Darryl Sittler – Standing up to ALS in Honour of Salming
Trigger warning: article discusses ALS.
Fifty some odd years ago, a tough, determined, Swedish lad by the name of Börje Salming left Stockholm to pursue his dream of a professional hockey career in North America. Börje's work ethic very much reflected that of a well-oiled machine: his strides effortless, shots accurate, and he definitely knew when it was time to get down, block a shot and grind it out. His strength and sense of discipline was naturally obtained while living on his family’s farm throughout his childhood. Hard work was just what he knew.
Salming’s professional hockey career was impressive and extensive, to say the least. He spent 16 of his 17 seasons in the NHL playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs (1973-89) where he racked up 768 points (148 goals, 620 assists), earning the nickname “The King” and taking the titles of Maple Leafs franchise leader in most points by a defenceman, most career goals by a defenceman, most career assists (in any position), most assists in a season by a defenceman, and best career plus-minus (+170).
Börje's love for the game was undeniable and unbeatable. Like, Dang, the man had his face STEPPED ON by a SKATE (1986 vs Detroit Red Wings), resulting in a gruesome 250-stitch gash…only to show up for work two weeks later with a visor, an eagerness to press on, and a trademark scar etched into his face like a warning to those who would try to get in his way. Talk about resilience.
In January 1988, Salming became the first European-born player to play in 1,000 NHL games and to this day, is still the Leafs franchise all-time leader in points (760) and assists (620) by a defenceman.
Salming spent his final NHL season with the Detroit Red Wings (1989-90) where he recorded 19 points (2 goals, 17 assists) in 49 games, and yet again finished the season with a solid plus-minus (+20). In his 17-year NHL career, Salming tallied 787 points (150 goals, 637 assists) in 1,148 career games.
Darryl Sittler and Börje Salming were teammates from 1973-1982 but remained close friends long after their days together as Maple Leafs. From travelling the world to grow the game of hockey, or visiting children at hospitals, to surprise drop-ins at Leafs games, and taking the stage at NHL Alumni celebrations, Sittler and Salming spent a lot of time together in their post-NHL careers.
— Maple Leafs Hotstove (@LeafsNews) January 19, 2020
In November of 1996, Salming became the first Swedish player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, followed by having his No. 21 retired by the Toronto Maple Leafs ten years later on Oct. 4, 2006. But the cherry on top was in 2017 when the NHL itself named Salming as one of the “100 Greatest Players” in league history. Moments that the best-friends celebrated together.
We had an open, honest conversation with Sittler about the realities of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in hopes to bring more education, awareness, and ultimately more funding to ALS research. It’s important to continue to honour Börje's legacy and tell his story because ALS can strike anyone, of any age, at any time.
From watching his best-pal Salming go through the mutliple soul-crushing stages of his diagnosis, Sittler described ALS as a death sentence. Börje, the man who was once as healthy and as fit as an ox was imprisoned within his own body.
“Once you get ALS, you know it’s a death sentence number one and then there’s a process you go through where you need to convert your house to wheelchair access, your bathrooms, all that sort of stuff,” shared Sittler. “Your mind is all there, but you can’t speak, move, feed yourself, swallow, and you just keep deteriorating until something gives out like your heart or lungs.”
In the early days of Salming’s diagnosis, Sittler reconnected Börje and Mark Kirton, a former Maple Leaf who was also diagnosed with ALS, over a zoom call. Kirton was selected 48th overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs during the 1978 NHL Draft, just briefly crossing paths with Börje in the late seventies.
“Mark’s ALS started in his legs and now he’s paralyzed from waste down,” shared Sittler. “Mark’s younger than Börje, has three children, and was losing his voice too. But because Mark has had it [ALS] for five years and is an AWESOME guy, I had to reconnect them”.
Börje and Kirton began video chatting one another every week, discussing medications and what to expect in the next stages of the battle. Throughout their zoom conversations, Börje and Kirton ended up becoming very close. But the first time they met in person since their diagnoses was at a Leafs game when Brendan Shanahan, President and alternative governor for the Toronto Maple Leafs, offered the group his private box.
“When Mark and his wife reconnected with Börje for the first time in-person it was so emotional because here you have two ex-teammates who both know they have a death sentence,” said Sittler. “It was moving stuff. My wife Luba, who’s friends with both Mark and his wife, caught the whole thing on video”.
Last year, Kirton’s fundraising team raised more than $100,000 for Sunnybrook research and the ALS Society of Canada. A portion of the money raised went to a world first ALS clinical trial at Sunnybrook, which was moved into Phase 2 this past fall (source: Peterborough Examiner).
ALS awareness and research funding should not just be an initiative in hockey, but rather a pursuit all of humankind pays more attention too. Sittler mentioned that he’s aware of at least 50 ex-NFL players who have been diagnosed with ALS and believes that we have much more work to do in studying the potential link between concussions and issues such as ALS. However, Sittler detailed one case about a woman he met who was a great tennis player, ran regularly, ate all the right things, but was diagnosed with ALS at 52 years old.
“Börje had six concussions [that he knew of] throughout his career” commented Sittler. “There’s something that happens in the brain to change the cells to not work or function properly anymore”.
“Very emotional, even for anyone who watched it,” commented Sittler. “It’s a moment in Leafs history tradition that people will remember for a long, long time. Like realistically he was so sick he shouldn’t have been here. And we didn’t know until 48 hours before whether he could even come but our organization was classy. So, the fact that it all happened, and then like two weeks later he goes home, and he dies. It was amazing”.
Mäktigt! ✨ Börje Salmings tröja nummer 17 hissas i taket 👑❤️ pic.twitter.com/Vhc4wAdLfd— C More Hockey (@cmorehockey) February 11, 2023
Darryl Sittler, NHL record holder for most points in a single night and famous for the Team Canada 1976 Canada Cup overtime winning goal against Czechoslovakia, was one of Börje's closest allies throughout his battle with ALS. Tiger Williams, NHL career leader in penalty minutes and notorious for his hockey-stick-riding goal celebration, was the one to lift the spirits of everyone attending the emotional ceremony in Sweden by busting out his classic dance moves. Al Iafrate, perhaps most famous for his extremely hard slap-shot and playing with wooden hockey stick, was reduced to tears as he watched Börje's banner rise to the rafters. Additional Leafs who made this special trip included Dan Daoust, Todd Gill, joined by later-era Swedish Maple Leafs Mats Sundin, Jonas Hoglund, Alex Steen, Mikhail Renberg and goalies Mikael Tellqvist and Jonas Gustavsson.
All proceeds from the game, which was televised in Sweden, went directly to support ALS research and funding, the disease that took Salming in late November at age 71.
“When I left, I think we had raised $1.4 million, Canadian”, said Sittler. “Börje captured the hearts and emotions of everybody, and that’s why we raised so much money.”
ALS requires more research and funding so we can find an affordable and accessible treatment for all those who get diagnosed by providing support throughout the early stages, recovery, all while helping them return to living a life closer to what they had considered more normal prior to their diagnosis. Sittler shared the Toronto Maple Leafs organization will incorporate ALS awareness throughout their seasonal campaigns and continue to participate in and lead social activities and programs that support ALS funding and research. If you would like to learn more or donate towards ALS research, see below for some additional resources.
Börje Salming ALS Foundation – facilitates medical scientific research to increase awareness and improve treatment options for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS.
ALS Action Canada (ALSAC) - a patient-lead organization that advocates directly to the federal and provincial government for faster access and approvals to promising drug therapies.