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The Great One's new home

Artist Don Begg polishes up the Wayne Gretzky statue in his studio in Cochrane, Alberta, September 14, 2015.

Artist Don Begg polishes the Wayne Gretzky statue in his studio in Cochrane, Alberta in September.

Todd Korol/For The Globe and Mail

Wayne Gretzky's bronze likeness was recently uprooted from its original home at the old Rexall Place, where it has stood since 1989, the site of countless venerations. Don Begg, the Alberta artist tasked with dismantling and spiffing up the statue for relocation, will transplant the 950-pound Gretzky at Rogers Place, the Oilers' new $480-million arena, where it will resume a place of honour in time for the 2016-17 hockey season

A crowd of 14,000 poured into the Northlands Coliseum on Aug. 27, 1989. Mayor Terry Cavanagh proclaimed it Wayne Gretzky Day in Edmonton, and during a Sunday-afternoon tribute, the Oilers star was presented with a key to the city and a bronze statue of him hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head was unveiled.

As Gretzky was driven around the darkened arena in a black Austin Healey, dignitaries waited to thank him for 10 years of unforgettable hockey – and the championships he delivered four times. Dave Semenko, Grant Fuhr and a few other former teammates attended, but Oilers executives were noticeably absent.

It was little more than a year after Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, and only months since they had eliminated the Oilers from the playoffs. Emotions remained raw. Edmonton owner Peter Pocklington didn't dare show his face, and neither did general manager Glen Sather or other club executives.

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Gretzky was 28, and was accompanied by his parents and his wife, Janet Jones, who was seated with their daughter, Paulina, six months old, cradled in her arms. As her father stood onstage at one end of the rink, the infant chewed on a program printed to commemorate the day.

Wayne Gretzky glances up at a statue of himself at Northlands Coliseum in 1989 after an unveiling in Edmonton. Dave Buston/THE CANADIAN PRESS

With the audience joining in, a friend and local musician, Tim Feehan, serenaded hockey's golden boy with a song composed for the occasion, The Memories Will Last Forever. By the last verse, fans were standing and swaying with tears streaking their cheeks.

It was after then that the monument, more than 15 feet tall from its base and 950 pounds, was revealed.

"I think it's wonderful," Gretzky told the gathering. "To me, the statue symbolizes what was most important to everyone, and that was winning.

"I hope when people walk past the statue, they think of the good times I tried to give them. I hope they think, 'It was fun to watch him play.' "

When the Edmonton Oilers officially open their $480-million arena on Oct. 12, the building and most everything in it will be new. Only a few cherished pieces are special enough to be relocated: Stanley Cup banners and replica trophies, retired player numbers and the likeness of the greatest player in the history of the sport.

For nearly three decades, the Wayne Gretzky statue has stood outside the team's hockey rink. That will not change, even though the team has moved from the historic building it played in for 42 seasons to a bigger, modern downtown arena called Rogers Place.

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"It is going to be in a prominent place," says Bob Nicholson, the long-time former Hockey Canada boss who is now overseeing the Oilers' operations. "People want to see it and touch it and, more than anything else, have their picture taken with it."

Arms and a torso in the carport

For a quarter of a century, brides wearing flowing wedding gowns and grooms in smart tuxedos have posed for photographs beside the statue. It has been treated with reverence from the day it was placed outside the front of the old coliseum, and has become a part of the landscape, like the leaping Bobby Orr rendering in Boston or the monuments at Yankee Stadium. More than a few times, security officers found ashes scattered at the bronze Gretzky's feet.

The work of the late sculptor John Weaver has long served as a place for fans to meet. It has been photographed countless times; even No. 99 stopped to take a selfie beside himself last April before the Oilers' final game at Rexall Place.

An artist whose career spanned more than 60 years, Weaver was born in Montana and became the official state sculptor before going to work for the Smithsonian Institution and later accepting an invitation to become artist-in-residence at the Royal Alberta Museum. Between the first statue he created for an art centre in Butte and the last one he completed in 2003 for the city of Chilliwack, B.C., he produced more than 2,000 pieces for halls, parks, public spaces and private collections across Canada and the United States.

Shortly after taking his vitamins and finishing his morning exercises, Weaver collapsed from heart failure on April 10, 2012, and died at home in Hope, B.C. He was 92 and was working on one last monument when his son, Henry, found him.

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As the son of a sculptor, Henry Weaver grew up in a magical world few boys know. While his dad was the curator of a museum in Helena, Mont., Henry rode his tricycle through the halls. While his dad worked at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., Henry found it to be marvellous place to play hide-and-seek.

"I had the run of the Natural History Museum," he says. "There are secret spots only the rats and I know."

Upon moving to Edmonton, the family settled into a two-storey house, where Weaver worked out of the garage and in a studio that he built out back.

"Our house was a house that was a museum that was a house," Henry Weaver, 58, says. "It was like the Addams Family mansion. We had parts of dismembered statues scattered all over the place and nudes lounging around. Sex was never a mystery to me."

John Weaver had moved from Edmonton to British Columbia when he was commissioned to do the statue of Gretzky.

Henry, who is also a sculptor, says his father was creating the armature, or skeletal frame, when he hung cedar renderings of Gretzky's arms and pieces of the torso in their carport.

A woman walking by saw them, and notified the RCMP. A short time later, squad cars flew down the driveway with lights flashing – then screeched to a halt. A forensics team that had been dispatched was called off.

"As soon as their headlights hit the carport, the Mounties turned them off and drove away," Henry says. "They said, 'Oh, it's just that sculptor.' It happened at least once in every location we ever lived."

