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Leafs legend and Hall of Famer Borje Salming passes away at 71

Borje Salming Borje Salming - The Canadian Press

Toronto Maple Leafs legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Börje Salming has passed away at the age of 71.

One of the first European-trained players to make an impact in the NHL, he is credited with helping pave the way for many future European stars. A native of Kiruna, Sweden, Salming signed with Toronto as a free agent in 1973 and played with the Maple Leafs for 16 seasons before finishing his NHL career playing one season with the Detroit Red Wings.

A First Team All-Star and five-time Second Team All-Star in the NHL, he appeared in 1,148 career games with the Maple Leafs and Red Wings, posting 150 goals and 787 points.

Salming is third all-time in games played in Maple Leafs history with 1,099 career appearances for the team. He is also the team's all-time assist leader with 620 and fourth in career points for the franchise, behind only Mats Sundin, Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon.

"The Toronto Maple Leafs mourn the loss of Börje Salming. Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness, said Maple Leafs President Brendan Shanahan in a statement. He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.

Börje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara, and brother Stieg.”

In 1996, Salming was the first player from Sweden to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was also named a member of the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team in 2008 and was chosen as one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players in history for the league’s centennial in 2017. His number 21 was raised to the rafters by the Leafs in 2006 and officially retired by the team in 2016.

Salming announced through a team statement in August that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“A superior all-around defenseman and the first Swedish star ever to play in the League, Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in a statement on Thursday. "He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a League populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973.

“Salming owns nearly every franchise record for Maple Leafs defensemen – including, goals (148), assists (620) and points (768) – and was voted to the NHL’s First or Second postseason All-Star Teams six consecutive seasons. He was named one of the top 10 players in Leafs history in 2016. Soon after, he was selected one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players during the League’s Centennial celebration. In 1996, he became the first European-trained skater inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Borje, a towering presence and transformational figure in the game’s history. We send our deepest condolences to his wife Pia; his children, Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa and Sara; all who marveled at his exploits and the many NHL Players who stand on his shoulders.”

Salming was honoured earlier this month at a pre-game ceremony honouring this year's Hall of Fame inductees — which included Swedes Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Daniel Alfredsson — before a game between the Maple Leafs and the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. The former defenceman was flanked by fellow franchise icons Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin.

"Borje’s mental and physical toughness combined with his passion to compete was the best," said Sittler. "He displayed the same characteristics with his battle against ALS.  The past few weeks have been amazing how it all played out. So sad, yet happy for he and his family."

The next night, Salming made a final appearance at centre ice before a Leafs game against the Vancouver Canucks at Scotiabank Arena.

Salming, with his family by his side, received a standing ovation from an appreciative crowd as a video chronicling his career played on the scoreboard before puck drop.

Robbed of his speech and some mobility, Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly departed the ice.

Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe started an all-Swedish unit against the Canucks as part of the tribute, with Leafs winger William Nylander and Canucks defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson performing the ceremonial faceoff.

"Salming brought the European style of toughness to the NHL," said Philadelphia Flyers legend and Hockey Hall of Famer Bob Clarke. "He had no fear. He wasn’t a hitter but he didn’t fear getting hit. He used his stick to get even. He was a fearless tough player."

"For me, he was the ultimate warrior," said Hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier. "The courage he played with had to inspire his teammates.

"It inspired me watching as a young hockey player. He was a great player obviously, but I will never forget how fearless he was, especially playing against the Flyers. It takes a lot of courage to say farewell the way he did by coming back to give everybody the chance to say goodbye. That's a real man.”

Files from CP were used for this story.