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Immortalizing Roger

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

Roger Neilson couldn’t stand how the Vancouver Canucks were being treated.

Now he’ll stand outside the home of the Canucks, towel on a stick in rebellion, for all to admire.

Before Vancouver’s final home game of the 2010-11 season, the Canucks unveiled a larger than life tribute to a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee, innovative Canucks coach, loyal friend and the creator of Towel Power.

Neilson, who coached in Vancouver over three seasons from 1981-84 and led the franchise to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1982, was commemorated in the form of an 11-and-a-half-foot-tall, 800-pound hollow bronze statue erected on the North Plaza at Rogers Arena, facing the Stadium-Chinatown SkyTrain station.

Bronze Roger has, as you’d expect, a hockey stick in hand with a towel draped over the end, in memory of his unexpected salute to poor officiating during Game 2 of the 1982 Western Conference Final.

Sculptor Norm Williams remembers watching Neilson vault a stick into the air in protest way back when, and 29 years later he was commissioned to recreate the classic moment.

Williams has been a Canucks fan since Vancouver played in the Western Hockey League. The 67-year-old has great memories of watching Phil Maloney, "Keke" Mortson and Andy Bathgate play, but something about Neilson and the towel always stuck with him.

When the organization contacted him to bring Neilson’s iconic moment to life, Williams, a graduate of Vancouver School of Art and University of British Columbia, who studied under well know sculptors Bill Reid, Bill Koochin & Leonard Epp, immediately jumped on board.

Before Williams was anywhere near the planning stages, he hit a roadblock. Video of Neilson’s towel antics is everywhere, but there are only a few photos of the moment in question and they’re grainy at best, displaying Vancouver’s bench boss from the mid-section up.

Not even the Canucks photo archives had shots of Neilson in the heat of the moment. Staged pictures with Neilson face on, smiling for the camera are the best Williams could get his hands on, making details difficult to zero in on.

“There were things I had to ad lib on,” admitted Williams, who also works with wood and clay in his backyard studio in Abbotsford. “You can never see his shoes and what kind he was wearing and you couldn’t even see where his left hand was. When he walked out on the ice after, he had his hand in his pocket, so I put it in the pocket for the statue.

“I had to ad lib a bit, but pretty much I tried to keep it as close to what happened as I could, including, curiously, that he held the stick by the blade. All the others held it the other way around, they held it by the handle and draped the towel over the blade.”

The masterpiece that will surely become a pre-game stop for Canucks fans took a masterful effort to build. All-in-all Williams put 1,200 hours into merely shaping the statue before the real work began in the foundry.

Roger’s hands and face were done in clay, molded, then cut into plaster, while the body was made out of plaster directly, prior to making it into rubber molds, casting it into wax, creating ceramic molds then casting it into bronze.

Williams said his process is almost as organic as how the Greeks first created statues 3,500 years ago and that although bronze is an extremely time consuming and labour intensive material to work with, the end result is worth the hardship.

“Bronze is classic stuff, it lasts forever and it ages nicely, plus it patinas on its own as it gets older. And you can get a lot of detail into it; you can even cast a thumbprint if you want.”

It’s the thumbs up that completed the project for Williams, one broken up into four parts.

Step one: build the statue. Step two: get it to Rogers Arena in one piece. Step three: raise the statue. Step four: get the thumbs up from Canucks alumni.

Williams was most concerned about getting a glowing review from those who knew Neilson best and the handful of Canucks alumni who attended the unveiling gave it a huge round of applause.

That 10 seconds of praise from Neilson’s former players told Williams that he got it right, something he doubted he could do throughout the painstaking process.

“I can’t tell you how many times I looked at the face and something was just off,” laughed Williams. “It’s one of those things where if you know what he looks like, you can tell when something is wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it because you don’t have the good photographs to compare it to.

“I would look at it and decide what to do, then cut the whole face off and start again. I can’t tell you how many times I did that.”

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