial gala last Thursday, getting named to the country’s All Century Team.

Today a legend is gone.

The announcement of his death came as a surprise even after we’d all been welcomed into his struggle. Salming bravely shared his ALS diagnosis in August and made the recent appearances after he’d lost the ability to speak in an effort to raise both awareness and funds for a foundation that’s been set up in his name.

It will form just as much a part of his legacy as the fact he’s hailed as the NHL’s European trailblazer, enduring on-ice abuse and becoming a bonafide star after joining the Maple Leafs in 1973.

He paved the way for the scores who have come over since.

“The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Borje, a towering presence and transformational figure in the game’s history," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement.

"Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness," added Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan.

I wasn’t around to witness his playing career but was fortunate to cross paths with Salming at a number of NHL events over the years. What a gentleman. He carried himself like royalty and made time for every reporter with a question and every fan who wanted a picture or autograph.

Until recently, I hadn’t realized he finished in the top five of Norris Trophy voting in each of his first seven NHL seasons. Or that he was fourth in Hart Trophy balloting following a 78-point campaign only surpassed by one other Leafs defenceman in history. Or that he was the first Swede to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Borje Salming's statistics for his first 7 NHL seasons. via hockey-reference.com.

How is this for respect?

Salming received a rousing standing ovation at Maple Leaf Gardens when he arrived as a visiting player during the 1976 Canada Cup – one that was louder and lasted longer than even Bobby Orr got. That was commemorated as the top moment for Swedish hockey of the entire century as voted on by members of the public, ahead of even Olympic and world championship gold-medal victories.

Nicklas Lidstrom won the Norris Trophy seven times during his career and calls Salming his hero. Lidstrom views Salming as the ultimate team player, willing to lay out to block shots and sacrifice himself physically even in the final stages of his career.

They were paired together during the 1991 Canada Cup and Lidstrom still remembers how eye-opening it was to see the reception Salming got in Toronto. The man literally stopped traffic when members of the team walked a couple blocks from their hotel to the rink one day for practice.

“We didn’t know at the time that people would stop in the streets,” Lidstrom told me recently. “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.”

The way he was received during his final visit to the city this month left little doubt about how deep of an impact he made here. It had been 30 years since he last played a NHL game and he brought the people out of their seats as though he’d just scored an end-to-end goal.

Everywhere you looked you saw tears streaming down faces and people embracing one another in the stands. A man whose No. 21 hangs from the rafters had come home to say goodbye. 

Rest in peace, King.

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