Long live 'The King'
Winnipeg Jets play-by-play broadcaster Dan Robertson wrote this personal first-person story of Toronto Maple Leafs legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Börje Salming three years ago for CTV Montreal. With the passing of Salming on Thursday at the age of 71 – he was diagnosed with the progressive nervous system disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, earlier this year – we are sharing Dan’s story again for TSN.ca.
Ever since I first saw him play on Hockey Night in Canada in the 1970s, I had a bit of a fascination with Toronto Maple Leafs legend Börje Salming and, as I’ve gotten older, my appreciation for the man with the nickname “The King” has grown.
Salming went from a small mining town called Kiruna in the northernmost reaches of Sweden to being one of the National Hockey League’s best defencemen of the 1970s in a time when the world was a much larger place.
According to reports at the time, Maple Leafs scout Gerry McNamara had gone overseas to scout future Leaf Inge Hammarstrom, was impressed with the play of Salming and signed them both to play for Toronto starting in 1973. Back then, NHL rosters were occupied almost solely by Canadian-born players with a sprinkling of Americans, so immediately the two new Leafs from Sweden had bullseyes on their backs in an era where goon hockey was hitting its peak.
Salming could not be intimidated and couldn’t be slowed down through his 16 years with Toronto (followed by one season with the Red Wings in Detroit) on his way to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. So imagine my surprise when I recently found out that Salming’s calming influence can be found among the Montreal Canadiens group of defencemen in a roundabout way.
Luke Richardson, who turned 50 in 2019, (today he’s the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks), still cuts an imposing figure as he did for 20 seasons as a tough, defensive defenceman with Toronto, Edmonton, Philadelphia, Columbus, Tampa Bay and Ottawa. At 6-foot-4, he is in great shape. He works hard at staying fit and on March 28 three years ago when the Habs were in Columbus, Richardson had a 6 a.m. workout/torture session with Ohio State Buckeye legendary linebacker and former NFLer Chris Spielman at his home gym.
Former enforcer Jody Shelley joined Richardson (who was an assistant coach with the Canadiens at the time) for a workout at Spielman’s years back when they both played for the Blue Jackets. Ten minutes in under the watchful, intense eye of Spielman, Shelley wished he’d stayed in bed.
When Richardson entered the NHL in 1987, the Maple Leafs fan base and the media had a watchful eye on the 18-year-old who was Toronto’s seventh overall pick that year after spending two years of junior with the Peterborough Petes. The Leafs were in the middle of some dark days so there was pressure on the young Richardson, who was born in Ottawa, to step in and make a difference right away.
Luckily for him, a 35-year-old Börje Salming was there right beside him as a mentor.
“When I got to Toronto, the head coach was John Brophy,” says Richardson. “He was very good to me as a player but he was a gruff, old-school coach with not a lot of technical teaching.
“It was actually Börje who taught me so much that year. He was so strong; he had stove pipes from the elbows down and he would grab me on the bench and shake me and say in that raspy voice: ‘Lukas!...he called me Lukas because it’s a Swedish name…you have to go here and do this next time’! He’d have one leg over the boards while he was still talking to me about what to do in a certain situation and he was so smooth he could take a couple of strides and get right into the play.
Even at 35 or 36 he was still playing 24 or 25 minutes a game because he was in such incredible shape. He could see things from my perspective and it really helped. I learned more about playing defence in the NHL in two years with Börje than I did from any coach that I played for in 20 years.”
Right from his first season in the NHL, Richardson was blown away by Salming’s toughness.
“He was ahead of the game. He was like a Nicklas Lidstrom of his time and he was incredibly tough. He’d cut away a bunch of his equipment because he liked wearing next to nothing. He’d dive face first to block shots, whatever was needed.”
It was the year before Richardson’s rookie season that the skate blade of Gerard Gallant (now head coach of the New York Rangers) cut Salming around the eye and down his face which required 200 stitches, adding to the Salming legend. And, as Richardson says, he was ahead of his time when it came to most of his peers.
“He had almost no body fat. You could see all the veins in his arms. I used to joke he looked like a muscular chart from a doctor’s office,” said Richardson. “He was ripped. He was a typical outdoorsy Scandinavian who played a lot of tennis during the summer. He would come and skate with a bunch of pros in Scarborough in August. There were still some guys from his era, scrambling to get in shape at that point of the summer but Börje would show up and claim that he was rusty but it was a week before training camp and he was flying by everybody just like it was in the middle of the season. He was just a natural athlete.”
In 2016 at a Hockey Hall of Fame game, Richardson thanked Salming for the tremendous influence he had on his career all those years ago.
“He is such a humble guy that he tried to downplay it. He said it was all me and that he didn’t really do that much, but he helped so much on the ice but off the ice as well. He didn’t mind having a few cocktails but he knew to tell the young guys, ‘you’re not coming out with us tonight’ when he thought we should stay at home. He knew being a Toronto Maple Leaf was a big deal so he looked out for us away from the rink in that way, too.”
It seems ridiculous to think that a player of Salming’s stature, who’d bridged the gap of the talented Darryl Sittler teams of the mid-to-late 1970s to the struggling Wendel Clark era teams of the late 1980s, never wore the “C” on his chest, but Richardson says everyone knew who the de facto team captain was.
“Rick Vaive had been traded away before training camp in my first year and they went with three alternates that season but we all looked to Borje as our captain. John Brophy was a tough, gruff, and sometimes a bit unreasonable and miserable guy, and I understood that because we didn’t have a great team, but Borje would confront him on behalf of the players if he felt he had to.”
Something Richardson said about Salming as a mentor is very revealing regarding the effect he had on him and, by extension, the Canadiens present-day defencemen: “If Borje talked to me about a mistake or a missed play I made on the ice, he never made me feel bad about it but I got the point. He had such an ease about him.”
Early in the 2018-19 season when Habs defenceman Victor Mete (now a Maple Leaf) was asked what Richardson is like as a coach, he spoke of how Richardson would wait until the right time to point out an error he’d made on the ice, and calmly break it down with him; always constructive, never condescending.
Richardson sees the thread between the past and the present.
“When I really think about it, I realize that some of the teaching qualities I have as a coach came originally from Borje.”
After two years together in Toronto, Richardson lost his mentor as the then 37-year-old Salming signed with Detroit. The Red Wings had a lot of money back then and Richardson thinks by then there was a rift between Toronto owner Harold Ballard and his veteran defenceman. In the end, like Lanny McDonald and Darryl Sittler, another Leafs legend was gone when he should have retired in blue and white.
But the mark Salming left brings a smile to Luke Richardson’s face to this day.
“I loved being around him….I just loved being around him. The way Borje skated was the way he spoke to people and the way he treated people – with grace.”