Börje Salming had given his blessing for actor Valter Skarsgård to portray him in a miniseries about his life, but there was a problem: Skarsgård didn’t know how to skate.
The 28-year-old actor, whose brothers Alexander, Gustaf, and Bill are known for their roles in Succession, Westworld and It, among other projects, grew up a soccer fan. He was well aware of Salming’s legend, the beloved former Toronto Maple Leaf and the first European player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, but learning to take to the ice presented a unique challenge.
“I couldn’t skate at all,” Skarsgård told National Post from Stockholm. “The first step was just for me to learn how to stand on skates.”
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Two years of training followed as Skarsgård worked with hockey coaches who were deeply familiar with Salming’s style and could instruct Skarsgård on how to emulate his movements. He also worked with a body double for some of the more technical scenes.
“He was such a great skater and skillful player for that time so it was definitely a big challenge, but that we put a lot of effort into to get as close as we could get,” he said.
The results can be seen in ‘Borje: The Journey of a Legend,’ a six-episode series that debuted in Canada earlier this month. Available exclusively on the Scandinavian streaming service Viaplay at Viaplay.com, the series was directed by Amir Chamdin and filmed in Sweden and Toronto.
Skarsgård first met Salming about five years ago and, upon visiting Toronto, saw firsthand how the player known as “The King” lives on in the city where he spent 16 memorable seasons.
“Even though he was big here, going over there, people that weren’t even alive when he left Toronto still know him so well,” he said. “It’s 50 years later and he’s still appreciated over there. It was lovely to see.”
Skarsgård says he was drawn to the role in part because of the contrasting aspects of Salming’s personality. On the ice, Salming was fearless and instrumental in challenging the North American stereotype of European players as being timid. Away from the rink, however, he was known for his kind and gentle demeanour.
Hailing from the northernmost municipality in Sweden, Salming’s Sámi origins were also an important part of his identity. He grew up in Kiruna, a town within the Arctic Circle with a strong Sámi presence.
Skarsgard said the first time they spoke, Salming shared stories about the challenge of maintaining a tough exterior in the hockey world, despite his inherently kind nature.
“He was telling me stories about how he didn’t, at the time, know why he behaved in certain ways, but he could now understand the emotional situations that he’d gone through that made him be that way,” Skarsgård said. “And the duality of that, that was just something I couldn’t miss out on.”
Their trips to Toronto were some of his favourite moments during the production of the series, particularly travelling around the city with Salming and visiting landmarks from his past.
“I knew Börje felt confident in me portraying him,” he said. “He was parading me around in Toronto, saying ‘This is who is going to play me, this is me as a young guy.’ So knowing that he believed in me, gave me confidence.”
In 2022, several years into the project, Salming was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He passed away last November, shortly after an emotional tribute at Scotiabank Arena. During the ceremony, Salming was flanked at centre ice by his former teammate Darryl Sittler and fellow Swedish Leafs alumnus, Mats Sundin.
The disease had already progressed to the point that Salming was unable to speak but a tearful Sittler helped Salming raise his arm to acknowledge the crowd.
Salming was heavily involved in the series leading up to his diagnosis and his death had a profound impact on the set.
“He was a big, big part of this production before he got sick,” said Jason Priestley, who portrays Gerry McNamara, the scout who travelled to Sweden to recruit Salming. “It was incredibly sad and affected a lot of people on the production very deeply because he had been so involved in the development of the piece.”
Over the last few years, Priestley has devoted a significant amount of time to immersing himself in the era of Leafs history that Salming was part of.
He directed Offside: The Harold Ballard Story, which debuted earlier this year and delves into Ballard’s contentious reign as the team’s owner from 1972 to 1990. Having interviewed McNamara for the documentary, Priestley said he was immediately intrigued when he was sent the script for the series.
“Then when I read the piece, I thought it was really interesting because there were so many things in there about Börje that I didn’t know,” he said. “So having the opportunity to play Gerry in this film was something that I looked at as a great opportunity to give back to Gerry a little bit.”
His time with McNamara, who spent most of his playing days toiling in the minors, aside from a seven-game stint with the Leafs, was also beneficial as researching the role proved challenging.
“There wasn’t much footage of Gerry from back then,” he said. “I was able to find a couple of interviews with him. It gave me just enough material to piece together his rhythm of speech and how his voice landed in his nose and throat. So I was able to cobble together a performance from those elements and also from spending time with Gerry in person.”
Even though he grew up in Vancouver as a Canucks fan, Priestley has held a long-standing interest in that era of the Leafs, which marked a precipitous fall from their status as perennial Stanley Cup contenders — and winners — in the 1960s.
“It’s fascinating how a team can go from the absolute pinnacle of their sport to being a mid-level team at best,” he said, adding that it feels like the Leafs are “still digging out of that hole.”
Priestley credited Skarsgård for his work on the series and his efforts to capture Salming.
“He’s a super-talented kid. This project was placed firmly on his shoulders and he carried it. He’s got a big future ahead of him.”
Like Skarsgard, he hopes people come away from the series with a multi-faceted view and new appreciation of who Salming was, both on the ice and away from the game.
“I think the miniseries does a lot to humanize Börje,” he said. “Börje is not unlike a lot of hockey players, who have loves, who have lost things, who’ve struggled, and it’s easy to forget when we all sit down on Saturday night and watch hockey that these are men and they have all the same foibles that all of us have. Börje is a legend, and he’ll always be a legend in Toronto but, hopefully, this project will just give people a bit of a glimpse into the more human side of him.”
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