Skate star

Skate star

By Michael Pickard
November 17, 2023


Director Amir Chamdin reflects on the long journey behind making biopic sports drama Börje – The Journey of a Legend, and his relationship with the titular Swedish ice hockey star who broke down boundaries to become an NHL legend.

Less than a year after Swedish ice hockey star Börje Salming passed away, a six-part drama will chart his rise from his hometown of Kiruna to Toronto and the bright lights of the National Hockey League (NHL).

Described as a pioneer and a legend in his sport, Salming became the first Swedish player to turn out for the Toronto Maple Leafs after joining them in 1973. He went on to play 16 of his 17 seasons in the NHL with the Canadian team – his last year was spent with the Detroit Red Wings – and in 1996 he became the first European player to enter the NHL Hall of Fame.

Valter Skarsgård (right) stars as Börje Salming

But as director Amir Chamdin explains, Börje – The Journey of a Legend isn’t just for sports fans and is instead a coming-of-age story about one man’s drive and determination to change his life and succeed in the face of adversity.

“Nowadays kids doing sports, music or film say they’re going to be the best in the world, but in many cases, it’s just a way to get somewhere, because there are not many chances to get somewhere in life if you don’t have a good education,” Chamdin tells DQ.

“That was certainly the case for Börje. He was like, ‘I can play hockey. That’s my ticket out of here. I don’t care if I’m number one or number ten. I’m out of here. I can start my family. I can start my life.’”

Produced by Warner Bros ITVP Sweden for Viaplay and TV3, the idea for the series came from Chamdin eight years ago, when he read an article about the hockey star returning to Sweden.

“I remember him as this badass hockey player with scars on his face, he was this legendary guy,” Chamdin recalls. “He was the toughest man around and he played for my team when he got back to Sweden, AIK, and we were proud to have him back.”

But in that article, the player also spoke about how he was supported by his brother growing up after their father died – a fact that immediately changed Chamdin’s perception of him. The director then started to think about how he might dramatise Salming’s story – work that eventually led him to set up a meeting with Salming himself.

When they spoke, Chamdin presented Salming with a synopsis for a potential film, and within a week the star said he and his family were on board. Then four years ago, Warner Bros stepped in and the project began to take shape, with Valter Skarsgärd (Lords of Chaos) identified to play the title role.

Recreating an authentic seventies feel was key to Chamdin

As development progressed, however, Chamdin realised he wanted to avoid telling Salming’s entire story within a 90-minute running time, instead focusing the story on the player’s experience in Toronto through a multi-episodic television series. Former footballer-turned-writer Martin Bengtsson, who had experienced playing on the international stage himself, proved to be the perfect person to bring to life Salming’s journey across the Atlantic.

“He was a football player, he’s been in those locker rooms and knows what we’re talking about when we talk about sports,” Chamdin says of Bengtsson. “I immediately saw a spark in his eyes, knowing what we were going to tell – and I wanted one script writer for this project. I didn’t want to have a room full of scriptwriters. I wanted to have one voice, one director, one editor and so on.”

Bengtsson spoke to many of the real-life people featured in the series, not least Salming, with whom he spent countless hours. Those interviews then went on to form the foundation of the show.

“I said to Martin, ‘I want to be close to the truth,’ meaning that the truth is beautiful, and I’d rather be boring but telling the truth than to find easy cliff-hangers just to satisfy the viewer in the moment,” Chamdin explains. “I felt we had that connection right away, and then in every project, you just need to let people go and do their work.”

The story follows Salming’s journey from a young boy in Kiruna, his breakthrough in Brynäs and his career with the Maple Leafs, painting a picture of life in the 1970s in both Sweden and Canada. It also follows his emotional turmoil relating to the death of his father, and of the unconditional love he shared with Margitta (Hedda Stiernstedt), who follows Salming to Canada and is thrown into a world of unwritten rules and expectations relating to being married to an NHL player.

The series is one of personal growth, not just sport

The cast also includes Jack Langedijk as Smokey, Börje’s close friend; AC Peterson as Harold Ballard, the controversial owner of the Maple Leafs; Jason Priestley as Toronto scout Gerry McNamara; Oscar Skagerberg as Börje’s brother Stig Salming; and Pelle Holmström as hockey star Inge Hammarström.

“The Toronto years, that’s the story,” says Chamdin. “I wanted to end the story where Börje Salming the boy became the man, realising who he was. Up to that point, I think he was a boy trying to be a man, and that’s the interesting part.

“Of course, you can tell another story starting from when he was 35, but I stuck to this idea all the way. Börje read the last scripts, and he had all the notes and everything. When he started to get ill, people started saying, ‘Oh, is this story about his whole life?’ No, this is a story about the seventies and eighties, and that’s what we kept all the way through because that’s the story I wanted to tell. That’s also the story Börje wanted to tell.”

