An Interview with NHL Hall of Famer Börje Salming: On Stockholm, Toronto, and Being a Maple Leaf
When I got the email that I would be afforded the opportunity to sit down with the legendary Börje Salming I was, for a moment, a child once again. I've been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan my whole life, and, like Börje, I've also spent a large portion of my life exploring new places and cultures, while remembering where I'm from. I can't tell you how much time I spent at Maple Leaf Gardens or the Air Canada Centre just looking at his name hanging up in the rafters, along with twenty or so others. Number #21. This is a man who has the most assists all time for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That is certainly worth respecting for hockey fans, and sports fans at large, or really anybody.
So how did this all come to be? Well, it's no surprise to you if you're reading this that travel is and has been my thing for quite some time (the name "travelingmitch" sort of gives it away.) I actually met with a lovely representative for Stockholm while I was at TBEX, though not in Jerusalem, Israel this time, but in little Killarney, Ireland in October. She kindly let me know Börje would be back in Toronto in efforts to support their fantastic Visit Stockholm campaign, which is one I can really get behind based on how I feel about Stockholm.
She summed things up well when noting, "I just want to say that we are of course really happy now to have Börje Salming as part of what we're doing here in Toronto as well, coming here to promote Stockholm, and to bring over one of our best hockey players. To be in his former home town is a great thing for us as well."
I've been lucky to conduct some special interviews in my day, particularly with the likes of people like Scott Wilson of Departures and Descending fame, but this interview with Börje Salming was something special to me. We met over a period of two days, both at a personal interview, and then when I attended the Visit Stockholm event at Yonge and Dundas Square, so that's where the photos come from that are strewn throughout the article.
I can only hope you'll enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed being a part of it. Börje is the definition of class, and he couldn't be kinder. I'll include the audio file just below here, but I'd strongly recommend you read the text below to get a real feel for the interview.
"I just went out and played the game. I always did that. From day one, all the way, I just went out and went crazy. I tried to give 100 percent."
An Interview with Leafs Legend, Börje Salming
CM: One of the things that everyone always thinks of you is as a pioneer. You sort of came over from Europe before everyone was doing that, before that was a normal thing. How was that transition? How did you make that decision?
BS: I was so young; I was 19, 20 -- 21 when I came over. But everything went from my hometown, all the way down to outside Stockholm I played. I was just going like this; I didn't have a chance actually to think about if I should play a National Hockey League or not. I knew about it, but nobody else felt happy before I went over there. They asked me, "do you want to come over and play hockey?"..."ah, yeah I'll play"
BS: ...So that was fantastic. But the only thing I regret -- in school, I didn't learn English. I thought I was not done when I needed English. But then on the way over, I said -- "Jesus, why didn't I try in school to really learn English?" But I learned English in the dressing room and everything. The guys were really good. They were excellent.
CM: Sure. Were there any guys in particular who really welcomed you to the city?
BS: Most of the guys, they could see we played pretty good hockey, I mean, we made a team. Then they tried to help us so much. I came with Inge Hammarström at same time, so there were two of us, which was easier too - Instead of being by yourself. I mean, you can speak a little Swedish on the side and all this stuff. But they really treated us good. Fantastic. Always helped you out. So when we had dinner or something like that, they said -- "okay, you've got to order yourself. You got to do it, okay?"
CM: Start small, right?
BS: And you had to do it, which was good, then you teach yourself. Then also not to speak and use bad words -- from the dressing room.
CM: Which you never did, right?
BS: Oh my god. At the beginning you're almost... And when it came out to the wives room and everything. You sort of spoke and it was like -- "shhh; no, not here."
BS: So there's a lot of things you have to learn.
CM: I actually played ice hockey. I lived in Istanbul, Turkey for the past three years. If you can believe it, there's professional hockey in...
BS: In Istanbul?
CM: In Istanbul.
BS: No way.
CM: So I played in Istanbul, and I can tell you what you're saying about the language thing -- I learned a lot of words in Turkish very quickly, that I wouldn't want to use outside of the dressing room.
CM: So your first season over here, if I hear you correct, on the ice you fit in very well, right? Everyone could see right away. You had 39 points or something in your first season.
BS: Yeah, that was fantastic.
CM: So the rest of the league must have been like -- "oh my gosh, how did we miss this?"
How do you think you coming over opened up the eyes of the league? Because they must have said... So the scouting department -- get to Sweden!
"That's why it feels so good to come back here all the time...you walk on the street and they remember you."
