Salming Opened The NHL’s Doors To Swedish Hockey Stars

Borje Salming was the first NHL Star from Sweden. (Photo by Caparol Sverige CC By 3.0 license)

Borje Salming was the first NHL Star from Sweden. (Photo by Caparol Sverige CC By 3.0 license)

Borje Salming wasn’t the first Swedish hockey player to skate in the NHL. Ulf Sterner, Sweden’s greatest NHL player of the 1960s, skated in four games with the New York Rangers during the 1964-65 season.

In 1972-73, the season prior to Salming’s arrival, defenseman Thommie Bergman played the entire season for the Detroit Red Wings. Still, as much as they were pioneers, it was Salming who set the standard - as much as it still shocks him to this day.

As longshots in sports betting go, Salming becoming an NHL star was right up there with Leicester City winning the English Premier League title. It just wasn’t supposed to happen.

“You know what?” Salming explained to “Where I come from (Jukkasjärvi) is in the north of Sweden. I came down from there and I played two years in the second division (with Kiruna AIF) and then I came down and played in the top league (for Brynas). I didn’t really have time to think about the National Hockey League.”

The NHL had time to think about Salming, though. They’d seen him play for the Swedish national team and were suitably impressed.

“(Toronto Maple Leafs scout) Gerry McNamara came down to the Christmas tournament in my last year in Stockholm (in 1972). He came in and asked me if I wanted to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That was sort of the first time I ever thought about it, and I thought, ‘Wow. That would be fun to play there.’

“Before that I was never even thinking of the National Hockey League. I’d heard of it but never thought I was going to play there.”

Dominant Performer

Salming spent 17 seasons in the NHL, 16 with the Leafs and one with the Red Wings. He was an NHL All-Star and a perennial contender for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defender.

More importantly, Salming broke down barriers. His powerful play and unyielding courage on the ice silenced the critics who sought to claim that Europeans weren’t made of the stuff required to succeed in the rugged NHL.

His second NHL game was at the Philadelphia Spectrum against the Flyers. The NHL’s toughest team, known as the Broad Street Bullies, set their sights on showing this Swede that he’d bitten off more than he could chew.

The game had barely gone on for seven minutes when Salming found himself facing the daunting task of fighting with Dave (The Hammer) Schultz, the NHL’s reigning heavyweight champion.

“That was crazy,” Salming recalled. “That was not the only team - there was a lot of teams that had some crazy guys - but Philly had more.

“They had sort of half the team that was completely crazy. That was something we knew but I don’t think we thought it was going to be so many crazy guys in one team.”

Salming answered that challenge, and many more like it, ultimately silencing critics and winning over the fans.

A Heartfelt Ovation

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of how his play had won him fans across the country came during the 1976 Canada Cup. Suiting up for Sweden, Salming would play against the host Canadians at Maple Leaf Gardens, his NHL home.

As Sweden’s lineup was introduced during the pre-game ceremonies, Salming was embraced with a 30-second standing ovation from the Leafs fans in the crowd.

Decades later, he’s come to comprehend the unique distinction of that warmth.

“At the time, of course I understood what they did but now I understand it better,” Salming said. “How could they give me a standing ovation at the Canada game? How could they do that? That was incredible.”

“I know they love Canada, and they love the Canadian team and here I’m playing for Sweden, and they give me a standing ovation. That was hard to understand from the beginning but now afterwards, I appreciate it so much. I must have done something right. It was an amazing thing.”