The Captain; The Tiger… and Tears

TORONTO (Nov. 12) — To be honest, there’s no particular reason for me to write this blog.

The remarkable and poignant images snapped, below, by veteran photographer Frank Gunn of The Canadian Press more than speak for themselves, as Borje Salming returned to Scotiabank Arena on Friday night for the first time since being diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which the hockey world learned about on Aug. 10. The photos show the great defenseman, overcome by emotion on Hall of Fame weekend, while the crowd offered its love and support. Holding it together until he could no more was Salming’s running mate with the 1970’s Maple Leafs, Darryl Sittler, and that “other Swede”, the all-time franchise leader in points: Mats Sundin. Toronto hockey moments like never before. And, more than likely, never again.

So, why go any farther? Well, for two reasons: a) because I need to. There is catharsis in writing this blog. And, b) as the result of a 20–minute phone conversation, earlier today, that I’ll take to my grave: Sittler and Dave (Tiger) Williams in the same car, driving around Toronto, and sharing their innermost thoughts. This was not an interview, per se, on my part. Rather, an exercise in listening to a pair of boyhood hockey heroes speak — and, yes, cry — about their dear friend and former teammate. Sittler was behind the wheel; Tiger, in the back seat. And, they just talked. First one, then the other. I injected the odd question, but stayed mostly silent, fully mesmerized by a bond between former teammates that is, occasionally, difficult to comprehend. Remember, the 1970’s Maple Leafs neither played for, nor won, the Stanley Cup. This wasn’t akin to (the late) Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Steve Shutt, Serge Savard and Ken Dryden gathering to reminisce about Montreal’s four–year championship dynasty that began in 1976. Rather, it’s a story that transcends the game; about an unshakable, lifelong liason between, primarily, four men that skated together for merely five seasons (1974–75 to 1978–79) before mostly unpopular trades took them elsewhere. Those men? Sittler, Salming, Williams and Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald.

And, so, the telephone chat began.

SITTLER: First, Howie, hockey fans need to understand the physical and emotional commitment just for Borje to make the trip here from Sweden. Until Tuesday night, we weren’t sure it would be possible, given that Borje can no longer talk and struggles to eat. There’s a feeding tube that helps him. And, a machine he keeps with him in case phlegm builds up in this throat, which he cannot clear by himself. Also, the entire ordeal often makes him very tired. But, he wasn’t going to miss out on this opportunity. The same fortitude that allowed him to fight through the Swedish and anti–European bias at the beginning of his career is completely evident today, nearly 50 years later. That’s what brought him to Toronto this weekend.

WILLIAMS: Darryl is bang on. Borje had to fight his way into the NHL, with all the “chicken Swede” bullshit in the early 70’s. He was, and still is, one of the toughest, sharpest dudes I’ve come across anywhere in my life.

SITTLER: I knew there would be a lot of emotion on Friday night when Borje was announced to the crowd. As we were walking onto the ice and past the Leafs bench, you could see how somber all the current players were. Borje exchanged a hug with William Nylander and we walked out onto the carpet. I was able to hold it together until I looked at Borje and saw what the moment meant to him. A common trait of those with ALS is crying and showing raw emotion. It’s hardly the first time I’ve seen Borje cry since this ordeal began. We’ve been together a lot. But, it’s never happened alongside Lanny and Mats… and with 19,000 people poring out their affection. There was no chance of me holding it back. I’m an old softie to begin with. So, it wasn’t surprising when the tears started to flow.

WILLIAMS: [Leafs president] Brendan Shanahan was nice enough to offer us his suite at the arena — and there’s no way to overstate how kind and understanding he has been leading up to this weekend (Sittler readily agreed). I was up there by myself and watching the ceremony, mainly because I was too chicken–shit to come to ice level. I knew I’d be a blubbery mess and that’s exactly what happened. My eyeballs were leaking like a bad drain pipe. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life. Like Darryl said, it’s nearly impossible to comprehend what Borje had to contend with just to make the trip from Sweden. But, it also took me back to the start of my career, when the big, bad goofs in the NHL were trying to run Borje out of the league. He didn’t give an inch back then and he wouldn’t settle for anything other than getting on that plane and being here for this weekend… as he did all the other years since going into the Hall of Fame (in 1996). He just put on his big boy pants and said ‘let’s go.’


