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Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish

The death of ice hockey legend Börje Salming last week touched the nation, partly because he broke the mould for acceptable Swedish behaviour, says David Crouch.

Salming: A sporting superstar who changed what it means to be Swedish
Börje Salming in 2019. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

The mood in the stadium was ugly that September night in 1976, as the USA and Sweden national teams prepared for battle in the world’s first truly international ice hockey tournament. The Toronto crowd booed the American national anthem and was indifferent to the Swedish one. 

Then a mean-looking Swede took to the ice and the entire stadium rose to its feet. The ovation continued for several minutes (you can watch it here). It is considered the greatest moment of all time in Swedish hockey.

The Swede in question was Börje Salming, a Swedish legend, who died last week from a cruel and terminal illness. It is no exaggeration to say that his death touched the nation, and beyond. How many Swedes can claim to have had an obituary in the New York Times

For Swedes, Salming was much more than an international sporting superstar. His rise to stardom in North America in the 1970s and 80s reflected a social transformation as Sweden moved away from the collective ideals of the folkhemmet (people’s home) towards a more individualistic, competitive and outward-looking society. 

Tributes to Salming describe how he blazed a trail for Swedish hockey players into the North American big time and challenged the stereotype of the “chicken Swede”, the soft European. But he also changed perceptions about acceptable behaviour. Without Salming, one could imagine that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the bad boy of Swedish football, might never have made his big break and left Rosengård. 

Salming was born in 1951 near the mining town of Kiruna in northern Sweden. His mother was Swedish while his father was a member of the indigenous Sami population. Salming’s Sami heritage made him a target of abuse, and he often endured racist anti-Sami slurs. In his memoirs, he attributes his toughness as an ice hockey player to his Sami heritage and the adversity he faced growing up.

Börje Salming wearing a traditional Sami kolt and Tiger Williams, one of his former teammates in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo Fredric Alm/TT

When Salming started to play professionally, the prevailing style of ice hockey was sossehockey (social democratic ice hockey), according to sports lecturer Tobias Stark from Linnaeus University. Sossehockey demanded that the team come first and no single player should stand out – an embodiment of the Jante law that celebrates modesty and uniformity over exceptional talent. Moreover, Salming was seen as lazy, troublesome, thuggish, and even un-Swedish.

But it was just these qualities that made him attractive to the Canadian scout who recruited him to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the early 1970s. They met in the locker room after Salming had been sent off for wiping out the referee.

In the NHL, he was an overnight sensation with his brave and combative style. After his first game, a Toronto Star reporter wrote: “Toronto is up 7–4, it is ten seconds left of the game. Then Salming throws himself to the ice and blocks a shot! Geez, this is the kind of player the Leafs need.”

He went on to play more than 1,000 games for the Maple Leafs and break all kinds of records for a defensive player. In 1996, he became the first Swede – indeed the first European – to be inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame. 

His reputation as a tough guy was enhanced in 1986 when an opponent stamped on his face, slicing it open with a wound that required 250 stitches. He was back on the ice two weeks later. 

Yet at first, Salming was scorned by the Swedish hockey establishment. They saw him as being seduced by money and joining the ranks of brutal American players with broken noses and no teeth. It took time for his achievements to be recognised back home, where he eventually became a national icon. 

After he stopped playing professionally in 1993, Salming became a successful entrepreneur with his own brand of clothing and cosmetics, and he wrote cookery books. He became a vocal spokesperson for Sami rights and the conservation of the wilderness, speaking out against mining in areas where reindeer-herding is a way of life. 

In August this year, it was announced that Salming had contracted amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or motor neuron disease. The seriousness of his condition was obvious at his last public appearances in Toronto and Stockholm in the weeks before his death. 

When the Toronto Maple Leafs played a game the day after Salming died, their players wore shirts with BORJE written in yellow on a blue maple leaf with a yellow crown, reflecting the colours of the Swedish flag – and a reminder of Salming’s nickname: The King.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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OPINION: This clash of world views leaves Sweden vulnerable

An extremist with minuscule support in Sweden has managed to derail the main plank in the country’s security policy. How can Sweden learn to relate to places with very different values, asks The Local's publisher James Savage.

OPINION: This clash of world views leaves Sweden vulnerable

When Turkish protesters tried to burn a Swedish flag outside the country’s consulate in Istanbul it was supposed to be a riposte to the Danish extremist Rasmus Paludan burning a Koran outside Turkey’s embassy in Stockholm, but it provoked barely more than an eye-roll in Sweden.

It’s not that Swedes don’t like their flag. Indeed, for many outsiders they can seem a bit obsessed; they fly them from their summer houses, they’ll pop flags on the buses the moment a member of the royal family has a name day, more old-fashioned Swedes will hang little flags on their Christmas trees and plonk a mini flagpole on the breakfast table if someone in the family has a birthday. Even Sweden’s National Day, June 6th, was originally established to honour the blue and yellow banner.

But any consternation in Stockholm about the burning of the flag was down to what Turkish anger would mean for Sweden’s Nato application. The actual insult of the burning flag itself? Meh – it’s merely a symbol, a cheap bit of fabric. 

It’s not just the flag. There’s no national symbol that thugs in other countries could use to rile the Swedes. A dismembered dalahäst? If you paid for the dalahäst, go wild. Astrid Lindgren is probably one of the few people Swedes could be said to venerate, but even desecrating Pippi Longstocking books would raise little more than a tut. And even the most committed Lutherans tend to think there are more important things to worry about than avenging symbolic insults.

How do you insult a country where nothing is holy, the country that according to the World Values Survey stands out as the ultimate bastion of secular-rational values, where religious observance has declined to some of the lowest levels in the western world? Where anything goes as long as nobody gets physically hurt, nobody harms the environment and nobody loses any money?

Which brings us to Rasmus Paludan. A right-wing extremist and serial provocateur, his schtick is to travel around Europe burning the Islamic holy book. He is widely disliked and disapproved of in Sweden, where the government even tried to prevent him entering the country, until it turned out that he was a Swedish, as well as a Danish citizen.

Many Swedes see the burning of the Koran and they see an act of provocation and hatred against Muslims. But they also see an act of self-expression that is protected by law. And they see a lone man burning a mere sheaf of paper. While we know from experience that some people in Muslim countries will be offended, it’s hard for many people here to really, viscerally understand why. 

And this, perhaps, makes Sweden vulnerable. While Swedish politicians have come out and condemned Paludan in unusually frank terms, they have failed to prevent a foreign-based extremist with minuscule Swedish support from potentially sabotaging Sweden’s long-term military alliances – and now there are anti-Swedish demonstrations in a number of Muslim countries. While Paludan may be acting entirely independently, it’s sobering to think that if Putin wanted to harm Sweden (and he does), all he needs is some pliable extremists at one end and a prickly dictator at the other. 

Sweden wants – and needs – to protect its tradition of free speech. But it also needs to protect its national security at a time of acute danger. There are no easy answers, but squaring this circle will require the kind of realpolitik that doesn’t always come easy to a Swedish political class that is always most comfortable on the moral high ground. Internalising the fact that Swedish values are not universally shared would be a good place to start.