Fourteen years ago this month, hockey fans jammed what was then called the Air Canada Centre to watch the culmination of one of the greatest careers the championship-starved Toronto Maple Leafs had ever seen.
The club lifted a blue-and-white banner featuring Borje Salming’s name, image, and number-21 jersey to the rafters and celebrated the career of the team’s first-ever foreign-born superstar. It was the exclamation mark on a career that brought much joy to Leafs partisans and rewarded a player who, more than three decades earlier, had trailblazed a Swedish invasion of the National Hockey League that has made the North American game infinitely better.
More than 50 hockey aficionados, including the game’s greatest ever coach, recently participated in a special Zoom session marking the importance of the European influence on hockey. Strangely enough, while Leafs fans would come to love their Swedish imports, the fans back home had a very different view.
“At first, they were considered traitors in Sweden,” said Jens Lind, a Swedish journalist and documentary filmmaker. “They’d turned their backs on the Swedish club system and were going to North America to play for the money.”
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By 1972, hockey was experiencing boom times. The NHL had recently more than doubled in size to 16 teams, and the rival World Hockey Association added 12 more. “The game needed to find talent, so it opened the doors to every nook and cranny,” is how hockey historian Kevin Shea described it.
That year, the Leafs’ roster featured 26 players — 25 of them Canadian and one American. But the following season, the club added two Swedes and changed the course of NHL history.
Gerry McNamara was a scout for the Leafs who’d been sent to Moscow to watch the 1973 Ice Hockey World Championships. He actually went to scout a goaltender, but when he saw defenceman Salming and his teammate, left-winger Inge Hammarström, play, he said, “My eyes were opened.”
Hammarström scored five goals in that game. Salming dominated until he was, if you can imagine, ejected. After Salming was booted out of the game, McNamara made his move. He somehow finagled his way into the Swedish team’s dressing room and made his pitch.
“He asked me if I wanted to come play for the Toronto Maple Leafs,” Salming recalled. “I didn’t know too much English, but I said yes. He said, ‘Okay, fine! I’ll be in touch,’ and then he was gone.”
Ex-Leaf Billy Harris was coaching the Swedish national team and encouraged the two to pursue their NHL dreams.
“Billy told us, ‘Guys, I think they’d love to have you in Toronto,” Hammarström recalled.
Salming, Hammarström, McNamara, and Bob Davidson (another Leaf scout) later met at the Hotel Ukraine in Moscow and ironed out the details.
It was a bizarre but happy end to a scouting mission designed to bring home a goaltender. “I had the whole country to myself,” said McNamara, now 86. No other NHL scouts had yet discovered the potential gold mine that was European hockey. “When I took the subway, I asked people who the best Swedish players were, and Borje’s and Inge’s names came up repeatedly.”
“I’ll remember them for the rest of my life,” added McNamara, who spoke with a love and fondness for the Swedish pair one doesn’t normally see in the macho world of pro sports.
“We will never forget you either,” said Hammarström.
“You took us to Canada and gave us a chance,” added Salming.
“Well, you fellas made me proud,” beamed McNamara.
It was a lovely moment.
When the Swedish tandem showed up at Maple Leaf Gardens for their first practice in blue and white, the team’s brass were sitting in the stands, skeptically watching and wondering what McNamara had brought over from Europe. What they didn’t know was that the pair had been training all summer for this moment. “We needed to be in good shape, and we were,” said Salming. “I said to Inge, ‘Let’s show them something.’ And I guess we did a good job.”
How did Leafs management react? “Their jaws dropped,” recalled McNamara. “You guys proved me right and opened the doors from Europe. You were the trailblazers, and for that I’ll be forever grateful.”
Despite the fact that Salming and Hammarström ultimately took jobs away from Canadian-born players, the two said their teammates couldn’t have been more welcoming. “Davie Keon, Norm Ullman, Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Jim McKenny, Ian Turnbull — we all became a family,” said Hammarström. “We stuck together and became very close.”
