By Scott Wheeler
March 19, 2017
Erik Blome was never really a hockey fan. He’d watch games, here or there, but he didn’t consider himself a diehard.
Then one day his art demanded he become one.
Blome is the artist behind each statue on the Maple Leafs’ Legends Row sculpture, the monument that will soon boast 14 of the Leafs’ all-time greats outside the Air Canada Centre. Blome has sculpted some of the greatest hockey players Toronto has ever seen, including Johnny Bower, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin.
Before the Chicago-based artist starts a piece, he said he’s normally not all that familiar with his subject. Then he digs in.
“I might not be the expert at Johnny Bower, but I am definitely the expert on Johnny Bower by the time I’m done,” Blome said in an extended phone interview. “It has to have the character of that person.”
Blome is an artist first. When he looks at his work, he sees the details many don’t appreciate. By the time he’s finished, he sees something more.
“It’s also the personal memories I have with the players and learning about them, meeting them, talking to their relatives, looking at hundreds of photos and videos of each one,” Blome said. “I feel like there’s a book inside every one of those things, for me personally, that other people don’t see. It is super personal for me to go out there. I feel a huge connection for all of those players — and the people, not just the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
Through this project, Blome has had the chance to meet some of the men he’s re-created as giant bronze figures. When he first met the real Bower, he almost cried.
“I knew so much about him and he was like a friend already. And then as it turned out we talked for like two hours and he is my friend. He’s like a super nice guy — that was pretty cool,” he said.
More than five years before work on the first piece began, Blome was handpicked by the Leafs to create the biggest sports sculpture of its kind. The Leafs reached out to Blome after taking note of his works in Los Angeles — where he created a statue of Wayne Gretzky — and Chicago, where the United Center hosts his ode to the Blackhawks.
But there was a minor snag. The Leafs didn’t know what they wanted. Nothing developed until Blome had an idea. For a franchise without a Gretzky, the monument had to be about more than one player.
“When (the Leafs) hired me I said, ‘Why don’t we make yours really big? Let’s do a big one. Let’s do more players.’ And they were like ‘OK,’” he said, laughing. “I was kind of surprised, I was like ‘all right.’ We were both just…in agreement.
“You see a lot of sports art everywhere now in stadiums and baseball stadiums and usually it’s the guy hitting the home run, someone leaping through the air, but it’s just one guy,” Blome added. “Encompassing the idea of the team I think is what makes me unique. I was one of the first sports artists where you actually saw a whole team concept in front of the stadium.”
The 30-foot granite bench that seats the bronzed legends is the biggest piece, by sheer size, Blome – who has sculpted non-sports figures such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks – has ever done. He believes it’s also his most unique.
“This one, in my opinion, and this is a humble opinion, is a little bit groundbreaking because you don’t really see teamwork concepts being expressed by the team anywhere else,” he said.
He has also never dedicated this much time to creating a work. Nowhere close, he said.
“Honestly, if I was doing it for anyone else, it would take me a year to do one or two, but because the Maple Leafs are my special friend I’m doing four a year,” he said, trailing off. “I’ve been like a player for them, I’ve come up and done my Darryl Sittler. I’ve scored a goal each time I’ve had to and I’m trying to do it every time.”
It can take months to perfect just the clay version of each life-like sculpture, he said. But it comes together with trial and error. When Blome used to teach sculpture, he’d tell his students they should expect to restart three times before getting it right.
“You have to get it to the point where they look at it and say, ‘Amazing how he just does that,’” he said. “But what they don’t realize is that I’m looking at it and saying, ‘God, I don’t know how I did that.’”
But his tireless work pays off. Blome wants Legends Row to be unforgettable, a must-see for Leafs fans.
“People are going to see this not knowing how many incarnations there were,” he said. “I get to a certain point where I’m like, ‘it looks pretty good to me,’ and then you change it and it looks a lot better and you just keep working on it, going back in every day to change it until it’s right.”
The last time Blome visited his masterpiece he thought, “God, I’ve done a lot of work.”
“It’s a lot. If you go to work every day and work 12 hours a day for three years, it makes you proud of what you get done. That’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s the biggest one I’ve done and it’s there in front of the stadium and people appreciate it and I enjoyed making it, you know?”
With four more statues to be added — including the beloved Wendel Clark — he’s not quite at the finish line yet, but he’s humbled by the opportunity the Leafs gave him.
“It has been a lot of fun, a lot of work, and a lot of fun. I’m going to miss the project when it’s over, if it’s ever over.”
Assuming it does in fact end: What will Blome do when he’s done?
“It’s gonna sound weird, but I’ll step back and look at it to think, ‘what did I do?’”