The story behind Borje Salming’s awkward 1,000th-game tribute

Kris Draper scored the winning goal as the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in the alumni game.

I worked for the Toronto Maple Leafs on part- and full-time basis in a few different capacities from 1975 to 1989.

The 1987-88 season was one I probably looked forward to the most.

The team had just taken a few positive strides in the springs of 1986 and 1987, when they had (surprisingly) made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in two consecutive post-seasons.

On a personal note, I had added being the general manager of the Newmarket Saints, our AHL affiliate at the time, to my assistant general manager duties. Then-Maple Leafs owner and president Harold Ballard had given me a three-year contract and I was looking forward to a new career opportunity spending more time with our AHL team rather than focusing solely on the NHL’s Leafs.

As always, with life in the Leafs organization then and now, things don’t always work out as planned.

While I spent more time in Newmarket and less in Toronto, a very obvious conflict and divide was growing between Leafs GM Gerry McNamara and coach John Brophy.

One constant positive throughout my 14 years in Toronto would be watching the continued excellence of future Hall of Famer Borje Salming in practice and during games on a near-daily basis.

Though he was never one to seek the spotlight in any form, there was an upcoming milestone that we felt was worthy of celebrating despite the Leafs being mired in (another) disappointing season on the ice: Salming was on the verge of becoming the first European-born player in NHL history to play in 1,000 NHL games.

It looked like the event would occur in early January 1988. There was just one problem: Leafs owner Harold Ballard was away in the Cayman Islands, and did not want any honouring of Salming to occur without him being present.

Ballard had, at that time, begun taking larger chunks of time off, when he would quietly—and almost mysteriously—disappear with his female companion, Yolanda, to warm locations for vacation. There was never any hint about when he might return.

So the night of Jan. 4 came and went without any recognition—and without Ballard in his usual spot in his infamous “bunker.” The Leafs tied Vancouver 7-7 and Salming, with no pomp or ceremony, became the first European-born NHLer to hit the 1,000-game mark. He was the fifth member of the Leafs to play 1,000 games and the 62nd NHLer to do so in league history.

I can’t remember exactly when Ballard returned, but I do recall that one of the first orders of business was to figure out an appropriate tribute for Salming.

I had an idea that he was receptive to. We had been the opposing team a few years earlier when the Philadelphia Flyers honoured Bill Barber. An organization known for doing things “right,” the Flyers did just that on the occasion. With general manager and former Barber linemate, Bobby Clarke, on the ice as part of the ceremony, the team gift of a new automobile was driven on the ice by the third cog in their line, Reggie Leach. It was a very generous and appreciated gift by the Flyers organization and it was well-received by all in attendance that night at The Spectrum in Philadelphia.

I proposed a similar idea to Ballard, suggesting we invite Salming’s parents over to surprise him. And, like the Flyers did for Barber, having them driven onto the ice by former teammate and long-time friend Inge Hammarstrom in a car being presented to Salming by the Leafs.

Everyone in our small Leafs executive offices—and, most importantly, Ballard—agreed it seemed like a perfect idea and, when contacted, all of the proposed participants were able to attend. Salming’s parents and Hammarstrom were doing an excellent job of keep it all under wraps. Though it would be his 1,011th NHL game, the night of Jan. 27 against the Los Angeles Kings was chosen as the date for the tribute.

As plans were put in place over the next week or so, it all seemed to be going swimmingly.

Then, a quirk or two.

The day before the event, Ballard asked me to go over (once again) what exactly the organization was doing. Then he asked the question, “Who the hell is paying for the new car?”

“You are,” I answered.

He wasn’t too amused, but it was what we’d all assumed. Ballard, though, had been under the impression that someone had been able to cut a deal to get the car for free to give to Salming. That hadn’t been the case, and by the next day Ballard had cooled down about what he felt was this “unexpected” expense.

The next afternoon, we held a run-through of the ceremony on the ice. This was a very rare type of event for a Leafs game at Maple Leaf Gardens, so we didn’t exactly have a games operations staff (which nobody had back then in the first place) that was well-versed in executing these kinds of things.

One key person wasn’t very receptive to the concept in general. Paul Morris was a true legend as the longtime P.A. announcer for Maple Leafs home games. But that afternoon, I could tell he wasn’t thrilled at all about his role in this production. He didn’t do “schtick,” and he felt this event leaned a bit that way. The rehearsals were rather bland, and part of it was due to Morris not really putting his heart into it.

That evening, the event went “well enough.” At first, it was not clear to fans in attendance what was going on. To them, it just seemed like a mystery car had appeared on the ice, with Morris not exactly letting the crowd in on the celebration as he spoke in the same tone as if he was announcing a goal or the three stars of the night. It was a bit of a puzzle that they were left to piece together on their own.

Once Salming realized what was going on, however, it made for a truly special moment. He was touched to see his parents emerge from the car, followed by his good friend Hammarstrom.

Ballard’s on-ice part also had a little twist, as he wore a “Heart and Stroke”-emblazoned sweatshirt to support one of his charitable causes—though nobody could read what it said.

At the time Salming actually played his 1,000th game, the Leafs held a 14-20-4 record for the season. Three weeks later against Los Angeles, they were 14-28-7. They had not won a single game since Salming’s 1,000th, going 0-8-3 in 11 games.

They would reward Salming (and Leafs fans) with a 5-2 win over the Kings that night to snap their winless streak.

However, they would then lose their next five games (0-3-2), and Ballard would again disappear to the Cayman Islands for another trip. When he returned on the morning of Sunday, Feb. 5, he decided to fire general manager Gerry McNamara.

McNamara had been a Leafs scout before being named general manager. His biggest scouting coup was traveling to Sweden in the early 1970s and quickly starting the process for Salming and Hammarstrom to get to Toronto. The night of Salming’s tribute would be McNamara’s very last victory as Leafs GM, capping a six-and-a-half year run.

My life would change a few months later as I was named Maple Leafs GM that April. My Newmarket apprenticeship would be accelerated dramatically—what was slated to be three years of looking after an AHL team had lasted less than a year.

It would change again as Ballard’s health declined that summer. He would spend much of the summer in hospital amid family squabbles outside the operation of the hockey team. I would be the general manager who signed Salming to his last Leafs contact—a one-year term at the sum of $350,000.

Ballard no longer had many really good days, health-wise, but one was a small press conference to announce that Salming was returning for one more year. Ballard felt good that day and was full of sentiment and good thoughts towards the star player. It was probably his last good “real” press conference.

I don’t know what ever became of the automobile. I doubt it is in anywhere near as great shape as Salming remains almost three decades later, when I saw him playing for the Leafs alumni at the Centennial Classic.

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