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

Global News 2 days ago Hannah Jackson
Former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Borje Salming applauds as he addresses the crowd for his banner raising prior to NHL action between the Ottawa Senators and the Leafs in Toronto on Wednesday Oct. 4, 2006. © THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn Former Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Borje Salming applauds as he addresses the crowd for his banner raising prior to NHL action between the Ottawa Senators and the Leafs in Toronto on Wednesday Oct. 4, 2006.

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."

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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.

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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."

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.

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.”

- With a file from The Canadian Press

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