if tooth be told
canada’s captain clutch
Marie-Philip Poulin is the winner of the Northern Star Award as Canada’s top athlete, so here’s a sustained flourish of a Bauer Vapor 1X Composite stick to her. The 31-year-old forward, who hails from Beauceville, Quebec, captained Canada to golden finishes this year at both the World Championships in Denmark and the Olympics in China.
The Northern Star is the former Lou Marsh Trophy, of course; the name change happened in November. Poulin is the tenth hockey player to win the award since its inception in 1936, and the first woman among those. She joins an august company: since Maurice Richard won it in 1957, the others have been Bobby Orr (’72), Phil Esposito (’70), Bobby Clarke (’75), Guy Lafleur (’77), Wayne Gretzky (’82, ’83, ’85, ’89), Mario Lemieux (’93), Sidney Crosby (’07, ’09), and Carey Price (’15).
a king, of sweden: would have played all day, if it were possible
The August news of Börje Salming’s ALS diagnosis was devastating, and the update from his family, earlier this month, was dire: the disease has now robbed Salming, 71, of his ability to speak, and he’s having difficulty eating. “His illness is speeding along very fast,” his wife, Pia, told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. This week, the top men’s and women’s hockey leagues in Sweden announced that on the last weekend of November they will be dedicating Game Day #21 to raising money and awareness for Salming’s new ALS Foundation. Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidström is a member of foundation’s board, which you can find here. The ALS Society of Canada is here.
A version of the following post was published in August at TVOntario’s TVO Today.
He was celebrated, in his on-ice heyday, as the best offensive defencemen of his generation not named Bobby Orr. Börje Salming was an efficient defender, too, a shot-blocking, tempo-setting, hard-to-daunt mainstay of the blueline. Majestic is a word that crops up in newspaper accounts dating to his long tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And indeed, in the 1970s, his teammates dubbed him the King of Sweden.
When it comes to marshalling the accolades accorded Salming over the course of his 17-year NHL career, the challenge isn’t in finding a place to begin, it’s in making sure the catalogue encompasses the breadth of his achievement. Salming would, after all, become the first European-born NHLer to play 1,000 games in the league, and the first NHLer born and trained in Europe to be voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. In late 2016, he was ranked the eighth best player in Leafs’ 100-year history.
None of which, of course, quite quantifies the grace with which he operated under pressure and, in the turbulent NHL of the 1970s, in the face of outright attack. It doesn’t really measure the trailblazing he did, either, for European players in the NHL, as he heralded a new skilled and stylish era for the league, and swept North American hockey into its modern age.
Beyond that legacy, Salming, now 71, remains a beloved Leaf three decades after he last played a game in the blue-and-white. It was in a statement released by the team on August 10 that Salming shared the news that he has been diagnosed with ALS, an incurable progressive disease of the nervous system also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Salming’s diagnosis came after he’d begun experiencing symptoms earlier this year and consulted with doctors at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institutet.
“In an instant,” the former defenceman writes, “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. I also recognize that there is no cure but there are numerous worldwide trials going on and there will be a cure one day. In the meantime, there are treatments available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.”
“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.”
As they absorbed the shock of the news, fans, friends, and former teammates united in sympathy and support. “Börje, I am thinking of you in this tough time,” said a latter-day Swedish Hall-of-Fame defenceman, Nicklas Lidström. “Börje is the player I have looked up to my entire career former Toronto captain Mats Sundin told the Stockholm newspaper Sportbladet. “My role model and idol. He has guided me. … I wish him all the strength in the fight against this terrible disease.”
Salming’s hometown, Kiruna, lies far to the north on the Swedish map, in Lapland, 145 kilometres beyond the edge of the Arctic Circle. Built to serve local iron ore mines, it had a population of just over 10,000 in 1951, the year of Salming’s birth. His father worked at the mine, and died there in an accident when Börje was just five.
He and his elder brother Stig might have followed their father’s hardscrabble career path if it hadn’t been for hockey. The Kiruna that they grew up in, as it turns out, turned them into dedicated athletes. Salming has his own theory on how this happened: there was nothing else to do. “It was hard, cold, and dark,” he proposed in Blood, Sweat, and Hockey, the memoir he wrote with Gerhard Karlsson in 1991. “And if you wanted to have fun you had to make it yourself.”
