NOTE: This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' 2022 Champions issue, available here.
A lot has changed with hockey-card collecting over the past 30 years. Heck, a lot has changed in the past two years. Those small pieces of cardboard we grew up with haven’t been this hot in three decades.
Collecting hockey cards was a modest little hobby until 1990, when it exploded in popularity. “To me, 1990-91 was the peak of the golden era of hockey cards,” said
Jason Masherah, president of Upper Deck, a company that makes trading cards licensed by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association. “You had the culmination of incredible rookies, new licensees, huge print runs and Wayne Gretzky was playing in the United States. That level of interest in hockey cards had never been seen before.”
But by the mid-1990s, hockey cards had settled back down to a niche hobby, more popular in Canada, less so in the U.S., and only really appealing to diehard fans. Then it boomed again in 2020, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First, the 2019-20 NHL season was paused while the league figured out how it could operate during a pandemic that had spiralled out of control. Next, people were asked to shelter at home, to help slow the spread of COVID, while governments determined what to do. Concerts, vacations and other plans were cancelled. Many people, with money to spend and no place to go, turned to at-home hobbies. For some, it was drawing, baking bread or working out. Others discovered – or rediscovered – sports-card collecting. “The idle time renewed their interest,” said Joe Daley, owner of Joe Daley’s Sports and Framing. “People had time on their hands, had money to spend and, for whatever reason, got back into the cards they had stored away in their youth and decided they should do that again.”
Daley, a former NHL and WHA goalie from 1968 to 1979, opened his sports-card shop in Winnipeg in 1988 – just before hockey cards first spiked in popularity. And hockey-card collecting hasn’t been this popular in 30 years. “Until the pandemic hit,” he said, “we haven’t seen this type of flurry in the card industry since the early 1990s.”
Be Like Mike
Of course, it was a 1990s superstar who first reignited the sports-card hobby – but not a hockey player. In the spring of 2020, ESPN aired The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ 1997-98 championship run. This increased demand for Jordan’s basketball cards, then other basketball cards and, eventually, cards from other sports. “The Last Dance had a huge impact,” said Rich Mueller, editor of Sports Collectors Daily, a website that has covered the sports-card industry since 2006. “Kobe Bryant’s death, before that, contributed to the interest in sports cards as well. Interest in those two players, combined with COVID, made for a perfect storm. Jordan’s cards have always been valuable, but suddenly you had people who never collected getting into it or lapsed collectors getting back into it. That drove the demand to where it is now.”
Later that summer, the NBA and NHL returned to play in “bubble leagues,” while the MLB finally got its season underway. Production was halted on the majority of TV shows, meaning that the only new content to watch was live sports – and there was a lot of that to consume. First-time and returning card collectors sought out vintage cards and then new cards, trying to get rookie cards of the next superstars. “There’s a lot of sport-to-sport crossover now,” said Mueller. “That probably wasn’t the case 30 or 40 years ago. I think a lot of collectors chase some of the top rookies regardless of the sport, and they kind of treat it like a stock market. We’re a social media-driven society now, where buzz about a certain player transcends to interest in his cards.”
One such example is the “Young Guns” rookie card of 2020 No. 1 overall pick Alexis Lafreniere, which was found in packs of 2020-21 Upper Deck Series One Hockey and was selling for as high as $600 in November 2020; a good two months before he played his first NHL game. Lafreniere had a slow start in his rookie year, and his card cooled considerably, sinking to around $80, before gradually climbing in value again. “There are more people collecting hockey cards today than there was pre-pandemic,” said Masherah. “But honestly, the pandemic hasn’t had as big of an impact as it has on other sports. What happens in other sports is that there’s a lot of speculation that’s driving the demand. Hockey cards are more of an organic collecting experience. Speculation hasn’t been as rampant in hockey as we’ve seen in other sports, which I think is a lot healthier.”
Still, speculation has driven up the prices of all sports cards, with unopened boxes of new cards being sold by online retailers for two or three times the usual price. Conversely, big-box stores like Target and Walmart did not increase their prices on sports cards due to the demand, which led to its own unique problem. “Flippers” – buyers who purchase new, sealed boxes of cards and immediately sell them for two to five times what they paid – would routinely visit such stores and buy up all their inventory. Much like a “Black Friday” sale in the U.S., many card resellers would line up outside of big-box stores hours before they opened to have a better chance of buying all the sports cards.
But things took an alarming twist in May 2021, when a man who purchased cards at a Target store in suburban Milwaukee was confronted in the parking lot by four other men who wanted to rob him of his cards. The man drew a gun, which he was licensed to carry to defend himself, and the four who attacked him were later arrested. Many Target and other big-box stores suspended selling sports cards – and Pokemon cards, which also surged in popularity – over the summer and fall, then gradually started carrying them again when demand cooled a bit.
The Graded 10 Gretzky
Meanwhile, high-dollar cards of current and retired greats were selling for record-breaking prices, with names like Jordan, Mickey Mantle and Tom Brady fetching hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars at auctions. Then, for the first time in history, a hockey card broke the million-dollar barrier in December 2020.
