TORONTO – William Nylander will always remember that night.
The dashing, young Swedish hockey star was out for a good time in Stockholm when he randomly crossed paths with Börje Salming, the man who blazed the trail Nylander followed into Leaf Nation.
The two tipped back a few drinks, chatted the hours away and hung out until it was time to go home.
“A special moment,” Nylander reminisced Friday inside a bittersweet hockey rink.
“He was the first guy to make his way over and lead the way with his toughness and being a leader. He represents a lot of Swedes, and he’s done a tremendous job. It’s just so sad seeing him go through what he’s going through.”
To see the rock of the Toronto Maple Leafs blue line and one the 100 Greatest NHL Players of all time muted and physically limited by the cruel hand of ALS. To watch the seemingly indestructible Salming lean on fellow Toronto greats Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin at centre ice as he helped welcome in the new Hall of Famers. To learn that there are challenges so unforgiving they can swallow the fiercest among us.
“It was very emotional. He was always very nice to me whenever I spoke to him,” Nylander says. “It’s obviously very hard to see.”
That the Class of 2022 features a trio of indelible Swedish characters — Daniel Alfredsson, Henrik Sedin, and Daniel Sedin — who all share gratitude and respect for Salming. That Salming is here, in his beloved Toronto, back on a sheet of ice, enveloped by the warm roar of a standing ovation. That Sittler, God bless him, raised Salming’s right arm so the legend could wave to crowd.
“You think of the Maple Leafs,” current head coach Sheldon Keefe says, “you think of him.”
“He’s a big part of the tradition and the history here,” captain John Tavares adds. “He still loves being a Maple Leaf and his connection with the team. We know he’s in a big fight now, so all our support and thoughts are with him.”
Yes, Hall of Fame weekend in this city is about honouring the greatest captain in Ottawa Senators history. It’s about celebrating Vancouver’s telepathic twins and the quick-witted goalie that stood so tall behind them. It’s about overdue overtures for Herb Carnegie and Riikka Sallinen.
(It’s also about the Maple Leafs trying to salvage points in their back-to-back, after dropping a 4-2 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins Friday.)
But it’s also one last opportunity for an organization to thank its greatest defenceman and one of its most loyal ambassadors. Salming will be back in the barn Saturday, when he’ll be honoured more formally.
“He’s an icon,” says current Maple Leafs defender Rasmus Sandin, 49 years Salming’s junior. “He’s going through a really big fight right now.”
As with Nylander, Salming has made a point to strike up a relationship with Sandin, to keep that connection between Swedish Maple Leafs alive. It’s only just the man feels some of the love back.
Sandin thinks back to the summer of 2018, after he’d been chosen by Toronto.
Once Salming had learned that his Leafs had drafted the Swedish D-man, he arranged a lunch with Rasmus and his father, Patric.
“That’s something I’ll remember forever,” Rasmus says. “He was my dad’s idol growing up, so he was probably more nervous than I was.”
Surely, Salming picked up the cheque?
Nah. Not necessary.
“I think it was on the house when Börje was with us,” Sandin smiles.
As it should be.
Fox’s Fast 5
• Alex Ovechkin was asked this week whom he’d select as a third forward if he and Crosby were to form a dream line.
“He probably wants Mario Lemieux,” Ovechkin guessed. “But I’ll take [Donald] Brashear… We need some protection. You know, we need some freedom out there. So, if somebody is going to touch us, it’s not going to be fun.”
Yes, Crosby caught the clip — and appreciated the direction his frenemy swerved.
“He was right with Mario, probably,” Crosby said Friday morning. “I like where his head’s at, though. We’ve been lucky enough to play with some pretty tough guys and had that luxury of having guys look out for us. I mean, you know, Georges Laraque, André Roy, and the list goes on and on. I don’t want to forget guys, because it makes a big difference, especially coming in and guys looking out for you like that. There’s a number of guys that did that, and I’m glad he showed appreciation for that, for sure.”
Does dressing an intimidator of that ilk still matter in today’s NHL, though?
“The element’s still there, so, yeah,” Crosby replied. “If you look at certain situations or certain teams, yeah, I would say it does.”
• Not only did ex-Penguin Zach Aston-Reese score in his first game facing his old team, but he dropped the quote of the night describing the experience: “Like going to dinner with your ex-girlfriend.”
• Asked if he’s spotted any similarities between Crosby and Auston Matthews, ex-Penguin Zach Aston-Reese said he sees John Tavares as a better comparable in terms of their detailed approach to the craft and how the stars carry themselves. (We agree.)
“I’d say he’s more meticulous than I am,” says the routine-obsessed Crosby, laughing.
“He might disagree, but we spent a lot of time together. I know J.T. well. I know how serious he takes it and his commitment to the game, to his team, to his teammates. So, I’ll take that as a compliment for sure. But I’d say he’s a little more meticulous than I am.”
• Mike Sullivan fondly remembers coaching the Sedin twins in Vancouver, where he was even more impressed by their professionalism and competitive drive than their talent.
“I’ve never seen two players that have had the chemistry that those two guys had,” Sullivan says. “They were the standard there for just driving the excellence that they represent.
“Their work ethic was off the charts. Their play on the ice speaks for itself. They had a certain magic between the two of them, a certain chemistry, that’s hard to explain.”
How did Sullivan know Daniel from Henrik?
“I could tell them apart when they were together. But when they were separate, I had no chance.”
• Kasperi Kapanen is 26. He’s making $3.2 million per season and has another year on his deal and has one goal in 12 games this season.
After going pointless with a dash-7 in his past seven appearances, the ex-Leaf was healthy-scratched for the second consecutive game. Kapanen is firmly in the coaches’ (and the local reporters’) doghouse.