In early outings, on outdoor ice, he was often assigned to tend goal, where he learned not to flinch. “I have never,” he later wrote, “been afraid to throw myself in front of the puck.” If he wasn’t the most talented player on the ice in those early days, he wrote, “my enthusiasm was unmatched.”
“I would have played hockey 24 hours a day if it were possible.”
Salming worked in a mine workshop as a teenager while he and his brother, also a flinty defenceman, played lower-league hockey for the local team. In 1970, to Sweden’s top club, Börje followed his brother south to the city of Gävle to join Brynäs IF, one of Sweden’s best teams.
Two years later, at 22, he was Sweden’s brightest young star, and that fall, he suited up for his country in the two ill-tempered exhibition games that a visiting Team Canada played in Stockholm before moving on to Moscow for the final four games of the iconic Summit Series.
His arrival in Toronto was set into motion later that winter, when (because some things never change) the Leafs were in need of a goaltender. The hunt took Toronto scout Gerry McNamara to Stockholm over Christmas in 1972, where his hopes of assessing the net presence of Sodertalje SK’s Curt Larsson were foiled when Larsson was sidelined by injury.
McNamara made do with a visit to the north to watch an exhibition game between Brynäs and the itinerant OHA senior Barrie Flyers. A left winger named Inge Hammarström scored four goals on the night, with Börje Salming adding one of his own — along with a game misconduct.
“In the midst of one commotion,” Salming confessed in his book, “I threw a tantrum and flattened the referee.”
The official might not have been impressed, but McNamara was. “They ran at him all night,” he later enthused about Salming’s performance. “And he never gave an inch.”
By the spring of ’73, the Leafs had signed Hammarström and Salming.
They arrived on North American ice that fall just as the NHL (along with its rival, the WHA, too) was exploding into a new and particularly violent era. As the perennially unruly Philadelphia Flyers would soon prove definitively demonstrate, intimidation and outright brawling could win you a Stanley Cup. The Leafs’ newcomers were targeted from the start, taunted as “Chicken Swedes” by slow-skating goons and their baying fans in the stands.
“I don’t think they like Swedish boys,” Salming noted after a game in which he was lustily speared by Flyers defenceman Ed Van Impe. “They don’t play hard, they play dirty.”
Salming didn’t back down, and he soon earned a measure of respect that may also meant he was mostly left alone. That didn’t mean he’d hold back in his book. “Measured beside the goings-on in the NHL,” he wrote there, “the hockey we played in Sweden was kid’s stuff. I was certainly no angel in Sweden, but any anger I vented was like shadow boxing compared to the bloody violence of the NHL. Some days it was like a parody of sport.”
“The challenge for me was to play as fairly and well as possible and not to sink to the shameful level of the thugs,” he recalled.
In persisting — and outskating, as much as he could, the goonery — Salming would thrive, becoming the highest-paid player in Leaf history. By the time his career in Toronto ended in 1989, he owned a handful of team records, and stood third in all-time Leaf scoring, behind only superstar centremen Darryl Sittler and Dave Keon.
Twice he was offered the captaincy in Toronto, but he turned it down. “I shied away because of the language and all that stuff,” he said, looking back. “I probably should have done it.”
There were hard times, too. In 1986, the NHL suspended Salming for eight games after he admitted to using cocaine. Later that same season, he was, horrifyingly, cut across the face by an errant skate; 200 stitches were needed to close the wound. Two years later, he was one of several Leafs to feud with a choleric coach, John Brophy.
After playing a final year for the Detroit Red Wings, Salming departed the NHL in 1990, returning to Sweden to play defence for AIK Stockholm in the Swedish Elite League.
Salming’s Leafs, of course, never raised a Stanley Cup. The closest they came was in 1978 when they upset the high-powered New York Islanders to reach the semi-finals.
Roy MacGregor watched and wrote about Salming throughout his career. Writing in 1976, he trusted his perceptive eye to praise the purity of Salming reactions, concluding that while “Orr is easily the purest thinker hockey has produced, Salming may well be the game’s best reflex player. His is not as awesome a hockey talent as Orr’s, but it has its own beauty.”
Voted once to the NHL’s First All-Star Team and five times to its Second, Salming was twice runner-up in the polling for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s outstanding defenceman, falling short of Larry Robinson of the Montreal Canadiens in 1977 and 1980.
Salming was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
Throughout his NHL career, Salming remained a stalwart for the Swedish national team.
In 2008, he was voted to the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team of players deemed to have had the most influential sustained international, joining a line-up that also included Vladislav Tretiak, Valeri Kharlamov, and Wayne Gretzky.