Photos and videos of Salming since his diagnosis show a man either unwilling, or unable, to smile. Prior to this, Borje’s toothy grin could light up a dark room. “He can still smile, but it doesn’t just happen anymore,” explained the Tiger. “It’s like taking a step with a really sore foot. The entire process requires about 30 seconds before Borje can properly coordinate his facial muscles. Then, he smiles like he always did. It’s really fascinating to watch, obviously, in a sad way, how this stupid disease progresses and the effort it takes for someone like Borje to do the simplest thing. I became aware of ALS through another former Leaf, Mark Kirton, who I played with in Toronto and Vancouver. You’ve never seen courage until watching these guys go through a typical day.”

Salming, as many may have noticed, also moves quite deliberately from side to side, with the facial expression of a person encountering dementia; not fully aware of his surrounding “Nothing could be farther from the truth,” Sittler emphasized. “It’s the loss of muscle control that makes Borje look that way. Mentally, he’s as sharp as a tack; no different than any time in his life that I’ve known him.” Added Williams: “His mind is clear as a bell. There are moments when it doesn’t appear so, but it’s deceiving.”

As with life’s progression, Sittler and Williams were driving to go see grandchildren. They’ll be back at Scotiabank Arena for another ceremony tonight, prior to the Maple Leafs–Vancouver game. This time, Salming will be honored for his years with the Blue and White. It isn’t likely to be less emotional than Friday. “I think what really has hit me is that these are unique moments that have never happened before,” concluded Sittler. “And (as he choked up), there’s a good chance it’s the last time we’ll have the opportunity to be together. So, yes, there’s happiness and sadness at the same time. Sometimes, it’s difficult to comprehend. But, we’re living it. Together. As always.”


23 comments on “The Captain; The Tiger… and Tears

  1. My husband who had been diagnosed with Bulbar ALS disease for 2 years at the age of 63 had all his symptoms reversed with Ayurveda medicine from naturalherbscentre. com after undergoing their ALS/MND natural protocol, he no longer requires a feeding tube. God Bless all Lou Gehrig’s disease Caregivers. Stay Strong, take small moments throughout the day to thank yourself, to love your self, and pray to whatever faith, star, spiritual force you believe in and ask for strength. I can personally vouch for these remedy but you would probably need to decide what works best for you.

  2. Thanks so much Howard for sharing this remarkable encounter with two Leaf legends and their heartfelt words on one of the great Leafs of all time. Brilliant and touching! God bless Borje!
    Mark N.

  3. Thanks Howard. I am of an age that I was able to watch these players. It was such an exciting time. I remember the upset win over the Islanders; it seemed that we were finally on the cusp of something special. Sadly, it was not to be. I understand the incredible physical challenge that Borje undertook to be here. I hope that he can get home safely and pass whatever time is left to him in whatever comfort he is able to have. It was very brave and selfless of him to make the effort (and I am sure it was very challenging, and potentially fatal) to be at the ceremony. Thank you for your heartfelt column. I can only offer prayers for Borje.

  4. Thank you! Such an amazing person. First time I met Salming it was his first year in TO. I was like 10. He and Inge Hammerstrom came to the Country Style Donuts up the street from us to sign autographs. I walked there and spent ages with them. Maybe 10 people showed up. Hammerstrom couldn’t speak English and Borje barely did but we had a blast together.
    At least that’s how I remember it. ?

  5. It’s truly touching to see the ‘boys’ rally around their legendary teammate from Sweden. The first of his kind and he paved the way for many more.
    I have been a Salming fan since day one and even liked what Dave “The Hammer” Schultz said about him. The ultimate compliment. To see how Darryl Sittler reacted to his long time teammate, makes us all human and he was not alone!!
    Nothing can take that away from The King!!!
    Howard, you should be covering the Leaf’s.

