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Frank Mahovlich, Wendel Clark help shape their Maple Leafs statues

Toronto legends part of sculpting process for Legends Row likenesses

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

WOODSTOCK, Ill. -- In an hour, Toronto Maple Leafs legends Frank Mahovlich and Wendel Clark would get a first look at their statues, mammoth clay figures that in the months ahead will become magnificent bronze monuments.

In October, these statues, and those of Red Kelly and Charlie Conacher, will join the 10 already standing on the Maple Leafs' Legends Row outside Air Canada Centre.

Now, on this mid-June morning, riding in a limousine van from Chicago's Midway Airport to sculptor Erik Blome's studio and foundry 60 miles to the northwest, Mahovlich and Clark were pondering my question: "What's the greatest statue you've ever seen?"

Clark was puzzled for a moment, then replied: "I don't really know. I'm from Kelvington, Saskatchewan, so I haven't seen many. But I guess I'd say all of the 10 that are on Legends Row now, because together they're a salute to the greatest players on the team."

For Mahovlich, this was an easy, one-word answer.


"Keon?" I asked, referring to Dave Keon, his former Maple Leafs teammate who was added to Legends Row in October.

"No … Michelangelo's David. In Florence, Italy."

And with that Clark burst out laughing. 

David, indeed.

Video: Mahovlich, Clark discuss careers, Legends Row statues

Going behind the scenes

The statues of Kelly and Conacher existed only in Blome's imagination when we arrived at his studio, where Mahovlich and Clark would see the progress of their monuments and provide a little gentle input to the sculptor. But Clark's statue, which like Darryl Sittler's depicts him leaping over the boards, and that of Mahovlich, showing him standing tall and stately as he did throughout his career, were wrapped almost eerily in plastic and couldn't be missed.

By Blome's estimate, the clay figures each weigh a couple of thousand pounds. Each of the 14 bronze statues -- "Hollow, like a big chocolate Easter bunny," he said -- will weigh about 800 pounds. They are created with a two-part method that includes the lost-wax process, a casting method that has remained true to techniques developed in ancient Greece.

Blome carefully unshrouded the statue of Clark, then Mahovlich, misting each down with water to soften the clay. He was ready to get to work during this courtesy call by the players, who would make suggestions to the works in progress.

"I didn't know this was going to be my pose, but I like it," Clark said. "I'm probably coming over the boards to go serve a penalty.

Then, with a laugh: "Sittler's jumping on to join the power play."

Clark and Mahovlich said they were enormously impressed by what they saw, even if what was before them will have a considerably different look when finished in bronze.

In a similar preview last year, Keon taped his stick for Blome exactly as he had during his 15 seasons with the Maple Leafs and made certain the laces of his skates were tied as they should be. Keon's hairstyle, which changed often throughout his career, was a particular challenge for the sculptor.

There would be no hair issue for the helmeted Clark, though his handlebar mustache needed a little work.

"Whatever [Blome] tells me is fine," he had said during the drive to the studio.

But when he studied his clay face, Clark dug into his phone, thumbing through photos of himself to find ones that he liked best. When he suggested a nip here and a tuck there, Blome applied small blobs of clay, manipulating them with his fingers.

"I wore my socks over the tongues of my skates, not under them as they are now," Clark said, directing Blome's eyes to his boots. "But at least you don't have to shave off a few chins."

Mahovlich's greatest concern had nothing to do with his skates. It was simply that he wasn't smiling enough, and he grinned through his entire conversation with Blome as if to demonstrate. The old-school Mahovlich sifted leisurely through clay-soiled portraits the sculptor had lying about until Clark came over with a few photos on his phone.

"You need to see your face straight on, not be looking up at it," Blome said.

With that, Mahovlich climbed onto a workbench maybe three feet off the floor to stand face-to-face with himself. He would stay here for a half-hour in the muggy studio, shedding his Maple Leafs Alumni blazer -- "Honour, Pride, Courage," the crest read -- rolling up his sleeves and sipping water, digging into his catalog of tales while Blome massaged more of a smile into the clay.

"I'm glad you're going to have me with my hand on Red," Mahovlich said of his friend Kelly as he stepped down from the workbench, pleased that Blome had given him a cheerier expression.

For Mahovlich, the best part of being added to Legends Row is that he is doing so alongside fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Kelly, his Maple Leafs road roommate. He played eight years with Kelly in Toronto and they won four Stanley Cup championships together in the 1960s.