Not surprisingly, it was a Wayne Gretzky card – his 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee rookie card, graded by Professional Sports Authenticator as “Gem Mint” with a grade of “10.” The card sold for $1.29 million, which included a 20-percent buyer’s premium, by Heritage Auctions. The exact same card was sold back in 2011 for $94,162 and again in 2016 for $465,000. “Gretzky is popular because he’s considered one of the all-time greats,” said Chris Ivy, director of the sports category for Heritage Auctions. “Guys like Gretzky in hockey, Michael Jordan and LeBron James in basketball, and Tom Brady and Jim Brown in football are considered the absolute greats. Prices of their cards are increasing at a higher rate than other stars.”
Added Daley: “Of course, when a card sells for a million bucks and somebody’s got one at home, they feel like they’re sitting on a gold mine. That brought a lot of interest back into the hobby. I sense there might be a little bit of a levelling off period right now, but it’s been quite a ride for many shops.”
The next card to break the record for most expensive hockey card was another Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie card, also graded a 10 by PSA but this time selling for $3.75 million (including buyer’s premium) in a private sale brokered by Heritage Auctions in May 2021. “This is a pure market,” said Ivy. “This is supply and demand. More people got involved in sports-card collecting, viewing it as an alternative asset class, and started investing in it, as opposed to more traditional investments. People are paying prices that we would have considered unfathomable two or three years ago.”
Other players whose rookie cards have surged in value over the past two years include Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, even more so as the latter gets closer to setting the all-time goal-scoring record. “Ovechkin’s rookie cards have jumped in value as people started thinking he could break Gretzky’s record,” said Mueller. “The chase for that record could trickle down to the rest of the market. When a guy chases a record, people look a little deeper into the sport and ask who else is on that list of top goal-scorers. Once they see the excitement in the chase for the record, the interest expands to other players.”
One area of the hobby that wasn’t thriving were sports-card conventions, with social-distancing rules and indoor-capacity limitations making shows impossible.
The annual National Sports Collectors Convention, the largest card show in the world, was scheduled to take place at the Atlantic City Convention Center in New Jersey in July 2020, then was postponed to December, then ultimately canceled. Coincidentally, the Convention Center was temporarily converted into a COVID field hospital.
Up in Canada, the twice-annual Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto, unofficially known as North America’s biggest hockey collectibles show, had to cancel three times. “I joked that show promoters were the only people in the sports-card hobby not making money during the pandemic,” said Steve Menzie, owner and president of the Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo. “Obviously, so much of the hobby had exploded. Based on what was happening in the hobby, there was a lot of demand to buy at a show. But my dealers had no easy and obvious outlet.”
Unable to hold his show in May 2020, November 2020 or May 2021, Menzie created the Virtual Sport Card Expo using a platform called Hopin, a “Zoom-like” service built for online conferences and conventions. While it could not replace the in-person experience of going to a card show, dealers and collectors were able to meet virtually to buy and sell trading cards, a sign of the times the world was now living in. Collectors could also meet retired players like Bobby Hull and Bernie Parent and get autographed items mailed to them. The first Virtual Expo was held in June 2020, with subsequent Virtual Expos in November 2020 and June 2021. All three shows attracted a combined 10,000 attendees. “It wasn’t a huge financial success,” said Menzie, “but I learned a lot and got a lot of new people exposed to the Expo. Over 50 percent of the attendees were from the U.S. Many have never been to my in-person shows.”
After the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in early 2021, smaller card shows around North America gradually returned. But the next major turning point for the industry was the National Sports Collectors Convention, which came back with a five-day show in Chicago in July 2021. “For the last couple of years, we’ve averaged about 50,000 attendees over the course of five days,” said Ray Schulte, director of media relations for the National. “This one in Chicago was way north of 50,000. We had a really strong show. You could tell that the industry was about to take another leap forward, based on the number of people who attended the show.”
According to Schulte, the 2021 National had its second-largest attendance, only eclipsed by the 1991 National, held during the height of the original sports-card boom. Roughly 65 percent of those who came to the 2021 National were first-time attendees.
A few months later, Menzie was able to finally hold the Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in November 2021 – his first in-person show in two years. “We had over 10,000 attendees, and I’m super happy with that,” he said. “I didn’t do any advertising because I wasn’t sure if the show was going to happen. And as it turned out, I didn’t need to advertise. There was enough social buzz from the community that filled the place up.”
Menzie followed up the Toronto Fall Expo with a new Edmonton-based Expo in April, another Toronto Expo in June, and has already started planning the next Fall Expo for November 2022. South of the border, New Jersey will get another shot at the National. The Atlantic City Convention Center is no longer a COVID field hospital and will host the 2022 National at the end of July.
Despite the surge in popularity, card companies could not keep up with the demand for cards.
