TORONTO (Oct. 18) — The video, posted for all the world to see, was graphic and heartbreaking. Borje Salming, alongside Tim Horton as the greatest defenseman in Toronto Maple Leafs history, breaking down while his wife, Pia, discussed the horrific plight of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) and how it has rapidly jolted her husband. Salming, the Scandinavian hockey pioneer… crying on a video posted by the Swedish newspaper Expressen. No longer able to speak. Beginning to have difficulty while swallowing food.
The ravages of a heinous, incurable affliction.
“I’ve been beside myself since hearing about his diagnosis,” said the voice on the telephone from Los Angeles. Ian Turnbull: the defense partner of Salming for half–a–decade, who arrived with Borje as a National Hockey League rookie in 1973–74, then authored what is still the most–prolific output of any such duo in Toronto hockey annals: 157 combined points in 1976–77 — 79 for Turnbull, still a franchise, single–season record; 78 for Salming.
“I doubt anyone talks about that anymore; there are probably young people who don’t even know about it,” offered Turnbull, now 68. “But, me and Borje contributing to nearly 160 goals in one season. It’s not something you see very often. We had a pretty good run up there. And now, this… Borje so sick. It’s such a helpless feeling for me. If only I had a magic wand, I’d go to Sweden and wave it over the guy; make this whole nightmare just disappear.”
Which undoubtedly reflects the emotion and sentiment of all the great Maple Leafs from that era: Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Mike Palmateer, Errol Thompson, Dave (Tiger) Williams. And, such less–heralded Leaf names as Pat Boutette, Jack Valiquette, Stan Weir, Bob Neely, Bruce Boudreau, Randy Carlyle, Mike Pelyk, Wayne Thomas. Wondering, as does Turnbull, how quickly and harshly ALS will take down their former teammate.
“I actually heard about it before the story broke,” Turnbull recalled. “Out of the blue, I got a telephone call from Jim McKenny (another Leaf defenseman from that era). He said ‘did you hear the bad news about Borje?’ And, my first thought was that Borje had died or been killed. When ‘Howie’ (McKenny’s nickname) mentioned ALS, I could hardly believe it. Of all people, Borje, the best–conditioned athlete I ever came across. It’s just sad and sickening. I always thought that he and I would sit together on a porch some day, smoking a cigar, and laughing about all the bullshit we went through in Toronto. Now I know that will never happen. And, let’s not forget Mark Kirton, who played briefly with both of us. He, too, is suffering through that terrible disease. My heart goes out to him as well.”
Turnbull remembers Salming as not only a starry teammate, but for his superhuman capacity to recover. “Times were different back then. You could abuse your body away from the rink and nobody would say anything as long as you performed well during the games. Today, there’s so much money at stake that the players look after themselves all through the year. We’d go out — me, ‘Howie’, Borje — and have a million beers. The next morning, at practice, we’d be hanging over the boards while Borje skated for miles… with no effect from the previous night. It just amazed us how he was able to bounce back so quickly. I guess that’s why I figured Borje would be the last person among our Toronto group to come down with a deadly disease. He was such an incredible athlete.”
BORJE SALMING, 22 (ABOVE), WAS INTERVIEWED ON TV WHILE DEPARTING SWEDEN TO BEGIN HIS CAREER WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS IN SEPTEMBER 1973. FELLOW ROOKIE IAN TURNBULL (BELOW) PLAYED ALL 78 GAMES FOR THE CLUB. HE ENCOUNTERED THE EVENTUAL STANLEY CUP–CHAMPION PHILADELPHIA FLYERS, AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, ON MAR. 9, 1974. GETTY IMAGES/TURNBULL
Turnbull still holds the NHL single–game record of five goals for a defenseman, scored during a 9–1 rout of Detroit, at Maple Leaf Gardens, on Feb. 2, 1977. After a somewhat–fluky fourth goal that bounced off his leg past Red Wings stopper Jim Rutherford, Turnbull held a brief pow–wow with Salming. “There were only a couple of minutes left and Borje said ‘look, you gotta go for it, right after the face–off'”, Turnbull recalled. “I said ‘yeah, as soon as we get possession, I’m busting right up the middle of the ice.’ Borje got the puck and hit me on the fly with a pass that maybe two or three players in the NHL could make. I went in alone and snapped it past Rutherford. It was part of that great season we had together. Red Kelly (the Leafs coach) paired us as rookies in our first training camp and it worked out pretty well, even though I missed much of my second year with ligament damage.”
It was midway through the 1975–76 season that Kelly began to ice arguably the greatest quintet of skaters in franchise history: Sittler, McDonald and Thompson up front (combining for 121 goals and 263 points) with Salming and Turnbull on defense. The following year, left–winger Thompson missed half the season while recovering from a broken wrist. But, Sittler, McDonald, Salming and Turnbull amassed 337 points. “We had it going pretty good back then,” Turnbull understated. “Unfortunately, it was a time when nobody could beat the Canadiens (Montreal won four consecutive Stanley Cups, beginning in 1976). We knocked off the Islanders in the playoffs that year  and lost Borje to an eye injury. It was a physical series and we were beaten up. The Habs were sitting around, waiting for us. We didn’t stand a chance against them (Montreal swept the semifinal round in four games). Just when you thought you were in the game, Lafleur, Cournoyer and the boys would kick it into another gear.
“They were unbeatable. Pure and simple.”
Turnbull and Salming haven’t been together since the 2000 NHL all–star game, held at the new Air Canada Centre. “I don’t get up to Toronto very often, but I remember kidding Borje about how we looked,” Turnbull laughed. “He appeared as if he could still play in the NHL… while I had put on quite a few pounds. I don’t think Borje’s body has changed, even into his 70’s. That’s why it’s so upsetting that he’s come down with ALS.
“Maybe there’s still a miracle out there. Some kind of medical cure or control that can save Borje. Otherwise, all we can do is pray for him and his family. Like I said, it’s a helpless feeling. And, so damned sad.”