The Swedes brought a very different brand of hockey to North America. The NHL was entering a phase when “goon hockey” was in ascendancy. Philadelphia’s “Broad Street Bullies” won back-to-back Stanley Cups with a mix of skill players and street brawlers, some of whom were actually charged with assault during a 1976 game in Toronto.
In just his second NHL game, Salming found himself in a fight with the Flyers’ toughest player, Dave “the Hammer” Schultz. “It was a good start to take on the big guy!” Salming recalled.
Hammarström also remembered the game well. “During the warmup, some of the Flyer players took slapshots at us, hitting me in the back of my calf muscles. I thought, ‘Welcome to Philadelphia. This is gonna be a different story.’”
In fact, many North American-born players put the Swedish tandem through some agonizing and brutal hazing. They were labelled “Chicken Swedes” because they preferred skating, passing, and shooting to brawling. They were speared, hacked, and kicked. But Hammarström prefers to remember a moment at the Boston Garden when the legendary Bobby Orr skated up behind them during the warmup.
“He tapped us on the back and said, ‘Good luck, guys,’” Hammarström said. “What a classy player. That really made an impact on us.”
Hammarström was a lightning-fast skater, a good playmaker, and strong as a bull, but he wasn’t a fighter. Mucking it up in the corners wasn’t his thing. He scored 85 goals in four-plus seasons with the Leafs before being traded to St. Louis, but the owner didn’t like him. Harold Ballard popped off one day, saying, “Hammarström could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them.”
The comment stung.
“Of course it affected me,” Hammarström admitted. “Mind you, the next game after he said it, I scored a hat trick.”
“It was brutal,” piped in McNamara.
“I was still happy to play for the Maple Leafs,” Hammarström continued, “but I didn’t deserve that.”
Also on the Zoom call was Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, whose name is on the Stanley Cup more times than anyone else’s. “These guys didn’t get the credit for being the pioneers that they were,” said Bowman, who turned 87 last month but looks 15 years younger. “And, Inge, I don’t mean to make you feel bad, but if you were playing today, you’d be a minimum $5-million-a-year player. And Borje, you’d be pretty close to $10 million.”
The Swedes didn’t really understand how beloved they’d become in Toronto until 1976, when Maple Leaf Gardens hosted some of the games of the first-ever Canada Cup international tournament. Yes, hometown heroes Sittler and McDonald received enormous ovations when introduced. But so did Salming, when Team Sweden’s roster was introduced.
“People just kept cheering,” recalled Jens Lind. “We watched the games in the middle of the night in Sweden and didn’t know he was so beloved over there.”
A kind of 1970s Swedish invasion followed Salming and Hammarström. Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg joined Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets of the WHA, winning the Avco Cup there. (“They’d have given us a run for our money if we’d have played for the Stanley Cup,” admitted Bowman.) Kent Nilsson, Willy Lindström, and Thommie Bergman joined soon after. Nicklas Lidström would spend 20 seasons in Detroit and become the NHL’s best defenceman. And, of course, the best player in Leafs’ history, Mats Sundin, would eventually become the team’s all-time goals and points leader. Salming would be the team’s all-time assists leader and third all-time on the list of games played in blue and white.
Hammarström, who turns 73 in January, went on to scout for the Flyers for 21 years and the Vancouver Canucks for another 10. Salming, who turns 70 next April, spent 16 seasons in Toronto, one in Detroit, and another three back in Sweden before retiring at age 43. (There’s a reason he was nicknamed “the King” in Toronto.) He then started a hugely successful underwear line that has since branched out into shoes, indoor/outdoor clothing, and perfumes. And, like almost every single Swede who plays in North America, both men returned to their homeland to make their lives after their NHL careers were over.
“I love you,” McNamara said to the pair as the Zoom call came to an end.
“We love you, too,” Hammarström and Salming echoed. And, with that, two hours of marvellous hockey nostalgia came to an end.