‘A pioneer of the game’: Toronto Maple Leafs star Börje Salming dead at 71

Click to play video: 'Remembering a trailblazer: NHL legend Börje Salming dies at 71'
Remembering a trailblazer: NHL legend Börje Salming dies at 71
WATCH: Former Toronto Maple Leafs icon Börje Salming has died. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) earlier this year. Ross Lord reflects on the defenceman's legendary career, the records he shattered, and how he blazed a trail on the hockey rink. – Nov 24, 2022

Former Toronto Maple Leafs star Börje Salming has died at the age of 71, the team has confirmed.

In a statement Thursday, Toronto Maple Leafs president and alternate governor Brendan Shanahan said the organization is mourning the loss of Salming.

“Börje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness,” Shanahan said in the 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.”

Read more: Toronto Maple Leafs great Borje Salming diagnosed with ALS

Shanahan said Salming joined the team 50 years ago, adding that he 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 Sarah and brother Stieg,” he said.

Salming signed with the Leafs as a free agent ahead of the 1973-74 season and spent 16 seasons with the team.

The native of Kiruna, Sweden, went on to play 1,099 regular-season games with the Leafs, establishing team records for assists (620) and goals (148), points (768) and playoff points (49) by a defenceman.

Salming spent one season with the Detroit Red Wings. He retired after the 1989-90 hockey season.

He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. Salming was also named to the National Hockey League’s 100 Greatest Players list.

Read more: Leafs honour Salming, rally to defeat Canucks

In August the team announced Salming had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“I do not know how the days ahead will be, but I understand that there will be challenges greater than anything I have ever faced,” Salming said at the time. “I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day.

“Since I started playing ice hockey as a little kid in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given it my all. And I will continue to do so.”

A photo honouring Borje Salming is shown at the Scotiabank Arena on November 24, 2022. Global News / Phil Pang

Earlier this month, the Toronto Maple Leafs honoured Salming at Scotiabank Arena.

Borje Salming shook hands with every member of the Maple Leafs as he slowly departed the ice.

Toronto Mayor John Tory said his thoughts “and the thoughts of all Toronto hockey fans,” are with the family and loved ones of Salming.

“From Sweden to Toronto, ‘The King’ will be remembered for the incredible impact he had on our city,” Tory said in a statement. “I’m thankful he was able to be here earlier this month for such a courageous and loving moment on the ice.”

In a statement Thursday, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said Salming was 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,” Bettman said. “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.”

Bettman said the NHL “mourns the passing of Borje,” adding that he was a  “towering presence and transformational figure in the game’s history.”

He said the league sends its “deepest condolences” to Salming’s family and “all who marveled at his exploits and the many NHL players who stand on his shoulders.”

Fans flocked to the Salming statue at Scotiabank Arena to pay their respects. Some came with flowers, other with heavy hearts and emotions like Andrew Castaneda. The 39-year-old life-long Leafs fan stood across Salming’s statue weeping.

Castaneda said Salming “made blue and white matter at a time where it was kind of difficult to be a fan.”

“He did so much to grow the game across the world,” he continued. “To have an entire generation of not just Swedish players, but European players who view him as a role model growing up, (it) speaks so much to what he meant not just to Toronto — but to the game.”

Castaneda said Salming’s passing felt “really sudden,” adding that it “makes you really hope that we can find a cure for ALS.”

“I think that there’s been a lot of guilt that’s been done as far as research. I just hope this helps bring more awareness to it,” he said.

In a tweet on Friday, the team shared photos of a patch added to the team’s jerseys in honour of Salming.

With files from The Canadian Press and Global News’ Ahmar Khan

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