BS: [laughs] I don't know anything about that. Then I guess if you think about it, if you think now, I guess they should have, because there's a lot of great hockey players over there. When they saw us (I think Hammarström, was an excellent hockey player, too) skating and everything. But it was a tough time to come over in the '70s, because there were rough times. There was the penalties and all that stuff. It was not that easy.
Now it's really hard. Nowadays you can look back and they can see if the ref had missed something you get suspended anyways. But at that time, you could do anything. But at the same time that was fun. A lot of people try to kill you -- "He's a Swede; we're going to kill that guy."
CM: I was going to say, though, I've watched a lot of old tapes. I've watched you play.
Before you came over, I think a lot of people were saying -- "oh, Europeans, they can't play this; they're not tough enough." And then you came over and they couldn't say that any more.
BS: I'm happy about that.
CM: So is this something you brought to the game? Or you just wanted to play... Were you playing to try and prove that? Or were you just playing your game?
BS: I just went out and played the game. I always did that. From day one, all the way, I just went out and went crazy. I tried to give 100 percent. Like Harabela, he said -- "Salming, if you give 100 percent from me, you're going to be here forever."
You know, Sometimes the puck hops over the stick, and everything like that. And he knew that, that's going to happen. But you give 100 percent. And that's all I did, and that's all I tried. But at the same time it was hard. Practices, I really worked hard. I loved to practice. I played in the practice, I played the same way as in a game. I blocked shots and everything like that, and they said -- "oh my god don't do it in practice you going to get hurt!"
Man, that's part of it, I got to do it.
CM: You had 16 seasons in Toronto, right? I was thinking there's one moment in '76, in the Canada Cup where Sweden's playing the US, and... Of course, I mean, Canadians -- we support our nation when we we're playing hockey, but we also support our teammates, our Leafs, right?
CM: So there's a moment where I think they announced your name for Sweden against the US and you got a standing ovation. What was that like for you?
BS: That was amazing. Now I sort of really understand how big it was. And people back home -- they'd be telling me now, "oh geez I was crying, when on TV I see that." I said -- what? Crying?
CM: [laughs] I was almost crying watching it again the other day.
BS: ...And it was fantastic, but at the same time, when it happened, because I didn't know, I just thought, "now I got to play another team. Maybe they're going to boo me, or something" -- I didn't think that way, but...
CM: You never know, right?
BS: Yeah, you never know. Back then they just started to...there was a standing ovation. It was amazing. I think that's when the people back home, all the announcers and everything, understood like, "wow, what happened there?" I couldn't believe it.
Then they understood what I had done over here. They play pretty good hockey over here. Back then, I mean, anyways, they didn't understand. Now you can see the games; you can see anything on TV, right?
BS: At that time, they didn't sell any games or anything over there.
CM: I think of plenty of famous Swedes who played for Toronto. You have, of course, Mats Sundin, right? He's a legend as well. It seems like you had a huge impact on allowing people from Sweden to say, "I can do this." you have Forsberg, the Sedins. When we think about the top nations in hockey, you have really a handful of nations you're going to talk about. You have the US and Canada and Sweden and the Czechs are great, but Sweden is always in the running for the gold medal.
So what impact do you think you had on that? Or do you get a sense that when you were coming home, more people were saying like, "I've been following what you're doing."
BS: Of course, because there's a lot of people following everything over here now, especially. I've heard they're sort of saying, "gee what's going on over there?" Accomplished; that was a good tournament. Everybody had the best team, and everything. I think that was a big impact. After a couple years, when I think about it, there were over 20 guys in the league. I guess it was that impact.
CM: For sure. How much of a home did Toronto become for you? Because you spent a long, long time here, and it would not shock me at all if you walked down the street and people stopped you all the time. It really wouldn't surprise me if you're walking even on the way here -- someone said, "is that..."
BS: They still do.
CM: Yeah. I'm sure. How much of a home did Toronto become for you? Sweden is where you're from and you always take that with you, but did Toronto become home?
BS: Of course Sweden is your home, and you're born there, you've got your relatives, everybody there...
BS: But Toronto is a home for me because every time when I came back (we went back for the summer to see the relatives and everything.) But we came back here -- my family was at Maple Leafs Gardens. All the old guys - now it's big security, but there were old guys sitting in every corner. And everybody came in and everybody was hugging, and I went in the back and saw the guys, and the ice machine. It was like a big family. I was so happy to come back every time. They were too. They were like "oh Borje, you're back..."
"I think right now, in the last five years, I've started to understand that I did something over here."
