'Fought until the end': Story of Maple Leafs great Borje Salming told in new series
Actor Valter Skarsgard plays Borje Salming in the six-part drama series, "Borje - The Journey of a Legend" in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Viaplay *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Monday, November 13, 2023 11:44AM EST
Valter Skarsgard knew Borje Salming was a big deal.
The Swedish actor, tabbed to play Salming in a retelling of the late Hall of Fame defenceman's life, had heard plenty of stories about his countryman.
The path Salming blazed to the NHL for European players. His relentless, hard-nosed style. His impact on Toronto. The scar.
That knowledge in his back pocket as he prepared to begin work on "Borje: The Journey of a Legend," Skarsgard accompanied the Maple Leafs icon to Toronto.
The 28-year-old quickly realized he didn't understand the half of it until arriving in the city that stole Salming's heart — and where he did the same.
"Still blows my mind," Skarsgard said in an interview with The Canadian Press from Stockholm. "Still hear stories and hear people talk about how much he meant (to Toronto). And I'm like, 'Oh, I still haven't understood it yet.'
"This happened to me like 10 times where I'm like, 'I had no idea. It was even more.'"
The six-episode series premiering Sunday — available exclusively in Canada on European streaming service Viaplay at Viaplay.com — stars Skarsgard and a cast that features Vancouver's Jason Priestley as Toronto scout Gerry McNamara.
Directed by Amir Chamdin, the story follows Salming's journey from a small, scrappy mining town above the Arctic Circle to the NHL's bright lights, including his relationship with controversial Leafs owner Harold Ballard.
Salming, who died last November at age 71 following a battle amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease, was involved in the project from the moment Chamdin reached out after seeing a story on the man known as in Toronto as "The King."
"Watching him growing up ... you were a bit scared of him," Chamdin said. "With all the scars on his face and the bad-boy persona."
Once they sat down, that all melted away.
"A lonely boy," Chamdin continued of Salming's childhood. "His father had died. His brother was a big hockey star.
"That's why Borje became a hockey player — not necessarily to become a star, but to find his brother."
The COVID-19 pandemic put the series on hold, but Salming and Chamdin eventually headed to Toronto to scout locations and meet with McNamara, Darryl Sittler and number of the other former players.
"His old home," Chamdin recalled. "When we came back home to Sweden, Borje said something felt bad.
"Then he called and said, 'This is really, really bad.'"
Despite ALS taking his speech and some mobility, Salming was around the project as much as possible, including in Toronto when he was honoured at a Leafs game weeks before his death.
"Like a Superman," Chamdin said. "Until the end."
Skarsgard, who comes from an acting family led by father Stellan and older brother Alexander, got to know Salming before his diagnosis, with the Swedish sporting hero giving him a thumbs up for the role.
"It had this quote from Borje: 'I see a young version of a cocky me in Valter Skarsgard,'" he said. "Can't get a better seal of approval.
"He was a hard-ass hockey player ... but that's what was so surprising about meeting him. He's the most kind and humble guy. Throughout the time I spent with him, he never turned someone down who wanted an autograph or a photo."
Skarsgard, who had to learn to skate and play hockey for the series, dived into portraying Salming. He even worked with one of the hockey great's former trainers.
"He knew exactly how Borje was," Skarsgard said. "I'm dying from how exhausted I am and he's like, 'Don't show your weakness.'
"Pushing me to these limits where I was like, 'OK, (screw) it.' I didn't have any limits anymore. I had to physically experience this challenge."
Then he hit the ice — literally.
"They were like, 'You just get back up, you just get back up, you just get back up,'" Skarsgard continued. "Eventually that sticks with you. We had two years of doing it. When we came to the shoot, I knew what it felt like to just turn that on. I didn't have to act it because I was feeling it.
"In the old 1970s skates for 12 hours. We were in pain the whole time. You just knew you had to fight through it."
Much like Salming throughout his 16 seasons in Toronto with a largely dysfunctional organization.
The series, which features cameos from Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Tiger Williams, opens towards the end of Salming's Leafs career in November 1986 when his face was cut by a skate blade and required more than 200 stitches.
"We wrote this before he got ill," Chamdin said. "If you wrote the story today, you probably start somewhere else in his life. But for me, that's the defining moment.
"He became the Borje Salming we all recognize."
Skarsgard said re-enacting the incident and its aftermath was a challenge.
"Crazy," he said. "I'm looking at the scar on the mirror like, 'This is so gruesome, but this is what happened to him.'"
Skarsgard, however, didn't get to spend a of lot time with Salming on set before his death.
"I was looking forward so much to sharing this whole ride," he said. "Even though I got his seal of approval, the pressure was on. I wanted him to hold my hand. I wanted him to lead me through this. When he wasn't able to, it was terrifying.
"I felt even more pressure. This has to be good. I have to nail it."
Skarsgard recalled cruising around Toronto with Salming during the pandemic — before his devastating diagnosis — with their driver.
"The guy was like, 'Good thing I'm wearing this mask. Otherwise people would see this grin I have ... 'The King' is right there,'" Skarsgard said. "This guy wasn't even born when Borje played.
"In Toronto, the legacy follows down."
Salming hasn't been forgotten. Now his story has been brought to life.
"As much respect people have for him, I hope this can help that even more," Skarsgard said. "For people to really understand what he went through and how much he fought for Toronto and what it meant to him.
"And that he fought until the end."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2023.