Just Ducky When they made Dale Hawerchuk, they broke the mould, but a new statue of the former Jet captures his spirit

The American sculptor Erik Blome was in Uganda teaching bronze-casting when he typed “Dale Hawerchuk” into Google.

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The American sculptor Erik Blome was in Uganda teaching bronze-casting when he typed “Dale Hawerchuk” into Google.

Blome, who lives and works in Woodstock, Ill., considers himself a hockey fan, and though he remembered the exploits of the late Jets captain — who exploded onto the NHL scene in 1981 to win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year and scored more than 1,400 points in a 17-year career — the artist needed to brush up on the man known as Ducky.

He needed to understand Hawerchuk on a level deeper than goals (518, including seven 40-goal years with the Jets) and assists (never fewer than 51 in a season with Winnipeg). He needed to learn how Hawerchuk pushed off to glide across the blue line, the way he dug for the puck in the corners, the way he celebrated, the way he shouted and the way his face looked when he was hard at work.

Sculptor Erik Blome's (right) statue of Dale Hawerchuk will be unveiled on Saturday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Was Hawerchuk graceful, gritty, or a little bit of both?

Whenever Blome, 54, is hired to sculpt a notable figure — be it Rosa Parks, Eli Lilly or Wayne Gretzky, whom Blome sculpted for the Los Angeles Kings — an extensive research stage occurs. So when he was hired by the Jets ownership to sculpt Hawerchuk a few months after Hawerchuk’s death from stomach cancer in 2020 at the age of 57, Blome found himself watching 40-year-old slapshots from his posting at Makerere University in Kampala.

“I think what distinguishes great players like him is that they’re usually great skaters, so good at moving around on the ice and manoeuvring, so I decided that’s what I wanted to show (about Hawerchuk),” said Blome, who also sculpted 14 players for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Legends Row and several for the Chicago Blackhawks’ 75th anniversary monument.

“He also had a lot of passion, matched with a lot of humility. He was a team player, and was very devoted to his team and his city in a way you don’t see very often, especially today, when players are maybe more careerist. He seemed to have an old-school approach. A go-getter. And I think he’s a good example of someone who, through hard work and dedication, reached the highest level.”

Sculptor Erik Blome (right) and assistant Grant Patterson clean up the base of the new Dale Hawerchuk statue in True North Square before the official unveiling Saturday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Blome sketched out an image of Hawerchuk, mid-stride, and sent it off to the executives and creative team at True North Sports and Entertainment, who were impressed right away.

Before Hawerchuk’s death, team owner Mark Chipman and senior vice-president of hockey operations Craig Heisinger told the Jets legend they intended to build a statue of him, so it was important to get it right, says Dorian Morphy, the team’s vice-president of marketing.

“When we built True North Square, we had always thought there would be a statue of Dale Hawerchuk (on the corner of Graham Avenue and Hargrave Street),” says Morphy, who grew up idolizing Hawerchuk, who later played with the Philadelphia Flyers, the St. Louis Blues and the Buffalo Sabres. “He was a good guy to call your hero.”

The timeline was accelerated: Blome only began working on the sculpture in the summer of 2021, and knew it had to be ready for the beginning of the 2022-2023 NHL season. For months, Blome worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, dealing with a metal shortage that complicated his highly involved process.

He also had to contend with a tiring pose for models, wherein he tied a rope around the waist so he could capture Hawerchuk’s forward progress. Two models quit before the third stuck it out.

Using the classical lost wax process, Blome sculpts the objects in clay, then makes moulds from silicone rubber and gypsum. From those moulds, he casts a hollow wax positive.

Dale Hawerchuk celebrates a goal during his Jets 1.0 days. (Ken Gigliotti / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“It’s a little bit like a chocolate bunny at Easter time,” he says. To avoid warpage, Blome casts the components in 75- to 90-cm lengths.

Those 30 or so components are dipped into a refractory material made of silica the same material on the wings of space shuttles, he says — several times to create a ceramic shell, and are welded together with tungsten inert gas. “It’s very fine welding. Like sewing with metal.”

The wax is then melted out of those shells and Blome begins pouring scalding hot (1,176-1,260 C) liquid bronze in. “And then you have to break out your castings,” he says.

It was at that stage that Blome invited the Jets to visit his foundry in Woodstock.

“Mark Chipman poured bronze with me,” says Blome. The Jets owner poured the metal for Hawerchuk’s right glove, which alone weighs 40 kilograms. “I was pretty impressed that a guy who doesn’t have to do that did it. It was pretty cool.”

Every Friday throughout the year-long creative process, Blome jumped on Zoom calls with a team of 20 True North employees and sub-contractors involved in the sculpture’s development, including project managers, structural engineers, masonry pros and quarry executives.

“We had to consider every element,” says Morphy, including lighting, weatherproofing, and the pedestal, which is made of Tyndall stone from Gillis Quarries.

The finished sculpture, made of bronze and supported by an internal skeleton of stainless steel, is 160 per cent bigger than Hawerchuk’s playing height and weight, coming in at nearly 1,360 kilograms.

Earlier this week, Blome rented a moving truck to shepherd the sculpture from Woodstock to Winnipeg. Upon arrival, the sculpture was installed at True North Square, where it has spent the week covered by a thick tarp; Hawerchuk’s blade peeks out. Morphy thinks it’s the nicest sculpture in the NHL.

Hawerchuk waves to the crowd as he is inducted into the Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame on Nov. 14, 2017. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The sculpture, which depicts Hawerchuk in his halcyon days as a Jet, with the captain’s C above his heart, is the opposite of statuesque and rigid. Blome captured Hawerchuk in pursuit, with his eyes forward and stick extended from that right glove Chipman poured.

Crafting a sculpture is a tough business: there are always critics who insist the mouth is wrong, or the hair is too mussed, or the legs aren’t long enough. But Blome is confident his interpretation of Hawerchuk met his intentions and those of the Jets.

There’s inevitably a mixed response to any artistic interpretation of reality. “Was it Picasso or was it (John Singer) Sargent who said a portrait is a painting where the nose is wrong?” Blome asks.

Blome’s sculpture of Hawerchuk will be unveiled to the city Saturday before the Jets face the Edmonton Oilers in preseason action. On hand to speak will be Hawerchuk’s former Canada Cup teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, former Jet and current NHL executive Kris King, Jets associate coach and one-time Hawerchuk linemate Scott Arniel, current Jets star Mark Scheifele, Chipman, and Crystal Hawerchuk, Dale’s wife.

Blome will also be there, and eagerly awaits both the great reveal and the culmination of an intensive sculpting process.

“Every time I get chosen to do this, I’m flattered,” he says. “There are a lot of artists, so I realize when people select me, it’s an opportunity and privilege.

“Much like Dale Hawerchuk, I’m going to do my best with my time on the ice.”

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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