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Borje Salming receives support from Maple Leafs student after ALS diagnosis

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“You admire his physique, his fitness … and then you get a call like this,” Darryl Sittler said.

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Considered the Eternal Leaf, at 71 years old he is often seen performing the outdoor activities of a man more than half his age.

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“We get together every March or April and it looks like he can still play,” marveled Darryl Sittler. “You admire his physique, his fitness… and then you get a call like this.”

A few weeks ago, Borje Salming shared the surprising news with his close-knit relatives from the 1970s Leafs. The mysterious problems the Hall of Fame defenseman was experiencing throughout his body sent him to a specialist at the Karolinska Institute. in Stockholm.

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“I have received news that has shaken my family and me. The signs that something was wrong with my body turned out to be ALS disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease,” Salming told The Leafs on Wednesday. “In an instant, everything changed. I don’t know what the days ahead will look like, but I understand there will be challenges bigger than anything I’ve ever faced.

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“I also recognize that there is no cure, but there are numerous trials around the world and one day there will be a cure. In the meantime, treatments are available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.”

Borje Salming (right) celebrates with Darryl Sittler after Sittler scored five goals in the Maple Leafs' 8-5 1976 playoff victory over Philadelphia.
Borje Salming (right) celebrates with Darryl Sittler after Sittler scored five goals in the Maple Leafs’ 8-5 1976 playoff victory over Philadelphia.

Salming last played for the Leafs in 1989, but he never parted ways with his longtime friends in the Maple Leaf Gardens era, led by Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams.

“Borje is a wonderful friend and a great teammate,” Sittler said. “I wish I was talking about something else today. We have been in contact; Me, Borje, guys like Lanny and Tiger and we all knew that today (breaking the news to the rest of the world) would be the hardest and most devastating thing for him and for us”.

We’ve been talking. If you can imagine that it was you or me who was told this…he was very excited.”

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However, a Leaf Salming played very briefly, Mark Kirton, was the first one Sittler thought to share the news with, to be a great ally in the fight to come.

Kirton was also diagnosed with ALS in 2018 after first experiencing symptoms three years earlier. Although he is now wheelchair-bound, the 64-year-old helped Salming absorb the shock with his immediate family and helped guide him through understanding the slow-progressing medications available to begin administering urgently.

“I told him, ‘King, the name of the game is to survive until they find a cure,’” Kirton said. “You have a great support system here and with your family.

Former NHLer Mark Kirton has ALS and still runs his real estate business in Oakville.
Former NHLer Mark Kirton has ALS and still runs his real estate business in Oakville. Photo by Submitted /toronto sun

Kirton, Sittler and the Leafs have been working for the past few days on Wednesday’s release, simultaneously in Canada and Sweden, in which the optimistic-sounding Salming also asked for privacy.

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“Right now, I am assured that I have my loving family around me and the best possible medical care. Please keep us in your prayers.”

Salming is a grandfather and when others in his circle don’t post about how robust he still is, he proudly highlights the athletic tradition carried on by a new generation of the clan.

Pioneering the European migration to the NHL along with teammate Inge Hammarstrom in 1973, Salming quickly became a Leafs favorite, one of the few bright spots in years when the team rarely made the playoffs. He earned respect from far and wide for withstanding punishment, from shot-blocking to enemies hell-bent on beating him up as a perceived pacifist in a violent period in the sport.

However, he played more than 1,000 games in Toronto and was in such good shape that he was often compared to the 60-year-old Swede in government participation announcements, in as good or better shape than younger Canadians. Salming survived many injuries, including a gruesome cut to the face with a skate blade that required more than 200 stitches, and barely lost an eye.

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Borje Salming honored as the next statue in the Legends row.  The Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Center in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency
Borje Salming honored as the next statue in the Legends row. The Toronto Maple Leafs vs the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Air Canada Center in Toronto on Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun/QMI Agency

Two years ago, he had a medical episode where he couldn’t breathe and was taken to an ambulance, but that was attributed to COVID-19 and he was released after one night.

Like Kirton, who suddenly started experiencing biceps spasms while on vacation in the Bahamas, it was a quick turn for the worse.

“The good news from a family perspective is that you don’t have the genetics (familial ALS), which is 5% of cases,” Kirton said. “The most important thing now is that you get all the available drugs as quickly as possible at the early start.”

Patients with sporadic ALS, which Kirton and Salming deal with, are typically given a life expectancy of two to five years on average, although the disease can affect people differently with longer survival rates. Kirton recalled how devastated he and his wife were when they were told of his condition, but has kept a promise not to dampen his positivity of mind.

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Kirton meets regularly via Zoom calls with 25 to 30 ALS patients of all ages, as well as personal caregivers, forming ALS Action Canada to give those affected a stronger voice to push for approval of new treatments and financing.

Meanwhile, Kirton sent his old friend an encouraging tweet on Wednesday.

“I reminded Borje that he taught me the can opener motion one day in practice to get the center out going into the corner,” Kirton laughed. “He taught me well how to get away with it and now I told hium ‘don’t worry we have this too’”.

Toronto Maple Leaf legend Borje Salming with his Legends Row statue outside the Scotiabank Arena on September 12, 2015.
Toronto Maple Leaf legend Borje Salming with his Legends Row statue outside the Scotiabank Arena on September 12, 2015. Photo by Dave Thomas /toronto sun

FULL SALMING STATEMENT

“I have received news that has shaken my family and me.

“The signs that something was wrong with my body turned out to be ALS disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In an instant, everything changed. I don’t know what the days ahead will look like, but I understand there will be challenges bigger than anything I’ve ever faced.

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“I also recognize that there is no cure, but numerous trials are underway around the world and one day there will be a cure. In the meantime, treatments are available to slow the progression and my family and I will remain positive.

“Since I started playing ice hockey as a child in Kiruna, and throughout my career, I have given my all. And I’ll continue doing it.

“Right now, I am assured that I have my loving family around me and the best possible medical care.

“I understand that there are many of you who would like to communicate, however I kindly ask that you respect our privacy in these difficult times. Please keep us in your prayers. When the time is right and I understand more about my condition and future travel, I will reach out. So, until then, we kindly refrain from all contact.

“I hope they understand and respect our decision.”

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