At the start of the project, Salming had visited Chamdin’s office and brought several boxes filled with letters, pictures, VHS tapes and other material and left the director to work his way through it. Then when he would come in for meetings, two-hour discussions would often run for four or five.

Salming also led the production team on a tour of Toronto, pointing out some familiar locations and introducing them to people he thought would give them a valuable insight into his time there.

“He was very hands on. Sometimes he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t remember this. Call somebody who knows better,’” Chamdin says. “But since the first two episodes are mostly in Sweden and then we went to Toronto, it’s more like a road movie, so it’s been tricky to write because it doesn’t have the usual series structure.”

But as with any sports drama, Chamdin also had to decide how he wanted to show hockey matches through the story. In the end, it’s done through a mixture of archive footage, often shown on TV screens, as well as dramatisations out on the ice.

“When you talk about the first European hockey player in the Hall of Fame, it’s a big burden on your shoulders,” the director states. “The hockey was an important part, and although it’s not a series about hockey, it has to be there and it has to be believable.

“The big issue for us that the arenas don’t look the same, the ice doesn’t look the same, the gear doesn’t look the same. Nothing exists anymore, even the sticks. We had to produce hockey sticks, ice skates, everything, and that’s the hard part when you do period pieces.”

The death of his father drove Salming on to succeed

Sports choreographer Aimee McDaniel was on hand to oversee the matches, bringing her team from the US to Sweden to begin rehearsals with the cast, most of whom were actual hockey players who had some experience acting after Chamdin decided against teaching actors to skate.

“Valta was the only actor. Other than that we had hockey players and that was a good thing for us because when we do the choreography, it’s all there,” Chamdin director continues. “But hockey, I would say, is one of the hardest sports out there [to choreograph for film]. It’s not only that you have to be on skates but you have somebody chasing you, trying to beat you down. In one way it’s a gladiator sport, especially in the seventies, because that was all about the fights back then.”

Filming took place in Sweden, Canada and Mexico and locations were shot “in the old school way – everywhere we say we are, we are,” Chamdin reveals. “When we say we’re in Kiruna, we are in Kiruna; when we say we’re in Stockholm, we are in Stockholm; and when we are in Toronto, we are on the streets of Toronto. From a producer’s point of view, they can hate this, but I pushed that through. We needed to be in the location where we are [in the story] and I think the reward is bigger when you see to show.”

Chamdin also chose to shoot the series as if it were made in the time period in which it is set, using vintage lenses and other equipment. That he directed all six episodes also meant he was across the entire production and could pick up story changes or production issues as they happened.

When it comes to challenges on the show, however, Chamdin goes back to recreating hockey on screen.

“Somebody said it is harder to create a horse in 3D than to create a dinosaur because we know how a horse moves, and it’s the same thing with hockey,” he notes. “Even though you might not know sports, you know when it looks right. So for me, that was absolutely the hardest part, to find that organically so it doesn’t look like two films going from our seventies drama into the hockey world. We also wanted to keep the camera flowing but it was like we were doing two car chases in every episode on ice. With a lot of people on ice, something must go wrong.”

Notably, Börje stands apart – storywise and stylistically – from Chamdin’s previous work on Swedish series Partisan, a mystery set on the grounds of an idyllic countryside commune. But what they do have in common is they were both passion projects for the director, who says he would never want to become a ‘director for hire.’

“I’m so grateful and thankful for doing this. Every day, walking to a shoot or the office is like a blessing,” he says. “Partisan was a beautiful project because I could be out in the Swedish summer and create a mystery, and now I get to be in the seventies and the hockey circus. Doing this is not something that should be taken for granted.”

The privilege he felt making Börje was put into greater focus when Salming died in November 2022 after suffering from neurological disease ALS. But the ice hockey legend got to see some early cuts of the series, and even travelled to Toronto to be on set after his illness was diagnosed.

“It’s something that will always be a big sorrow for me that he won’t be here to see it because we’ve been talking about it for ages. But that’s life,” says Chamdin. “I’m really proud, glad and happy his family can enjoy it and hockey lovers and non-hockey lovers can see this incredible journey too.”

Ultimately, that’s the story Chamdin set out to make and he has achieved his goal in highlighting Salming’s personal growth against the backdrop of becoming one of the NHL’s greatest ever players. The Maple Leafs retired his number 21 in 2016.

“It’s not that he was the first European in the NHL. No, this is a boy becoming a man, who lost his father,” the director adds. “It’s more of a family drama in that sense.

“It’s also a story that shows anything is possible in sports. The little man can become anybody. That’s the dream we have and that’s what draws us to those kinds of stories.”

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