If there were traditions observed by these Maple Leafs legends on and off the ice, so too does Blome have one in crafting their statues. It has been a custom of the sculptor to drop a lucky penny into the pouring of bronze during his production process, and it was now that Mahovlich dug into his pocket.

From Montreal, I had brought him a $1 Canadian coin bearing the logo of Toronto's archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens, one that was minted in 2009, the centennial of the Canadiens' founding.

This was not meant as mischief, but for a salute Mahovlich could pay to his late friend, former Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau, his teammate during the latter's final NHL season in 1970-71. Together, the pair won the Stanley Cup that season.

"I won two Cups with Montreal (his second in 1973) and it was a very, very special time in my life," Mahovlich said, happy to accept the coin.

Clark wore fireproof, heat-resistant clothing for the pouring of the bronze with Blome. Even through this protection, Clark said he could feel the 2,150-degree Fahrenheit liquid fire that had been prepared in a furnace by the sculptor and his assistant, Lamar Wilson.

"I look like a goalie," Clark complained playfully, heavily padded and about to pull a mask over his face.

Video: Clark and Blome pour bronze to make statues

Using a shank -- a tongs-like device -- to pull a bronze-filled crucible from the furnace, Clark and Blome poured the steaming orange lava into forms that would be the stick blades for the two statues.

"Frank, you've got a straighter curve than I do!" Clark called out.

Following the pour, Clark placed the $1 coin atop the bronze of Mahovlich's stick blade, the gold color soon fading to black before it disappeared entirely into the slowly cooling liquid where it will remain forever as a tribute to Beliveau.


'Representing an era'

The Maple Leafs say that Mahovlich, Clark, Kelly and Conacher are the last players who will be added to Legends Row. Their statues will join those of goalies Turk Broda and Johnny Bower, defensemen Tim Horton and Borje Salming, and forwards Keon, Sittler, Ted Kennedy, George Armstrong, Syl Apps and Mats Sundin.

"Charlie Conacher … Turk Broda [who won] five Stanley Cups," Mahovlich said. "To be part of that crowd? It's a delight."

Clark, the massively popular player known as Captain Crunch, shook his head when considering his own imminent date with immortality.

"I was very honored when the Leafs told me," he said, his grin spreading. "I guess they needed a fourth-line guy. A bunch of first- and second-liners out there, they needed to fill the team out with fourth-liners so I got added.

"This is about the honor of being a part of this group. For me, and I think for the statues of all the guys, this is about representing your teams. I'm one guy from the 1980s and 1990s, but you're kind of representing an era of players. That's the team aspect. You're honored to be among all the guys who are up there."

Indeed, as Blome said, there's probably nowhere in the world that 14 members of one team are immortalized in life-size statues in a single public space.

Before the Maple Leafs engaged him nearly four years ago for Legends Row, Blome created a six-player statue for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2000 to mark their 75th anniversary. In 2003, he crafted a statue of Wayne Gretzky that stands outside Staples Center, home of the Los Angeles Kings.

If Woodstock is best known as the site where most of the 1993 Bill Murray comedy "Groundhog Day" was filmed, what emerges from Blome's studio is certainly a higher form of art. More than 40 pieces of his work, in bronze and in steel, are displayed across the United States., including monuments to civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and entertainers Duke Ellington and Jack Benny.

On this day, and probably any other, Blome's Woodstock foundry looked like it had been hit by a cyclone. There were broken molds scattered about, rags and countless tools, busts, plastic bins and garbage cans, paint, lacquer and propane canisters, photos, pieces of hockey equipment and a 1980s-vintage CCM helmet that Blome had cast for the head of Clark's statue. A Maple Leafs jersey was tossed over the arm of a metal skeleton, the frame of what will be Kelly's statue.

And yet, it all looked like perfectly organized chaos, no matter that it was an obstacle course to navigate.

We would finally stomp the foundry dust from our shoes and adjourn for lunch in quaint Woodstock's "downtown" a few hours later, across the street from the movie theater and in view of the town-square gazebo made famous by a movie. Sadly, "Groundhog Day" wasn't on the theater's marquee, but "Captain Underpants" was.

Blome's visitors then made the drive back to the airport, two Maple Leafs legends agreeing that they were eager to see their statues in October when the bronze monuments are trucked north for installation and unveiling on Legends Row.

"I can't imagine how Erik can take pictures and make three-dimensional statues," Clark said. "We come here 40 pounds heavier than when we played and he's trying to get what we looked like when we were players.

"It's amazing to have the talent and the vision to create this. You and I would walk by that pile of clay a million times and not think it would amount to anything. And now that clay is being made into statues that will live forever."

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