Kitted out in the gold-and-blue livery of the Tre Kronor, Salming might have been playing at his peak when he led Sweden at the 1976 Canada Cup. Going into the early-September game against Canada at Maple Leaf Gardens, Canada’s strategy was all about waylaying and otherwise befuddling Salming.
“He’s too good,” left winger Bob Gainey advised. “If you let him skate, he’s going to hurt you.”
“It’s nothing new, eh?” Canadian captain Bobby Clarke said, once Canada had finalized a 4-0 win. “Just like playing the Leafs in the National Hockey League. Everybody knows you’ve got to control Salming or he’ll murder you. The Swedes built their whole offence around him. He’s the guy who brings the puck out of their zone, and he’s the man they want to get the puck to on the powerplay.”
“Everybody had the same instructions,” added one of Canada’s coaches, Scotty Bowman: “get in there quick and take Salming before he gets underway.”
Born in Brantford, Ontario, on a Thursday of this same date in 1961, Wayne Gretzky is 61 today, so here’s a tap of the Titan TPM to him, followed by another from a notional Easton Aluminum HXP 5100. That’s young Wayne above, fronting Maclean’s in February of 1982, when he was 21 (the Trudeau mentioned was another, older-model prime minister).
Does the occasion call for some verse? Probably so. Here’s one of Gary Barwin’s from his “Haiku Night in Canada” sequence, which was published in his 1998 collection Outside The Hat:
Gretzky writes poem:
across the blue line the moon
like a puck, wayning.
Born in Montreal on a Tuesday of this same date in 1965, Mario Lemieux is 56 today, so all due hullabaloo to him. He was a callow 19 in the photograph here, which dates to September of 1985, when La Presse photographer Paul-Henri Talbot caught his departure from his family’s home in Ville-Émard, in the west end of Montreal. “It was this morning at the crack of 7 a.m. that Mario Lemieux took the road to Pittsburgh, where training camp will begin in a few days,” a caption reported. He was driving, so the way would be long: 17 hours, according to La Presse.
That fall, Lemieux already had an NHL season under his belt. As a rookie centreman for the Penguins, he’d finished the 1984-85 campaign with 43 goals and 100 points to his credit, along with a Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie to show for it. When Pittsburgh opened its camp a few days later on the ice of the Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Recreation Centre, the local Post-Gazette noted that for all his offensive fireworks, Lemieux had work to do on his defensive skills.
“I’ll try to work more this season on playing both ways,” Lemieux said, “but my job here is to score goals and get as many points as I can for the team.” He did his duty, piling up 48 goals by the time that season was over, and 141 points, second only to a 25-year-old Wayne Gretzky and his record-breaking heap of 215 points.
(Image: Paul-Henri Talbot, La Presse)
walter gretzky, 1938—2021
Saddened to hear this morning of Walter Gretzky’s death yesterday at the age of 82. Son Wayne posted a message late last night announcing the news on Twitter. The Toronto Star has an obituary of the world’s most famous hockey dad here, and Kevin McGran weighs in with a fond collection of Wally stories — along with a lovely image of the man himself in what always seemed like his natural habitat, the storied backyard rink back home in Gretzkytown, Brantford, Ontario.
from pembroke, a peerless percolator
A birthday today, yes, for Wayne Gretzky, who’s 60, and many happy returns to him. But another extraordinary (if under-remembered) talent born on this date, in 1893, when it was a Thursday? The pride and glory of Pembroke, Ontario, centreman and hook-check artist extraordinaire Frank Nighbor. The Peach, they used to call him, as well as the Percolator and Peerless; sometimes, in contemporary accounts of his hockey exploits, all three words show up in alliterative aggregate. He won his first Stanley Cup in 1915, when he played with Vancouver’s Millionaires, before returning east to star with the Ottawa Senators, with whom he won four more Cups, in 1920, ’21, ’23, and ’27. In 1924, was the first ever recipient of the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. The following year, when Lady Byng decided to donate a trophy to the league in the name of gentlemanly hockey played with supreme skill, Nighbor won that, too. Just for good measure, he won it again the following year, in 1926.
noshing (no more) with 99
Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.
I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.
The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”
The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.
The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.
How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.
It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by. He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”
Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”
Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.
It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job. I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.
What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all, #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s
Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.
and for the year’s
MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL
By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.
Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.
Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.
“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.