Even Leaf fans with a only modest awareness of the team’s history will know that Borje Salming was a stalwart player in blue and white for more than 15 (often long and difficult) seasons in Toronto.
Salming is well-known in Leaf lore for many reasons. His signing (stroke of hockey brilliance that it was by the Leafs…I’m going to say it was then scout and future GM Gerry McNamara who saw him play in Europe and advised General Manager Jim Gregory to grab the young defender) was a huge story at the time. Though the Red Wings had brought Thommie Bergman (click here to read about Tommie) over from Sweden the season before, Salming’s signing evoked more than a minor ripple of interest in a major hockey market like Toronto. (If nothing else, people were curious to see who this unknown guy was…)
Too, Salming (click to see an earlier post) did more than just “sign” and make the team. In one of his first NHL games, he was run over early and often by the rough and tumble Flyers at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia. They tried to run him out of the building and hit him at every turn. I’m not exaggerating. But he survived, gave a few licks back, and proved that he could handle the rough stuff of the NHL—even though he was “a European”. (The Flyers called him much worse, including “Chicken Swede". They were a friendly bunch, those Flyers, but they didn’t have to face Brendan Shanahan’s wrath….)
Of course, Leaf fans of that era remember Salming giving up his body to block shots night after night; playing with injuries; his fantastic breakaway goal in the playoffs against Bernie Parent and the Flyers in the spring of 1976…I could mention many more highlights. In short, he went on to a lengthy career that culminated in his being named to the hockey Hall-of-Fame—a well-deserved honour.
But Salming did not come to Canada alone. In fact, part of the story at the time was that he was joined by another young Swedish national team player by the name of Inge Hammarstrom.
To be clear, Hammarstrom (right) was no kid. He was 25, maybe even 26 when he played his first NHL game with the Leafs. The remarkable thing, looking back, is that Hammarstrom was widely considered to be a more skilled player than the future Hall-of-Famer. Like most Europeans, Hammarstrom could really skate. (Style-wise, he may perhaps have fit in better with the Habs, though I’m not sure he would have prospered under the demanding Scotty Bowman, then coach of the Canadiens…)
Inge was one of those guys who was more like an artist on the ice. He was not a rugged player, though he was a strong guy. But he played with his brain and had tons of skill. He certainly had a great shot and plenty of moves. I remember seeing him the first time he did something I had rarely seen before, if ever. As he was about to go around the opposition net at full speed, he passed there puck back in front of the net at the last second. That is, rather than just carry the puck around the net and make some kind of play on the other side, like everyone else did in those days, he surprised everyone by passing the pack back out in front of the net before he went around the back of the net. If there was a trailing player there at the right angle, it was perfection, a total surprise.
While much more common now, of course, that kind of play was rare in the NHL in those days.
Hammartstrom, for all his skill, just never really seemed to fit in Toronto. First, we have to understand a couple of things. Harold Ballard was the owner of the team, and Harold was in his post-jail, “I’m in total control of the Leafs” ownership prime. He said what he wanted, whenever he wanted.
Too, it was the era of the “Big Bad Bruins” and the “Broad Street Bullies”, two rugged (often dirty teams) that had skill, yes, but relied on intimidation to take you off your game.
Hammarstrom had sublime skill, but in the face of being mugged by those kinds of teams, looked timid on the ice some nights, compared with, say, a teammate like the pugnacious "Tiger" Williams.
So after one particularly rough outing, Ballard made the very public complaint that, “Hammarstrom could go into the corner with a dozen eggs in his pocket and not break any of them…”. The implication was obvious: Inge was not tough enough to be a productive player with the Leafs.
Well, that comment became an albatross around Hammarstrom’s neck, and though he stayed with the team, his career just never fully flourished in Toronto.
It’s sad, in a way. He was a gentlemen on the ice, but he played in absolutely the wrong era for his kind of player. Not that there weren’t other non-hitters in the league (the Leafs had Dave Keon for 15 seasons), and of course annual Lady Byng candidate Jean Ratelle actually played for the Bruins after his fine career with the Rangers. But because Hammarstrom was a “European”, the criticism of him would not go away.
Inge played 5 full seasons with the Leafs, and never scored less than 19 goals in a season. (He was consistently between 19 and 24 per year.) But again, the knock on him was that he was not a rugged enough guy.
I look back and wonder if he was simply not utilized properly. I mean, it was like asking a stylish wide receiver to play like a linebacker. Some players can do it, others can’t. He couldn’t.
In any event, he was eventually traded to the Blues for a tougher, more grinder-type winger in Jerry Butler, who was much more of a Roger Neilson (by then the Leaf coach in the late ‘70s) kind of player. Butler performed admirably as a third/fourth line guy, often killing penalties with Jimmy Jones, another Neilson favorite.
I believe Hammarstrom went back to finish his career in Sweden in the early ‘80s but I did not pay close attention after he left the NHL. He became a scout after his playing days ended. I’m not sure if it is ironic, but he has been (don’t know f he still is) a very well respected scout with…you guessed it, the Philadelphia Flyers, working for many of those years under longtime Flyer General Manager (and the celebrated captain of the Broad Street Bullies) Bobby Clarke.
To put things into some context, I think Hammarstrom would be a second-line winger with the Leafs right now. He was a wonderful skater and passer, had great on-ice vision. In today’s “new” NHL, he would be a tremendous contributor on a team like the Leafs. This was an individual who played in the World Championships many times, and in the Olympics.
But he was never appreciated in Toronto. A shame.