And so it was Friday at 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, Hockey Hall of Famers themselves, standing on the ice fighting back tears while holding the hands of their friend, Borje Salming, who stood between them.
Salming, the first Swedish player elected to the Hall of Fame and one of the most popular players in Maple Leafs history, was diagnosed with ALS earlier this year. The disease has taken away his ability to speak.
With the crowd applauding Shalming, Sitler reached for Shalming’s hand and helped him wave. The roar from the capacity crowd grew louder.
“No one will ever forget this moment, this game, this night,” Sitler said, his eyes welling up. “This is what Borje wanted. Even months ago, after he was diagnosed, he told us he wanted to be here for Hall of Fame weekend. And here he is.
“Being here with him tonight was a special night that I’ll always remember. And I think hockey fans will, too.”
According to Sittler, Salming will do the same, even if he can’t express it outwardly due to his condition.
“He absolutely knew what was going on,” Sitler said. “Knowing Borje as I do and doing FaceTimes with him and talking to him, he’s well aware of everything. It’s not like he’s out of his mind. The emotion on his face when he cries, he can’t help it. It’s part of his illness that doesn’t can check.
“But he’s fully aware. I’ll talk to him and give him a thumbs up. He knows, which is awesome. That’s why he’s here. That’s why he wanted to be here.”
Sitler said Chalming could feel the love coming from the crowd. It was one of those moments that was heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
It is very similar to the story of Salming.
The defenseman played 16 of his 17 NHL seasons with the Maple Leafs (1973-89) before finishing his career with the Detroit Red Wings (1989-90). He had 787 points (150 goals, 637 assists) in 1,148 games and was 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, causing a loss of muscle control. There are more than 800 patients living with ALS in Sweden and another 250 Swedes receive an ALS diagnosis each year.
One of the first people to reach out to him was Sittler, who played with Salming in Toronto from 1973-82 and was inducted into the Hall in 1989. Sittler, who turned 72 on Sept. 18, helped Salming write the original publication documenting his condition and has been the main man in North America in efforts to help his friend.
As part of those efforts, Sittler reached out to 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 requires a wheelchair, immediately reached out to Salming to help him and his family absorb the shock and provide guidance on the road ahead.
A path that led 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 young man who grew up in Sweden, he said Salming opened doors for generations of Swedish players to come in the NHL and flourish.
“I’m so glad he and his family were able to make it,” Sundin said. “I think it’s such a fantastic weekend. And you have to understand, he’s done so much for hockey in Sweden and for the generations that came after him. He paved the way. And in this city, here in Toronto and for the fans of the Maple Leafs , has been one of the best players here for a long time.
“For him and his family to be here for this reception, it’s fantastic.”
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Sudin’s voice began to crack with emotion. During his playing days, the 51-year-old was known as stoic and with a poker face. Not this night. Not with Borje locked arm and arm with him.
“It’s hard to imagine what he’s going through, what his family is going through,” Sudin said, fighting back tears. “But I think this is a great way to pay tribute to him.”
A few feet away from Salming was another Swede, Daniel Alfredsson. The former Ottawa Senators captain was honored to be part of the Hall’s Class of 2022. But on a day when the hockey world paid tribute to his career, his thoughts were with Salming.
“He played his heart out the whole time,” Alfredsson said. “I think it changed the perception not only of the Swedes, but also of the European players. He was a trailblazer for many of us and I’m glad he got the reception he did.
“You could tell he was moved. A great moment for a great man.”
The Maple Leafs will have another pregame ceremony Saturday before their game against the Vancouver Canucks, this time to pay tribute to Salming. It will be another opportunity for fans and player to bond, perhaps for the last time.
“Borje was determined to be here, and here he is,” Sitler said. “He deserves this.”