Börje Salming, the Toronto Maple Leafs legend who spent 16 seasons wearing the blue and white, has been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the condition also known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, he said in a statement issued through the team on Wednesday.
“I have received news that has shaken my family and me,” Salming wrote. “The signs that indicated that something was wrong in my body turned out to be the disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an instant, everything changed. 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.”
ALS is a progressive disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, deteriorating the motor neurons — the ones that are responsible for voluntary movements such as talking and walking — which leads to a loss of muscle control, respiratory failure and, eventually, death. It can also impact a person’s personality and cognitive functions.
Though the initial signs and symptoms of ALS vary significantly from person to person — a variation that has been attributed to different neurons being impacted at the start in different cases — it generally begins with localized muscle weakness that, over time, spreads.
“In about 70 per cent of diagnoses, the disease starts with symptoms from the spinal cord, which increasingly weakens the patient’s arms and legs, while in about 30 per cent it starts around the mouth and throat, leading to slurred speech and difficulties swallowing,” Dr. Caroline Ingre, Salming’s physician, wrote in the statement. “These patients also often have an associated emotional impact that manifests itself as uncontrollable laughter or crying.”
The symptoms Salming, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996, is currently experiencing were not specified.
Currently, the exact reason a person develops ALS is the subject of exhaustive research, but few firm answers.
The condition is inherited in 5 to 10 per cent of people, but for the rest, the cause is not known. Many leading theories rest on the condition stemming from an interaction between genetic and environmental factors.
“Hang in there legend,” Hayley Wickenheiser, who completed medical school after her storied hockey playing career and is now the Maple Leafs assistant general manager, said on Twitter. “You were tough as nails on the ice — I’m sure it will be no different off of it.”
There is no cure for ALS. However, there are treatments for people suffering from the syndrome to help manage its symptoms, improving a person’s quality of life. The range of treatments is vast, including medications, heat or whirlpool therapy to relieve muscle cramping, nutritional counselling, speech therapy and communication training to maintain as many verbal communication skills as possible and, as the disease progresses, devices such as splints or corrective braces to help a person go through their day-to-day life.
“I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day,” Salming said. “In the meantime, there are treatments available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.”
Over the last couple decades, there have been meaningful advances in therapeutics for those living with ALS.
The US Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Rilutek in 1995, the first of its kind to reliably prolong the survival of people with ALS, according to renowned research university Johns Hopkins. The drug is still far from a cure but can extend survival for patients in the early stages of the disease. While taking it, however, a person will not get stronger, nor will they regain strength or function they lost prior to being on the medication.
Other improvements in medical interventions, such as nutrition and breathing, have also increased patient survival. Fifty per cent of people with ALS now live at least three or more years after the diagnosis, 20 per cent live five years or more, and up to 10 per cent survive more than 10 years, according to data from Johns Hopkins.
“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,” Salming said. “Right now, I rest assured that I have my loving family around me and the best possible medical care. I understand that there are many of you that would like to reach out, however I kindly ask you to respect our privacy in these trying times. Please keep us in your prayers.”
Salming, 71, was a six-time All-Star defenceman for the Leafs from the 1973-74 season through 1988-89. He spent the last season of his career with the Red Wings. In 1,148 career games, he had 150 goals and 637 assists for 787 points to go along with 1,344 minutes in penalties. Salming, along with Inge Hammarstrom, were among the first Swedes to play in the NHL and are considered trailblazers among European players who followed.