Henry helped his father do the detail work on the statue. He remembers this dad poring over photos as he worked on the likeness to make sure it was just right. He even hooked Gretzky's hockey sweater into the back of his pants, just like the Great One wore it.

"It was an emotional time," Henry says. "Wayne had just moved to Los Angeles at the height of his career. He loved Edmonton, and the people there loved him."

When it was finished, the statue was sent to a studio on the outskirts of Calgary. There, it was cast in bronze by Don Begg.

'For God sakes, don't drop it'

On Aug. 4, 2016, the Gretzky statue was removed from the spot where it had stood beside Edmonton's hockey rink for 26 years. It will soon be placed outside the arena the Oilers will christen at the start of the NHL season.

A crowd of about 100 people gathered to watch as Begg, who delivered the monument to the Northlands the day it was unveiled almost three decades earlier, extricated it.

Puffs of dust scattered in the breeze as Begg used a saw to separate the statue from its granite base.

"This is like a punch in the gut," said Shaughn Butts, an Edmonton photographer. "It is something that people have an emotional connection with."

It took about an hour for the likeness to be removed, wrapped in blankets and hoisted carefully into the back of Begg's pickup truck.

Wayne Gretzky statue being moved from Rexall Place on Aug. 4, 2016 to be refurbished before being reinstalled at the Edmonton Oilers new arena.

Wayne Gretzky’s statue is wrapped to be moved from Rexall Place in August.

Marty Klinkenberg/The Globe and Mail

For Robbie Herron, whose company operated the crane, it was a delicate and nervous task.

"This job is different," says Herron, who grew up a block from the Northlands and attended Oilers games as a kid when they were part of the World Hockey Association. "This statue is so important to the city and to the people of Edmonton. They have so much love for Wayne Gretzky."

Herron had a team of eight employees on site as part of the operation. "There were actually two people working and six of us worrying," he says. "When I sent a text message to my son saying we had been hired to help with this, he said, 'For God sakes, don't drop it!' "

The operation was handled smoothly and soon Begg was driving it 315 kilometres to his studio in Cochrane. He joked that he might stand it up to taunt hockey fans there as he drove through Calgary.

An artist and bronzesmith who has created or cast 250 monuments on display all over the world, Begg was hired to give the bust a look-over before it was moved to Rogers Place.

When he got it to his studio, he discovered few signs of wear. Mostly, his job entailed ridding it of dust and dirt that collected in crevices in uniform sleeves, and scouring away bird poop. Everyone else treats Gretzky with great respect, pigeons not so much.

"There was really not a lot to do," Begg says, analyzing the statue in his workshop. "It is in pretty remarkable shape. I have checked it 100 times over the years.

"I do a lot of work in Edmonton, so every time I was there, I would stop. I never drive by one of my statues without looking at it."

Taught to cast bronze by his father-in-law, a cowboy artist named Doug Stephens who studied under Norman Rockwell, Begg runs a 16,000-square-foot foundry. In his showroom, along with a display of some of the exquisite pieces he has cast, there are photos of the Gretzky statue, one of it outside the Northlands, another of the Great One admiring it during the unveiling.

"It is real honour to be part of this," Begg says, work shoes speckled with plaster. "How many people get to make something that is going to be around for thousands of years?"

A new home

On the day that fans turned out to pay homage to Gretzky's greatness in 1989 on a late-summer afternoon, Joan Healey was among the dignitaries on the stage. She is an artist, and was hired by the City of Edmonton to do a painting that was also presented during the ceremonies.

The 30-by-36-inch canvas is called The Parting and shows three boys in Oilers sweaters on an outdoor rink with the city skyline in the background. In it, one youth wears Kevin Lowe's No. 4 and another wears Mark Messier's No. 11 as a blond-haired boy wearing No. 99 waves goodbye.

Members of the Northwest Zone Hawks atom hockey team climb onto the Wayne Gretzky statue outside the Skyreach Centre in Edmonton, Saturday, Apr.17, 1999. There has been a steady flow of fans to the statue since Gretzky announced his retirement Friday in New York.

Members of the Northwest Zone Hawks atom hockey team climb onto the Wayne Gretzky statue outside the Skyreach Centre in Edmonton in April, 1999. A steady flow of fans flocked to the statue after Gretzky announced his retirement earlier that month.

Walter Tychnowicz/CP

The painting was covered with a cloth and was sitting on an easel onstage before it was unveiled.

"I was sitting there and saw his reaction," Healey, 78, says of Gretzky. "He was standing at the microphone and kept turning to look at it. He was quite surprised.

"When I was asked to do the painting, I was honoured. I knew it would mean something to him in the future and immediately started thinking about it. I wanted to do something that would touch him."

That night, Healey and her husband, Rich, a former defenceman who played one game in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings, were invited to join Gretzky and his family at a private dinner party at the coliseum. She has a photograph autographed by Gretzky from the evening, during which she held little Paulina's hand as she tried to take a few awkward steps.

"He had to be the nicest young man you would ever want to meet," Healey says.

Years have passed, but that is the way people in Edmonton remember him – a robust young hockey star who brought distinction to a midsized northern city without pretension.

Come Oct. 12, when the Oilers open the regular season against their rivals from Calgary, the Gretzky statue will stand again, but outside Rogers Place.

"The fact that the statue was removed from its original place can bother you for nostalgia sake, but when you think about it, art goes to wherever it is appreciated," says Henry Weaver, the late sculptor's son. "It doesn't bother me at all as long as people see it and love it. The whole idea of art is to inspire as well as to inform.

"I kind of like the idea."


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