Salming deserves praise as Euro pioneer

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

The raising of his name to the rafters at the Air Canada Centre was a marvellous tribute to Borje Salming, one of the greatest defencemen to wear the Maple Leafs uniform.

But perhaps a greater tribute was paid a few moments later when a pair of Sweden's other favourite sons -- Daniel Alfredsson and Mats Sundin -- took the ceremonial faceoff to open the 2006-07 NHL season.

The fact that Alfredsson is captain of the Ottawa Senators and Sundin is captain of the Leafs says everything that needs to be said about Salming's legacy as a player and as a person.

Both Sundin and Alfredsson have spoken eloquently of Salming's exalted place in the development of Swedish hockey, kicking down the door for a generation of younger players.

"I was one of the pioneers and when they say that, it feels good for me," Salming said. "They're doing so well now, too."

Salming's No. 21 was raised along with those of Leonard (Red) Kelly and the late Clarence (Hap) Day (both No. 4). Both numbers remain in circulation with the Leafs.

Kelly told a sold-out crowd last night that he always dreamed of playing in the NHL, playing for the Leafs and winning a Stanley Cup.

"But I never dreamt that I would be hung from a building," he said.

FOREIGNER

It has been 33 years since Salming and fellow countryman Inge Hammarstrom first stepped on to the ice at Maple Leaf Gardens as members of the Leafs. Other Europeans had come before them, but only a handful, and none from that era had the impact that Salming would have on both sides of the Atlantic.

In those days, more than 90% of the NHL's player population was Canadian and for a foreigner to break in, he had to run the gauntlet. It was a foregone conclusion that the "chicken Swedes" would be run right out of the league and the country. Hammarstrom was a great talent but after four years, he'd had enough.

Sixteen years and 1,099 games later, Salming also left, but not until he had set the Leafs career assist record (620). Among Toronto defencemen he still leads in goals, assists and total points. When he arrived here, he had to fight to be accepted and when he departed, he was revered as few others.

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame four years ago, Salming had always hoped, quietly of course, that his name might make it to the rafters of the Leafs' home building.

GREAT THING

"When I would be here for oldtimers games, I would see the banners and I'd think, 'Maybe one day my banner might be there,' he admitted.

"Of course, when they called me it was a great thing. You can feel it inside, especially when you've played here for 16 years. That's a lot of memories and a lot of things happened. Good things."

Back in December 1972, Leafs scout Gerry MacNamara accompanied a touring team from Barrie to Sweden to scout a goalie named Curt Larsson. Salming and his brother, Stig, were on the Swedish side and weren't about to be intimidated by the rough-and-tumble Canadians. They both gave as good as they got and, during one confrontation, Borje actually knocked down a referee and was banished from the game.

MacNamara followed him to the Swedish dressing room, introduced himself and the rest is history. The next fall, Salming and Hammarstrom both earned spots on the Maple Leafs roster.

Both were picked upon mercilessly. Salming didn't back down from anyone, forced to fight even the league's toughest goon, Dave (The Hammer) Schultz. Clearly, the Canadians were threatened by the possibility of a foreign invasion of talent.

As it turns out, their fears were well founded because, largely as a result of Salming's talent and his bravery, more and more Europeans came across the pond to the NHL and the league is better because of it.


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