  6. Howard
    Your blog reminds me that you should still be covering the Leafs. I have been a fan since 1967. I’ll never forget waking up to the news that Tim Horton had been killed (Feb. 21, 1974) in a car crash just hours after playing in Toronto the night before for Buffalo. Last night was just as emotional. Seeing Sittler and Salming having such an emotional release in front of the fans was heart breaking. Thanks again for a wonderful blog.

  7. I shed tears reading this blog.
    It was powerful and heartbreaking.
    Hes a brave a man making the trip to Toronto with so many physical challenges.
    I’ve been a Salming fan from the get go.
    I hope he will remember the “love” shown to him in Toronto forever.
    Thanks Howie.

  8. It’s truly touching to see the ‘boys’ rally around their legendary teammate. Time reminds us all that even our heroes are mere mortals, but it’s powerless against their larger than life legacies. Nothing can take that away from The King.

  9. Great article. That’s when players cared. Unfortunately, the Canadiens in that era were one of the best teams ever. Watching the ceremony, with the exception of Nylander and a few other players, the Leafs and Matthews in particular, looked like they could care less. Maybe I’m wrong. God bless Salming, one of the greatest Leaf defencemen.

  10. Howard
    This blog was incredible! Miss you on the Fan covering the Leafs.
    Last night was heart wrenching! Seeing Darryl and Borje in that emotional release is unforgettable. I’ll never forget that first season with Borje and Inge and the abuse they took playing the Flyers.
    Thank you again for your blog.

  11. Remember when Borje and Inge came over. The courage to brave everything each of them faced was telling. A certain commentator called everyone from Sweden “chicken”. Their’s was a courage few Canadians need to overcome. Last night what courage is was on full display. Bravo Borje. Thank you. God speed.

  12. I have been a Rangers fan for the better part of 40 years, but Friday night I and (I hope) the rest of the hockey community were Leafs fans. I lost a grandmother to this horrible disease in 2001 and I saw first hand what it does to a person’s way of life and physical state over a period of time. To make the trip across the Atlantic given his condition is absolutely incredible and inspirational. Borje Salming is a remarkable human being.

  13. Thanks for this blog post and sharing the phone conversation with Sittler and Williams. Was in tears last night, and will be again tonight.

  14. Howard wonderful piece of writing brought tears to my eyes I’ve been listening to you for thirty years such a nice tribute to a Leaf that brought so much joy to my childhood

  15. Howard, this is perhaps your best blog ever and the interview is so exclusive feeling because of your rapport with people on a non journalistic level. So thank you for this, I hope you don’t ever feel mad if you are writing these blogs for nothing. They mean a lot to so many people, (even if I don’t agree with you politically, it’s irrelevant). Brilliant work sir.

    1. So enlightening to see the former Leafs surround Salming with love and admiration for the GOAT of the Leafs defenseman. I grew up watching this group play hockey together and watching Salming play hockey was a privilege. He will always be the Leaf who I admire the most, showing the hockey world that he was not only as tough as any hockey player ever to don an NHL jersey but as skilled as any hockey player I have had the pleasure of watching. Great emotion and great friendships like the old NHL will never be seen again so I salute the group of teammates who were there standing side by side with Borje and I salute Borje for coming to visit his hockey home for possibly the last time. It was an honour and a privilege to be able to watch him play for the Leafs
      Thank you Borje and his true friends and teammates.

  16. Thank you Howard. I am the same age as you. I grew up with Keon, Henderson, Plante, etc. Then later on it was Sittler, Salming, Williams, McDonald, Turnbull. Watching Borje battling this terrible disease is heartbreaking. My wife lost her first husband to ALS. She is a nurse and stayed at home and looked after him until he passed. So she knows all about it and still has a hard time watching someone go thru this. She says, and I agree, it’s the worst disease in the world today.

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