Börje Salming’s Love Letter to Toronto

“Canada is fantastic! I love Toronto and my fans there,” says hockey legend Börje Salming, whose most recent trip to the city almost cost him his life 

In early June 1973 Börje Salming arrived in Toronto for the first time together with his fiancée Margitta and fellow Brynäs player Inge Hammarström. It was only a few months earlier that a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs watched as Salming lost his cool and flattened the referee during a game between Swedish Brynäs IF and Canadian amateur team the Barrie Flyers. When Salming was expelled from the game, the scout, Gerry McNamara, followed him into the changing room. Cursing his adversaries, Salming threw his stick in a corner. When he turned around, there was McNamara, business card in hand: “Would you like to come to Canada to play for the Maple Leafs?” Salming replied with the one English word he knew: “Yes.”  

Now, here he was on the other side of the Atlantic.

“I kept wondering what I was doing here. I told myself not to be impressed, that I was dealing with flesh and blood people just like me,” writes Börje in his first autobiography Blood, Sweat and Hockey. “The skyscrapers whizzed by and the gentlemen were very friendly. The Maple Leafs worked hard to win us over.” 

Their efforts paid off. On November 10, 1973, Börje Salming threw off his gloves and fought the notorious Dave “The Hammer” Schultz from the infamous Philadelphia Flyers. It was only his second game in the NHL, but then and there Salming put an end to the reputation of Swedish players as being “Chicken Swedes”; ”– cowardly players who couldn’t handle the physical play of the NHL. Hockey history would never be the same, and the gates were opened for the extensive transatlantic migration of Swedish ice hockey players to the NHL that we know today. 

For fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Salming’s arrival laid the foundations for a life-long love story. As their star defenceman, Salming played 16 seasons and 1099 games for the Maple Leafs, recording 148 goals and 620 assists. In 1996, Salming became the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and in 2015 he received his own bronze statue on Legends Row in Toronto.   

To this day, he can’t walk the streets of Toronto without being approached by countless fans, including children who should be too young to know his name. “When I visit with friends, I have to explain to them that Canadians are crazy like that; hockey is passed down through the generations. They never forget you,” Salming says. 

Salming and Margitta first moved to Mississauga, but the family later ended up in the city near High Park where they bought and renovated an old house. In 1989, Salming left the Maple Leafs to play his last season in the NHL for the Detroit Red Wings before returning to Sweden where he played for Swedish AIK until finally retiring from hockey in 1993.  

Although he has many favourite places in Toronto, it is the Maple Leaf Gardens he misses the most. It’s home to memories like the 1976 Canada Cup game between Team Sweden and Team USA. When the players were introduced, Salming, donning the Swedish Tre Kronor jersey, received a thunderous five-minute standing ovation from his Toronto fans. “I was representing my country and Canadian fans gave me a standing ovation. Sometimes hockey has no country,” Salming remembers.  

He looked down at the ice then, humbled. Now, whenever he returns to the Gardens, his gaze turns towards the ceiling. A Loblaw’s grocery store sits where the ice used to be, but a new rink was built on the second floor, where Ryerson University’s hockey team plays beneath the old rafters he remembers so fondly.  

“The new [Scotia Bank] arena is incredible, but Maple Leaf Gardens was like a home to me. The people who worked there -– the security guards, painters, carpenters, janitors, Zamboni drivers -– they were all like family. Some of them had worked there for 30 years, and whenever I returned from my summer holidays in Sweden it was like coming home. I would run around in the catacombs hugging them all,” he reminisces. “I miss those homecomings. No arena can replace that.”  

As we speak over Facetime, Börje laments having had to cancel his usual February visit to Toronto. The reason, of course, is the pandemic. He is used to visiting the city multiple times a year and can’t wait to get back. That said, his visit last winter almost killed him. 

“I almost always get sick when I return home from my trips to Canada, as I’m constantly hugging people, posing with them for photos and shaking hands. This time was the same. After my flight back from Toronto I developed a cough and a fever,” he says. 

 Börje assumed it was just one of his regular colds, but one night he suddenly found himself unable to breathe.  

“I thought I was going to die. I’ve never been so scared in my life. It was like my throat closed over and I was gasping for air,” he says.  

His wife Pia called an ambulance and Salming was rushed to the hospital. He was never tested for Covid, but he is convinced that’s what he had. “It was like something I’ve never experienced before,” he says.  

Salming’s breathing improved and he was sent home the following day, but he remained bedridden for about a month. A year later, he now feels fully recovered but is going easy on his workouts and makes sure to maintain social distancing.  

While Börje’s next visit to Canada will have to wait, in his heart he will always be partly Canadian.  

“Canada is fantastic! I love Toronto and my fans there. I couldn’t have done it without them. They always treated me so well and still do. They received me with open arms and I just want to say: Thank you!”  

Interviewed by Kajsa Norman


Salming’s Toronto 

Salming usually visits Toronto several times a year. These are his stomping grounds: 

Favorite Place to Stay:  The Westin Harbour Castle, at the end of Yonge St on the Toronto Waterfront.  

Favorite Restaurant: Real Sports Bar, near Scotiabank Arena. “They have a massive screen and it’s a great place to watch games.” 

Favorite Places to Visit: Hockey Hall of Fame, Maple Leaf Gardens, Scotiabank Arena  (formerly Air Canada Centre) home to Legends Row with bronze statues of hockey legends like Salming. The CN Tower.  

Favorite City Oasis: High Park. “I love walking in High Park when I need some time to myself.”