And so it was on Friday at the Scotiabank Arena, during the pregame ceremony for the annual Hall of Fame game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
There they were, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin, both themselves Hockey Hall of Famers, standing on the ice fighting back tears as they clutched the arms of their friend Borje Salming, who stood between them.
Salming, the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and one of the most popular players in Maple Leafs history, was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year. The illness took away his ability to speak.
As the crowd gave Salming a standing ovation, Sittler held up Salming’s arm and helped him wave. The roar of the packed crowd grew louder.
“No one will ever forget this moment, this game, this night,” Sittler said, teary-eyed. “That’s what Borje wanted. Just months ago, after being diagnosed, he told us he wanted to be here for Hall of Fame weekend. And here he is.
“Standing here next to him tonight was a special night that I will always remember. And I think hockey fans will too.”
Salming, Sittler said, will do the same, even if he can’t comment due to his condition.
“He knew exactly what was going on,” Sittler said. “Knowing Borje the way I do, FaceTimes him and speaking to him is clear on everything. It’s not like his mind’s gone. The emotion on his face when he cries, it’s not his fault. It’s part of that illness that he can’t control.
“But he is fully aware. I’ll talk to him and he’ll give a thumbs up. He knows which is great. That’s why he’s here. That’s why he wanted to be here.”
Sittler said Salming could feel the crowd’s love. It was one of those moments that was simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking.
Similar to Salming’s story.
The defenseman played 16 of his 17 NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs (1973-89) before retiring with the Detroit Red Wings (1989-90). He had 787 points (150 goals, 637 assists) in 1,148 games and became the first Swedish-born player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996.
The 71-year-old announced in August that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive nervous system disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, leading to loss of muscle control. More than 800 patients are living with ALS in Sweden, and another 250 Swedes are diagnosed with ALS each year.
One of the first to approach him was Sittler, who played with Salming in Toronto from 1973 to 1982 and was inducted into the Hall in 1989. Sittler, who turned 72 on September 18, helped Salming write the original publication documenting his condition and has been the go-to person in North America for efforts to help his friend.
As part of that effort, Sittler contacted Mark Kirton, a former NHL forward who played 13 games for the Maple Leafs from 1979-81 and was mentored by Salming. The 64-year-old, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2018 and is confined to a wheelchair, immediately contacted Salming to help him and his family process the shock and provide guidance on moving forward.
A path that took him to Scotiabank Arena on Friday, much to Sundin’s appreciation.
Sundin, the Maple Leafs’ all-time leader in goals (420) and points (987), was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012. For a youngster raised in Sweden, he said Salming opened doors for generations of Swedish players to come to the NHL and thrive.
“I’m so glad he and his family were able to do it,” Sundin said. “I think it was such a fantastic weekend. And you have to understand, he did so much for hockey in Sweden and for the generations after him. He paved the way. And in this city, here in Toronto and for Maple Leafs fans, he’s been one of the absolute best players here for a long time.
“To have him and his family here for this reception is fantastic.”
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Sundin’s voice began to crack with emotion. During his playing days, the 51-year-old was known for being stoic and with a poker face. Not this night. Not when Borje is crossed arm and arm with him.
“It’s hard to imagine what he’s going through, what his family is going through,” Sundin said, fighting back tears. “But I think it’s a great way to pay tribute to him.”
A few meters away from Salming was another Swede, Daniel Alfredsson. The former Ottawa Senators captain was honored for being part of the Hall’s Class of 2022. But on a day when the hockey world was paying tribute to his career, his thoughts were with Salming.
“He played his heart out the whole time,” said Alfredsson. “I think he changed the perception not only of Swedish but also of European players. He was a trailblazer for so many of us and I’m glad he got so much recognition.
“You could tell he was touched by it. A great moment for a great person.”
The Maple Leafs will hold another pregame ceremony Saturday before their game against the Vancouver Canucks, this time specifically to pay tribute to Salming. It will be another chance for the fans and the player to come together for perhaps the last time.
“Borje was determined to be here and here he is,” said Sittler. “He deserved it.”
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