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Salming nears Legends Row arrival

by Chris Lund / Toronto Maple Leafs

Creating a human sculpture is tricky business. From photos and videos of your subject you create a steel frame. The frame, in tandem with plaster moulds, provide a foundation for the weight of your clay which is packed on.

Then, you work on making it come to life.

You begin work on the basic anatomy. Your subject's appearance. Their physical composition. From there you add the next layer — pads. Finally, you add the clothing.

Start with the skeleton. Add the flesh, the armour, the details.

Those details are what create the difference between two people. A wrinkle here or a scar there or the shape of a bone make a person look like who they are. In this way, life does imitate art. You teach yourself to know who or what you're looking at.

"Every face is kind of the same as a skeleton. Once you start adding facial features it becomes that person." said Robert Oakley Gregory, a sculptor at Erik Blome's studio in Woodstock, Ill. Blome was tasked with sculpting Legends Row for the Maple Leafs.

Börje Salming joined the Toronto Maple Leafs from Brynäs of the Swedish League in 1973. In 2015, he found himself with family — his wife Pia and children Anders, Bianca, Rasmus and Teresa — looking at a clay doppelganger.

Walking into Blome's studio, Salming immediately recognized his old shin pads and skates on his sculpture, standing on a platform in the middle of the room. As he removed the covering and went face to face with his clay twin, he wasn't quite sure. It wasn't done yet.

A step back revealed full extent of the detail.

Those shin pads, the gloves, his skates tied the way he tied them, his jersey — number 21, of course — and the CCM helmet that replaced his famed Jofa. The face came into focus. There he was.

It was him, all right.

It's safe to say Salming didn't expect to leave such a sculpture-worthy footprint in Toronto when he joined the Leafs 42 years ago. In fact, he didn't expect much of anything.

"Me and Inge Hammarström came over and we said, 'Listen, if we don't like it we'll go back home,' and we signed a two-year contract and said, 'Okay we'll play two years and we go back home,'" said Salming. "Never did I imagine it would be 16 years playing for Toronto. It was fantastic."

The argument for Salming as the greatest defender in Leafs history is both straightforward and compelling. The first Swedish player to wear a Leafs sweater appears in 1,099 games and records 148 goals and 768 points from the blueline. Details make you look like you. Details change your biography from "free agent signing" to "Legend."

The Salming family took a workshop tour from Gregory and fellow sculptor Christopher McCutcheon. They learned about the extent of the process. Making the armature and adding clay and sculpting the clay. Before long, the sculpture is turned into a hollow form composed of plaster and rubber, chiseled out and coated with wax. Metal is cast.

It's a process that dates back thousands of years. There have been changes as technology has progressed but, by and large, the fundamentals are the same. Symbolic and literal permanence is given to someone or something worthy of it.

"They leave a legacy for people that come longer down the line. With all bronzes, they are things that are worthy of legacy and creating something honourable," said Gregory. "Bronze, with all artwork, is about commemorating something and bronze is permanent. It's not going to go anywhere."

The sculpture is just the latest in a long line of accolades for Salming. He was an NHL First All-Star in 1976-77 and a five time NHL Second All-Star. His number resides in the rafters at Air Canada Centre. He became the first Swede elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1996. He remains one of the most popular Leafs to ever don the sweater.

Worthy of legacy, indeed.

To play over 1,000 games in the National Hockey League is no small feat. The time span comes with any number of bumps, bruises and cuts. Pucks, sticks and, in Salming's case, a skate blade take their toll.

Looking back, these commemorations help make it all worth it. For the player, their family and their fans.

"I think it's pretty cool. It is cool — the sweater up in the ceiling, the Hall of Fame," said Salming. "For the family to come over in 20, 30, 40, 50 years and come over and say, 'That's my granddad,' that's going to be fantastic for them. It is for me too."

"To be a statue — it could be there forever. Who knows?"

Painstaking work remains before the statue makes its way to Toronto. Every crease, every wrinkle and every tooth has to be right. They'll be there for every photo taken, every story told and every passing glance for generations of Maple Leafs fans.

Salming's place in an illustrious history will be made permanent in bronze. A fitting tribute for a Leafs legend and, once he arrives, a homecoming worthy of a King.

"Toronto is home. When you go from Sweden you say you go home. When you go from Toronto you go home. I have two homes."

Salming takes his place on Legends Row at Air Canada Centre on September 12.

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