Salming mourned by Maple Leafs, hockey community

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No, he couldn’t speak. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, had stripped him of that ability. But on this night, he didn’t need to.

Upon seeing a familiar face he slowly raised his hand into a thumbs-up position, then closed it into a fist. It was the most memorable, emotional fist bump I’ve ever received, and likely the best one I’ll ever get.

Message received. No words required.

“It was his way of saying goodbye,” an emotional Darryl Sittler said Thursday. “To you, to the fans, to the city, to all of us.”

Salming died on Thursday following a short battle with ALS, which he was first diagnosed with in April but did not announce until August. He was 71.

In the end, the disease deteriorated Salming at an alarming rate. Even Sittler and Mark Kirton could tell how quickly it was affecting their former Maple Leafs teammate, who is Toronto’s all-time leader among defensemen in goals (148), assists (620) and points (768).

ALS is a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, causing loss of muscle control. There are more than 800 patients living with ALS in Sweden, and another 250 who receive the diagnosis each year.

One of the first people to reach out to Salming following his diagnosis was Sittler, who played with him in Toronto from 1973-82. Sittler, who turned 72 on Sept. 18, helped Salming write the original release documenting his condition and has been the point man in North America in the efforts to help his friend.

As part of those efforts, Sittler contacted Kirton, a former NHL forward who played 13 games for the Maple Leafs from 1979-81 and was mentored by Salming. The 64-year-old, who himself was diagnosed with ALS in 2018, immediately got in touch with Salming to help he and his family absorb the shock and provide guidance for the road ahead.

On Thursday, it was Kirton who was in shock at receiving the news. At the same time, though, maybe, just maybe, Salming knew it was time.

“He died a good death,” Kirton said. “What I mean by that is, his family was around him. He didn’t allow the ALS monster to tear him apart.

“Let me elaborate on that. He knew how much a burden he would be to his family if it kept going, going, going. He knew what was going on in that respect. He was a smart player, even a smarter man.”

In other words, Kirton said, Salming spent the final two weeks on his own terms, as difficult as it was.

That included telling his family he wanted to come to Toronto to take part in the 2022 Hockey Hall of Fame weekend, despite the wear and tear on his deteriorating body.

“He wanted to be there, he knew what was going on,” Sittler said. “It was so special for him. You could tell. It’s something we’ll never forget.”

During the Hall of Fame ceremony on Nov. 11, Salming stood arm in arm with Sittler on one side, Mats Sundin on the other.

Sundin, who is from Bromma, Sweden, said Salming, who was the first Swedish player to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1996, was a pioneer who gave kids like him hope that an NHL career would be possible one day.

Known for his stoic demeanor during his playing days, even Sundin, who like his idol played for the Maple Leafs from 1994-2008, shed tears while standing beside Salming.

He was similarly broken up Thursday, as evidenced by his short text.

“I’m heartbroken right now,” the 51-year-old wrote from Sweden. “Such a loss.”

Kirton said Salming was not keen at first at the idea of coming to North America but quickly changed his mind.

“When Darryl and I talked to him about the idea on the zoom call, he seemed he didn’t want to come,” Kirton said. “I said: ‘Don’t stop taking a risk. Don’t let the disease take control of you.’ He went from shaking his head to nodding his head.

“Two days later, Darryl and I got an email that he was coming.”

Last week Salming was honored at a ceremony in Sweden during an event celebrating 100 years of Swedish hockey and received an award from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, which brought about a standing ovation from fans on hand that lasted almost 10 minutes.

At the conclusion of the event, Salming’s wife, Pia, said it would be the final public appearance her husband would make.

One week later, he is gone.

“So tragic,” Swedish Hall of Fame forward Peter Forsberg said. “We’re all in debt to Borje.

“That a fighter like Borje doesn’t stand a chance against this illness says something about how horrible it is.”

At least he is now in peace, leaving the rest of us with memories.

And, in this instance, a special fist bump that will never be forgotten.

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