Those Blackhawks helmets on the lions, how do they make those?

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How do you get a hockey helmet on a lion? Very carefully. | Sun-Times file

The annual placement of the Blackhawks helmets on the Art Institute lions is one of the highlights of the Hawks now near-annual Stanley Cup run.

Along with other similar hometown pride gestures at the Field Museum and on other sculptures and civic spots around town, Chicago always puts its heart on its sleeve for our teams.

But how, exactly, does that heart get to the sleeve, especially when you’re talking giant helmets and sweaters for raptors? Vice Sports took a look at the manufacturing and maintenance process – one expensive enough that the brachiosaurus outside the Field went without her Hawks gear this spring, as Jaap Hoogstraten, the Field Museum’s Director of Exhibitions, told Vice:

It does take time, money, and effort. Capacity, timing. Depends on what we’re doing.”

It might not be something many fans and visitors think about, but yeah, you can’t just pop by Play It Again and get a 60-pound, giant replica hockey helmet made to fit on an oversized lion. Vice talked to Chicago Scenic Studios, a Goose Island firm that specializes in all sorts of artistic fabrication and craftsmanship along these lines.

Chicago Scenic Project Director Gary Heitz talked about the process in creating these unique uniform parts:

For something like this, it’s almost like a sculpture, Heitz said, guys just kind of start carving away at it. The fabrication process for the Hawks helmets, which is particularly involved due to the helmet’s distinct shape, took the shop nearly a month. The bizarre shape required that individual components be made and then fitted together. Something like the Bears helmets, which are little more than a half-dome and face mask, come quicker; faster still was the stitching together of the brachiosaur’s sweater, which is made of that porous material that covers the high fences of outdoor tennis courts and took four to five people a day to complete. . . . Since Chicago Scenic’s gear must go on sacred pieces of art and science, avoiding damage to the wearer runs parallel with aesthetic concerns. The helmets are relatively easy; just as in real life, an adjustable amount of foam stuffing provides a soft and safe contact area, keeping the patina pristine.

The Chicago Scenic team then works with the museum staff to place the various jerseys and sweaters and helmets. The placement process is not quite as involved, though obviously getting a hockey sweater on a brachiosaurus can only be so easy, as the design and creation steps. Getting a helmet on a lion takes about 45 minutes, sans building scaffolding and other supplementary chores.

Ross Hamilton, a project director at CSSI, says the company fell into the Blackhawks playoff gear trade because of “just blind luck, man.” But really this is a culmination work started 25 or more years ago.

The company’s specialty fabrication talents were first put into play in marking sports fandom on another famous Chicago statue – the Picasso in Daley Plaza.

“Many, many years ago we started putting hats on the Picasso, so we sort of had that in our bailiwick,” Hamilton said.

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Before there were hockey-helmeted lions, the Picasso, seen here in 2009, was a baseball fan. | Sun-Times file

Chicago Scenic had a history working with the Art Institute on slightly more mundane installations and infrastructure needs. Between that, the Picasso work and the speed with which the CSSI shop could turn things around – it took about two weeks from concept to installation – the Blue Line lions idea was born.

“Because we had a history of doing wacky, outdoor things,” Hamilton said, the idea came up of “wouldn’t it be great if we put helmets on the lions.”

CSSI has branched out a bit – they provided some of the large football helmets seen in the NFL Draft village. But only time will tell on when they need to break out Bears pads in scale for the City of Big Shoulders.

Here’s a look at some of the process to getting the creatures kitted out for playoff hockey:

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Work underway on one of the Art Institute lion helmets. | courtesy Chicago Scenic

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A team from Chicago Scenic, places a Blackhawks jersey on the dinosaur outside the Field Museum in 2009. | Sun-Times file

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Serious work on a Captain Serious sweater – one big enough for a dinosaur. | courtesy Chicago Scenics

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The Chicago Blackhawks sweater on the Field Museum’s Dissemination of Knowledge statue, a 9-foot-high figure of a woman reading to a baby, and a Derrick Rose Bulls jersey on a pterodactyl in 2009. | Sun-Times file

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