That Borje Salming is the best-ever Leafs defenceman is above debate.
The real question is whether Salming is the best player in franchise history.
To cast Salming as the greatest star in the Leafs firmament is to push him past Syl Apps, Johnny Bower, Turk Broda, Wendel Clark, Charlie Conacher, Doug Gilmour, Tim Horton, Ted Kennedy, Frank Mahovlich, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin.
Salming’s number 21 is one of 18 banners hanging from the rafters at Air Canada Centre. Those banners account for 46 Stanley Cups. Not one of them belongs to Salming.
Thanks to players like Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald the Leafs were very successful in the first element of Salming’s career. The club had a winning record for five of his first six years. The next nine, however, came during the darkest days of Harold Ballard’s bizarre ownership and were defined by losing records and either missed playoffs or quick exits from the post season. No Leaf had to become inured to more defeats than Borje Salming.
And yet, there are ample arguments, statistical and anecdotal for positioning him as the franchise’s best player.
Reached at home in Sweden, Salming said he was thrilled the question was even being asked.
“Just to be considered as one of the best players to play for Toronto, the Mecca of hockey is a huge honour,” Salming said.
His career plus minus of 181 is nearly twice that of the runner-up, Mats Sundin. Salming was plus 40 in his rookie season with the Leafs.
Salming’s 620 assists is the Leafs best. He is third in games in 1,099, 88 games shy of George Armstrong’s team leading 1,187.
But Borje Salming can rightfully claim the mantle as the franchise’s greatest player by virtue of one quality: toughness.
He learned to get by early. His hometown of Kiruna is the most northerly town in Sweden. Salming’s father was killed in a mining accident when he was five years old. He was raised by his mother who worked as a waitress.
How different was the culture Salming left and then came to? His grandfather once worked shepherding reindeer.
The first European Hall of Famer, Salming endured years of bullying from Canadian players who viewed him as a threat. Often outnumbered, he fought back with his stick and when necessary, his fists.
For years Salming had to battle against the notion of the chicken Swede. He was challenged regularly and often brutally. If his courage was questioned, his importance to the Leafs never was.”
“That was a really rough time,” Salming said, “but I knew if I didn’t’ fight back I would have to go home. I knew when I came to Canada what was waiting for me. That’s just the way it was.”
“That was a time in the league where if you were a top player you were expected to stand up for yourself. Yeah, there were tough guys but individually, the good players had to show they wouldn’t’ be intimidated.”
Never particularly adept with his fists, Salming wasn’t afraid to use his stick as an equalizer but it was the breath of his game that set him apart.
He was a peerless skater with great vision and a hard shot. Despite the goon tactics he was a relentless competitor.
“He was breaking the ice for a lot of the other people, a lot of the other Swedes and the other Europeans,” Islanders coach Al Arbour once told me. “A lot of people would be after him and say “we’re going to get a hold of that guy, we don’t want these guys taking our jobs.’ He had to take a lot of abuse in those days but he overcame everything.”
Salming was a first team all-star once and a second five times in his first six seasons. In an era dominated by Orr, Denis Potvin and Larry Robinson, Salming was a two-time runner up for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best. All those players, of course, had the benefit of championship calibre teammates. Aside from the excellence of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Salming spent his 16 seasons surrounded by inferior talents