BS: And it was so fun. It was like, "Wow... guys how you doing!?" I love all the guys who work there. You know, when you were there for 16 years, you knew everybody. Nice family. That's why it was so nice. We lived in the High Park. Beautiful house there, and I have so many friends here.
CM: That's wonderful.
BS: Yeah. A lot of memories from here.
CM: It makes me feel good because I know how much the city cares about you. So the fact that you felt that is fantastic.
BS: Yeah, they treated me like gold. I always say -- they always treated me so good at all times. That's why it feels so good to come back here all the time. And like you said, you walk on the street and they remember you.
One time, I think was when either banner was coming up and I had my family with me, and I had two newspaper guys, photographers, outside. They went outside here, and they're taking pictures. And I was standing on this thing, leaning. All of a sudden, there was somebody, right in the corner over there. The bus stops, and one guy was running out and came to me, because he saw me standing there. He ran out, and he said, "I want your autograph!'
And the guy said, "what? Did you come from the bus over there?" "Yeah, I'm the bus driver!" [laughter] No way. Then he went, "we want a picture. We want a picture." Then we took a picture.Then he ran back. He had stopped the whole traffic. And nobody would honk, nothing. Because everybody was watching. And the guy's like "wow."
I couldn't believe that. That's a little bit about Toronto, how crazy they are about hockey.
CM: Yeah. Probably no one was honking either, because they said, "yes, that makes sense. It's okay."
BS: They thought something had happened over there. Like this guy was running!
CM: I follow the Leafs like crazy. Every day I'm following the updates and everything, and I'm watching anything I can. It's great to hear that even then, it was a classy organization that treated its players so well.
What did it mean to you to be considered one of the all-time great Maple Leafs? What does that mean to you? And this is a legacy. You're the all-time assist leader. No one's going to take this legacy away from you, what you did.
BS: I think right now, in the last five years, I've started to understand that I did something over here.
CM: I'll say.
BS: You know, how many are we up there (in the rafters)? We are what, 20 guys?
CM: Not many.
BS: Not many. And with the statues I said, "my god, what's going on?"
BS: With ten people, I'm one of the statues. It's over hundred years (the NHL). I'm the eighth best of 100 people, and --
CM: I know.
BS: That's what you feel like, you know. Such an impact. They were so good to me. I can't really believe it still today. It's just like, "oh my god. Yeah, that's neat."
CM: Yeah, I can imagine that.
BS: That's why it's so fun to come over with Stockholm. You come over here, it shows where I come from. Where I live in Stockholm, it's a very beautiful city. Really similar to Toronto, all the water around. Especially Stockholm, you know, you've been there. You see that it's built on 14 islands. Amazing.
That's why it's so fun to show off to people. Because I told so many people, "you've got to come over to Sweden and visit us too."
But now, we're here to do that to Toronto. "Man, come over to Stockholm and see Stockholm, because it's beautiful. A beautiful city."
CM: I feel like you're the perfect ambassador for that, having been to Stockholm. I lived in Oslo for a period of time, and I really enjoyed it, and I came over -- no offense to Oslo -- to Stockholm and I thought...and the campaign was "the Capital of Scandinavia." And I thought to myself, "this is very appropriate." It's a real sense of history and culture in Sweden.
I remember it was in the winter time and I was out on a boat in the harbour and I just looked up and I saw a lot of bright colours against the winter's landscape. I saw just some deep yellows and beautiful blues and reds and I thought to myself, "wow what a city."
What do you think people in Toronto would be most surprised about when they arrive in Stockholm? I thought to myself, why isn't the airport busier? There should be plane after plane after plane! Once people understand it...I have yet to meet anybody who doesn't love Stockholm once they've been there, or Sweden. Do you think they'll arrive and say - "wow"?
BS: The city of Stockholm is so... Like so many old houses. Like you said, if you go on the ferry out, you see the old buildings close to the water and everything, and you know that's been there since 1500, 1400. And the old city. Walking, the streets are really narrow.
CM: Sure. Gamla Stan, right?
BS: Gamla Stan, yeah, it's beautiful. Restaurants, everything. And they have Strandvägen, which is my favourite. When I walk from where I live, and walk down right on the water...the restaurants. You've got everything; you've got the old buildings. It's beautiful. I love Stockholm.
"It's beautiful. I love Stockholm"
CM: Some cities don't do well with winter. Do you know what I mean? It's kind of just gray. But I feel like, much like the Canadians, the Swedes embrace winter. You know what I mean? We're just switching activities. [laughter]
I feel like that's the connection with the mentality (between countries). Everyone says, "how do you do it? It's so cold", and you say "you just do it." Because I'm not going to stay inside, and you get your cross country skis, and for us, we get our skates.