The reignited interest may have been caused by COVID, but COVID also resulted in production problems. Factory shutdowns and employee turnover led to defects, delays and even cancellations of some products. “The production issues are real for everybody,” said Masherah. “And it’s been abysmal. It’s disappointing for us because when the pandemic first hit, we were actually doing pretty well, and as time went on, the issues compounded. It’s frustrating for our staff.”
COVID-19 outbreaks in facilities that print Upper Deck cards and shortages of materials used in production decreased output. Since company reps weren’t allowed in the factories, quality checks couldn’t be routinely administered, leading to issues such as miscut or misprinted cards and poor collation. “The shortage of workers, the cost of new workers and material shortages have delayed products longer than I ever expected,” said Masherah. “We’re going to have some products that are a year late when everything is said and done. It’s bad.”
Even COVID-19 tests caused delays. The rapid tests that the U.S. government gave out for free used the same cardstock as trading cards, slowing down the production of new cards.
Normally, 2021-22 Upper Deck Series One hockey cards would have been out by November – just in time for the Fall Expo and the holiday shopping season. But problems postponed the set’s release.
The pandemic has also affected smaller card companies, such as President’s Choice Trading Cards and Leaf Trading Cards. Both specialize in high-end, limited-edition cards that have either a piece of game-used memorabilia (such as a piece of stick or jersey) embedded into the card, an autograph from the pictured player or both. Although neither company has a license from the NHL or NHLPA, they can make cards of players as long as they do not use any team logos. “Our business has been significantly reduced during the pandemic due to restrictions imposed on our employees and the supplies needed to make new cards,” said Brian Price, founder and president of President’s Choice Trading Cards. “The products we did make were successful, as collectors were buying more cards. But (COVID) has slowed down our ability to make new products.”
Added Gregg Kohn, vice-president of product development at Leaf Trading Cards: “The pandemic definitely slowed us down. We could still build and conceptualize products. The problem is getting someone that could cut up the memorabilia to put on cards, and some of the components we need to make cards were in short supply because of the pandemic. But we probably came out a little better than other companies because we’re smaller and a little more limber. We probably pivot a little quicker.”
One power play made by Leaf during the pandemic was the reintroduction of an old favorite. In August 2021, Leaf launched Pro Set Memories, the first series of Pro Set hockey cards available since 1992. The set was successful enough for Leaf to release a follow-up Pro Set Memories set in December 2021. “When we acquired the Pro Set name, we knew it was going to resonate,” said Kohn. “And it blew up. One of the sets that people were nostalgic for was Pro Set, with all the errors, variations and the cool vibe of the 1990s. With all the craziness going on in the world right now, people like to look back and feel nostalgic.”
A Promising Future
The COVID-19 pandemic may be far from over, but card companies have adapted and seem ready to meet the newfound demand. “We’ve doubled our full-time employees because our capacity has gone through the roof,” said Kohn. “All our sports-card products, not just hockey, have gone crazy. We had to bring in more people because the demand has been like we’ve never seen before. I’ve worked in this industry for 18 years and have never seen anything like this.”
Another twist that blindsided the industry was when Fanatics – a major online retailer of licensed sports apparel – acquired the trading-card licenses from the NBA, NFL and MLB in the summer of 2021. The company then acquired the Topps Trading Card Company in January 2022 to operate as its trading-card division.
Fanatics was expected to make a bid for the licenses with the NHL and NHLPA to lock up the exclusive card licenses for all four major North American sports leagues. That didn’t happen, as both the NHL and NHLPA decided to extend their current deals with Upper Deck. “We were under no pressure to change licensees,” said Marty McQuaig, senior manager of licensing for the NHLPA. “We are in the middle of our contract with Upper Deck and are very happy with the job they are doing. It didn’t feel like there was a need for a change right now.”
Upper Deck will continue to make cards licensed by the NHL and NHLPA for the foreseeable future. The company will also release a set of licensed hockey NFTs on a new platform called Evolution. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a type of unique digital artwork that uses blockchain technology to be bought and sold. And Upper Deck started making physical and digital trading cards for the Premier Hockey Federation – formerly known as the National Women’s Hockey League – in January.
Although speculating in sports cards has driven the industry to new highs, Masherah believes that it will be the true collectors – and not investors – who will continue to push the popularity of hockey cards in the future.
“What’s driving other sports more than hockey is people coming in just to make a dollar,” he said. “They don’t really care about collecting per se. They just see an opportunity to make money. And that creates a lot of artificial demand and artificial value. They’re dabbling in hockey, but not the way they’re investing in other sports. I’m very optimistic that the trend we’re seeing in hockey and the growth we’re seeing in collecting is more of a long-term curve than what we’re seeing in other sports.”
Daley agrees. “I’ve never sold anyone a card as an investment,” he said. “I always tell people to buy what they like and what they can afford. It’s a great diversion from the many worries and troubles we have in our life today. To me, it’s a way of people connecting with athletes they admire. If you look at it from that aspect and just enjoy it for what it is, we’ll have a good industry for a long, long time.”