Maple Leafs legend Borje Salming dies, was living with ALS

Borje Salming, legendary NHL defenseman and trailblazer of European-born players in North America, has died. He was 71 years old and had been diagnosed with ALS earlier this year.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom Salming played the bulk of his career, released a statement Thursday to announce Salming's passing.

"The Toronto Maple Leafs mourn the loss of Börje Salming," said Brendan Shanahan, Leafs president and alternate governor. "Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness. He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.

Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara and brother Stieg."

Salming's decorated NHL career spanned 17 seasons from 1973 to 1990 between Toronto and Detroit, with a résumé boasting 1,148 games and 787 points. A two-time runner-up for the Norris Trophy, Salming became the first Swedish-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996 and two years later entered the IIHF Hall of Fame. The blueliner was an NHL first-team All-Star in 1977 and a five-time NHL second-team All-Star between 1975 and 1980.

For 16 of his 17 NHL campaigns, Salming was "The King" of Toronto, patrolling the Maple Leafs' blue line with a physicality and grit that flew in the face of common stereotypes that Swedish skaters like himself were too soft to make it in the bruising NHL. Salming had made an immediate impression when Leafs scout Gerry McNamara spotted him playing overseas in 1973. McNamara was in Sweden to scout Inge Hammarstrom; he wound up signing Salming to a free agent deal instead.

The defender quickly became a fan favorite in Toronto and embraced his popularity there. In January 1998, Salming became the first European-born player to reach the 1,000-game mark. The next year, Salming inked a one-year free agent deal with the Red Wings to finish out his career. Salming's legacy in Toronto as the franchise's defensive leader in assists (620) and points (760) remained, though, and his No. 21 has since been retired by the organization.

After retiring, Salming remained an active part of the hockey community, which was devastated to learn of his ALS diagnosis in August. A progressive disease of the nervous system, ALS affects cells in the brain and spinal cord and leads to muscle control loss. Salming originally began experiencing symptoms in February, and his health rapidly declined from there. Last month, Salming revealed he had lost the ability to speak.

Despite his illness, Salming's resolve remained intact. He was determined to attend Hall of Fame weekend in Toronto earlier this month when three more Swedish players would be inducted. Salming made it, and the Maple Leafs honored him with a pregame tribute ahead of their game against Vancouver. An overcome Salming came to the ice surrounded by family to take in the standing ovation. The ceremonial puck drop was done by Swedish-born Oliver Ekman-Larsson and William Nylander, and Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe crafted a starting lineup that featured all six of Toronto's Swedish-born players.

That was the second event in as many nights where Salming was recognized. The night before, at the annual Hall of Fame game between Toronto and Pittsburgh, Salming was helped to the ice by good friend and former teammate Darryl Sittler, who broke down in tears watching Salming cheered on by the arena. Salming met with Sittler in September and said he wanted to be in Toronto for the weekend that would feature three Swedish-born inductees: Vancouver's Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson.

Salming was a pioneer in every sense, making it possible for European players of today to thrive in the North American realm.