Johnston on Borje Salming’s final trip to Toronto: ‘Rarely do we get to say goodbye to legends’

TSN Hockey insiders Chris Johnston and Darren Dreger reflected on how special it was for Borje Salming to visit Toronto one final time, and on the hockey legacy he has left behind.

Mark Roe: We’re joined alongside our hockey insiders Chris Johnston and Darren Dreger as the hockey world continues to mourn the passing of Borje Salming. C.J., it was just under two weeks ago, we saw Salming during Hall of Fame Weekend and the great tribute he was given in Toronto. What was it like being in the building for those two nights?

Chris Johnston: Well, I’ve been in that arena (Scotiabank Arena) hundreds of times, and I don’t remember a night like either of those in terms of the amount of emotion you saw pouring out of the building. Bouncing around you had barely a dry eye in the building. You had strangers hugging each other and, obviously, the huge ovation that Borje Salming received on two different ceremonies. And I think it was almost like a Lou Gehrig moment for Borje Salming. So rarely do we get a chance to say goodbye to the legends, but I think everyone inside the arena understood his time it was not going to be long; that his fight with ALS was so, so grave. And I think it almost makes it more special that somehow Borje Salming found the strength to come over to Toronto and say that goodbye so soon to his death.

MR: Dregs, as a player, you could simply look up his stats and see that Borje was a Hall of Famer. But his legacy on the ice went far beyond those numbers.

Darren Dreger: Yeah, it sure did. I mean, he’s viewed as being a slick and relentless defenceman by those who played with Borje Salming. And just as importantly, those who played against him. He was a noted passer of the puck too, right? So he generated a ton of offence. But here’s what drove teams crazy: aside from the fact that you couldn’t corner him, couldn’t forecheck against him. He was a shot-blocker during an era where there wasn’t a lot of shot-blocking. We know that he was tough as nails. He could take a hit; he would make a hit. He didn’t fight, but there was a meanness. There was a deep level of toughness, to a point where he had no problem pushing back against the mid-70sā€™ Philadelphia Flyers. And legend has it the Flyers tried to trade for Borje Salming. I ran that one by flyer legend Bobby Clarke, and he said, ‘You said you know what? I’m pretty sure everyone did because Borje Salming was that special.ā€™ But beyond that, he was humble. He never flaunted his greatness.”

MR: And Chris, we take for granted the amount of great Swedish players that play in the National Hockey League. But that wasn’t always the case. And Salming had such a big influence on the generations that came after him.

C.J.: Yeah, I think every European player to some degree owes a debt of gratitude to Salming. And one of them is Nicklas Lidstrom, who I had a chance to speak to recently about Salming, whom he called his boyhood hero. [Salming] kind of paved the way for a career that would ultimately see Lidstrom win seven Norris trophies in the NHL. And he (Lidstrom) shared a nice memory. In fact, when they were teammates at the 1991 Canada Cup, they were paired together right before the end of Salming’s career, just at the beginning of Lidstrom’s career in North America. And he said he (Salming) literally stopped traffic when they were in Toronto. He remembered walking to a practice a short few blocks from their hotel to Maple Leaf Gardens, and people were jumping out of their cars to see Borje. And he said at that time, even as Swedes, we didn’t realize he was that big in North America. That he had that kind of adulation. And, of course, we saw that when he came back to say goodbye here in recent days.

MR: Dregs, the Leafs are currently on this four-game road trip. How does the organization plan on honouring Salming?

DD: Yeah, of course, there will be a fitting tribute. There’s no question about that. But look, we all saw what the Toronto Maple Leafs did for Borje Salming and the fans of Borje Salming, the fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs during Hall of Fame weekend. As CJ noted, it was such an emotional time. So the tribute might seem understated, but it will be dignified exactly the way that Borje Salming would want.

MR: A trailblazer for so many players who would follow them the passing of Borje Salming will be felt throughout the hockey world.