hockey cards were once all about trading, shooting and flipping. Which ones you got, which ones you need, which ones you didn't want and were willing to have your friends scramble for on the playground. Hanging around the Sports Card Expo last weekend at the International Centre, I get a pang of nostalgia for the bubble gum and old shoebox treasures. That collecting hysteria popped in the mid-90s, over-saturated by too many card companies issuing too many categories of cards. This show is hardly even about cards at all.
Those waddling the floor are largely well-seasoned couch potatoes. There are almost no kids here. And the name of the game isn't figuring out whether you're grabbing a trader or a keeper -- it's all about getting your palms on a piece of something real.
The spectre of fraud is everywhere. There's a framed, signed, numbered, authenticated photo of Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux together selling for $1,699. But don't imagine that the signature you scored hanging out in the freezing cold at the side door of the Gardens a few years back will get you anything.
Collectors are suspicious. You can line up here for a $20 autograph from lantern-jawed Boston Bruins right winger Cam Neely, whose career succumbed to injuries five years ago at age 30. But no one will believe you later that the signature's really his.
The fraud factor has left collectors jaded, says Derrick Luck, the exclusive distributor of Steve Yzerman memorabilia. There are occasional whistle-blowers trying to expose bogus mementos, he says, but "it's like throwing a cup of water on a forest fire."
The premium on authenticity also means that collecting has gone upscale, beyond the domain of awe-struck preteens.
Owning a slice of what you've seen on ice, says Luck, is "like sex -- if you feel you need it, you'll pay for it."
In the days when I stashed my precious collection in my sock drawer, I remember desperately trading so I could get one card of each player in the NHL over the course of a particular season. Seems to be a thing of the past now. I'm heartbroken when Stevan Ruso, owner of Little Shop of Heroes in Listowel, tells me, "It's gotten too hard to collect entire sets."
Ruso's one of those many overstocked dealers waiting expectantly for the biz to take off again. "The next card boom should've hit already," he says, explaining that the markup on cards has been reduced from 50 to 20 per cent over the past decade. He points to the way fevered fans now buy cases of cards at a time, hoping to luck into the signed cards or the bits of fabric from players' uniforms or slivers of sticks randomly tossed into the print run as a marketing ploy. A rare item is often auctioned off online, recouping the cash to buy another case.
If there were a means of selling a bloody mouth guard or a sweaty jock strap accompanied by proof of its legitimacy, there would be some demand for it. In the meantime, the hockey cards littering the bus shelter just outside the International Centre show there's only one game left for those still buying sealed packages now that the gum is gone. Find one card that might be worth something. Throw the rest on the floor. My 12-year-old self can hardly bear the sight.