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Maple Leafs icon Borje Salming dies at 71

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Legendary Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Borje Salming died at 71, the team announced Thursday.

He was diagnosed with ALS in August.

"The Toronto Maple Leafs mourn the loss of Borje Salming," team president Brendan Shanahan said in a statement. "Borje was a pioneer of the game and an icon with an unbreakable spirit and unquestioned toughness. He helped open the door for Europeans in the NHL and defined himself through his play on the ice and through his contributions to the community.

"Borje joined the Maple Leafs 50 years ago and will forever be a part of our hockey family. We extend our deepest condolences to his wife, Pia, his children Theresa, Anders, Rasmus, Bianca, Lisa, and Sara, and brother Stieg."

Salming traveled to Toronto earlier in November during Hall of Fame weekend despite his illness. The Maple Leafs honored the franchise icon with a moving video tribute and lengthy standing ovation before icing an all-Swedish starting lineup.

"It was amazing to see a couple weeks ago the reception he got (during the ceremony in Toronto) and the moment it created and what he meant to this team, this organization, and to the city," captain John Tavares told reporters Thursday.

"It was hard not to be heavy-eyed in those moments, really take a step back and appreciate how he set the standard of what it is to be a Maple Leaf - his contributions and the effort he put forward on a daily basis and the competitive nature, and obviously the person and the player."

Darryl Sittler, Salming's former teammate, was extremely emotional as the crowd at Scotiabank Arena saluted his friend. He reflected Thursday on their recent time together.

"He's at peace now. If it had to be, you couldn't have scripted his last days better; spending time with me, (Tiger Williams), (Lanny McDonald), (Jim McKenny), all the Hall of Fame Swedes," Sittler said, according to the Toronto Sun's Lance Hornby. "What made us feel good was his wife saying that since his diagnosis, she'd not seen him happier."

Salming paved the way for many Europeans to play in the NHL after he joined the Maple Leafs in 1973. He instantly became a star, finishing top five in Norris Trophy voting in his first seven seasons while being named a first- or second-team All-Star six times.

"A superior all-around defenseman and the first Swedish star ever to play in the league, Borje Salming was as physically and mentally tough as he was skillfully gifted," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He blazed the trail that many of the greatest players in NHL history followed while shattering all of the stereotypes about European players that had been prevalent in a league populated almost entirely by North Americans before his arrival in 1973.

"The National Hockey League mourns the passing of Borje, a towering presence and transformational figure in the game's history."

Salming is the all-time Leafs leader in assists (620) while ranking fourth in points (768) and third in games played (1,099). His No. 21 was raised to the rafters by the Leafs in 2006 and officially retired in 2016. He's also enshrined on Legends Row, a series of statues outside Scotiabank Arena that pays homage to the top players in franchise history.

Maple Leafs forward and fellow Swede William Nylander said the news of Salming's death caught him off guard.

"It's very sad. We saw him a few weeks ago. It's crazy how fast it went," he said. "It's just been hard to process."

He added, "It's a terrible disease. At least now he's not hurting that way anymore."

Salming became the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. He was also recognized as one of the NHL's 100 Greatest Players as part of the league's centennial celebration in 2017.

"(Salming's) a person I've looked up to, especially as I've gotten to know the guy," said Toronto blue-liner Rasmus Sandin. "I didn't watch him play - I'm too young for that - but I've seen lots of stuff on YouTube and clips of him. Getting to know him, it was unbelievable."

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