I'm actually going to play hockey with my friends tonight at the rinks. So I love that.
BS: Oh that's a hockey city too (Stockholm). There's 3, 4, 5, 6 teams there, playing hockey all over the place.
CM: I should ask on that note. You played hockey over in Sweden at the beginning of your career, and at the end of your career. So how was that, playing in your home nation? It must have been a big full circle sort of thing. You come over and become a legend, and then you come home and...
BS: I said to myself -- I'm not going to play back home now. You know, go back like an old guy. But then you know Anders Hedberg . . . He was the manager for AIK, which is the Stockholm team. He sort of bugged me.
Like, '89 when we played the world tournament in Stockholm, he'd bug me, "you've got to come over; you've got to play in Sweden when you come back." "Well I think I'll come back then." "You've got to play with AIK."
And then, all year long -- "You've got to come."
So finally, I said I'd play one year. So then I came home and played there.
CM: But you played three or something?
BS: Yeah. It was -- OK, I'll play one more year. -- and I was 43 years old at that time. I thought, "oh my god."
CM: Based on your skating, you were probably still faster than everybody else.
BS: You know what...I think that was it, my skating. Because I could handle the skating, and I could handle all the young guys too. Which had to be the strongest point of me I think.
CM: You had a complete game. There's a lot of guys who are quick, but they can't use their shoulders. But you had no problem with that. I can imagine them, the first time, they'd say, "we're going to get this guy," and they come after you and they say, "oh... maybe somebody else can get him."
BS: And I do that too. Like, when it's so rough there too. I knew they were going to try to take me, try to take me with any kind of stuff. So I learned myself, by teaching myself. I learned in the practice too, In the corners, I know, now they're two guys coming they're going to kill me. So I try to get away with it the easy way.
Even, you'd like to know, we played Philadelphia - they don't stick handle, they shoot the puck in. And then they came, and then we were gone, down the ice on a 3 on 2.
CM: Perfect. Perfect, use that speed!
Sitting down and talking with you has been amazing and I really appreciate your time. I wanted to say -- we both have a mutual love of Stockholm and Toronto, but is there anything that you wanted to say about Stockholm or Sweden. I mean, why now? Right now in Stockholm it seems like it's never been more popular, but why now for Stockholm?
BS: Well Stockholm, it's like we said, it's on water. It really is an island. And there's so much to see, like all the old streets and everything. The old houses. Just look up don't look down --
BS: -- look up and look --
CM: Keep your head up.
BS: -- yes, wow. You see everything. You see the city hall with the three crowns on top.
BS: We've got a great movie on that too.
CM: Yes, I saw it yesterday!
BS: Oh good. Yeah, I think, walk around. Don't think you can't walk around and see the city. And take the ferry out.
CM: I agree.
BS: They have a steam ferry. And you can eat dinner there, or you can eat dinner on the island too. It's just fantastic.
CM: I think it's a beautiful note to end on, because both your NHL career, and Stockholm, you could say "keep your head up" you know?
BS: You got it!When I walk now in Stockholm sometimes, I say -- why don't I look up? And, "oh my god look that's beautiful." That's all you got to do.
CM: Now I'll also say, I'm from Toronto, but I've lived in many countries and cities around the world, and I feel like in a lot of ways I had to leave this city to realize why it was special. Now I can say, I realize, for Toronto, it's the multi-culturalism, and the diversity, the amount of people that are here that are from different places... I feel like Toronto is this beautiful example to the world that everyone can get along.
BS: Yeah. That's true. Toronto is so friendly. People are so friendly over here. Amazing. That's what we'd like to see in Stockholm as well. It is a city for everyone, really. We are welcoming; everyone is welcome. That's what we like people to feel when they get there as well. That you are welcome where we are.
BS: I think we're really similar to Stockholm and Toronto. Friendly people...
CM: The warmth, and also the being humble as well. Right? Much like your game, where you let your actions do the talking right? I think that both Canadians and Swedes, we're cautious about saying, "I'm the greatest." You let what you do speak for itself. And if somebody compliments you, you say "thank you," right? You don't expect anything. So I feel that mentality, that's why I feel like Canadians will feel at home in Stockholm.
BS: Yeah. It's true!
I hope you enjoyed the interview. Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below, and, as always, I'll be sure to get back and answer each and every one! Thanks for reading or listening (or both), my friends!