The Growing Field of Hockey Memorabilia, and How to Begin Collecting
By Erica Lome
Ice Hockey is reaching new levels of popularity in the United States, thanks to a mixture of the Olympic Games, exciting Stanley Cup wins, and emerging hockey market fanbases. While hockey memorabilia seldom receives as much recognition as other, more mainstream American sports, for the die-hard fan or general enthusiast, collecting hockey can in fact be both an enjoyable and valuable pursuit.
A stick, jersey, or game program passed down through generations, provides a wealth of possibility, particularly for collectors who focus on one team in particular.
Game-worn jerseys, signed or unsigned, are extremely valuable due to their un-pristine appearance. Authenticity is generally determined through a number of criteria, mainly the sweat (and sometimes blood) left behind from games. Keeping an eye out for black marks (created from the tape on the opposing players sticks), board burns, tears and holes, pilling and fraying can end up making your piece more valuable than a signed replicated jersey. Knowing what jersey you have is important too, as teams generally issue a number of types for different occasions, including training camp, preseason, or team-issued but never worn.
A game-worn wool jersey used by Bill Barilko during the Toronto Maple Leaf’s 1950-51 Stanley Cup-winning season just sold for over $37,000 through Classic Auctions, and paraphernalia from one of the Original Six teams (The Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs) provide greater and perhaps more appeal for those interested in the history of the sport. With many of these Original Six teams returning to form in the NHL, collecting is primed to transition to newer generations who are just now getting involved with the sport. With their recent Stanley Cup win, the Blackhawks are one of the teams to invest in collectibles, as their status is only going to grow. Historical paraphernalia, such as the recently sold Earl Siebert Chicago Black Hawks game-worn jersey from circa 1944-45, fetched $22,987 at Classic Auctions. Vintage hockey gear, from before regulations necessitated a upgrade to more safety-conscious equipment, is also aesthetically pleasing and harkens back to another era of sporting removed from what we know today. Sweaters, goalie masks, and taped up wooden sticks make for great pieces around the house that add decorative flair.
Certainly American collectors will gravitate towards pieces associated with important moments in USA hockey history, or with a player whose reputation transcends nationality. Heritage Auctions recently sold team captain Mike Eruzione’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game won jersey and winning goal stick for $920,000. Anything associated with this legendary team is guaranteed to realize high value.
Collectors also like to focus on one specific player, tracking his career through memorabilia. If the player is high-profile, like “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky, this may be extremely difficult. Recently, a stick used by Gretzky on his 1,000 goal at the age of 13 in 1974 sold for $38,838. Gretzy is, of course, legendary in the hockey world, and anything associated with his storied career is worth a look, alongside titans of the sport like Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Brett Hull or Maurice Richard.
Many of these high-ticket items come attached with a story of acquisition, which is often tied up with childhood memories and games. For collectors just starting out, particularly in America, presumably not every attic or yard sale is going to yield a hockey treasure. Yet active and former players are becoming savvy with the auction world, seeing valuable opportunities to raise money or charity or merely to divest themselves of too much equipment. This attributes, according to auction specialists, to an increase of memorabilia on the market. And with the sport becoming more accessible and popular even in non-hockey market communities, this is a trend they see continuing into the future.
But selecting an active player whose record shows potential for a future Hall of Fame career might pay off in the long run. Once-in-a-generation talent like Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Alexander Ovechkin (Washington Capitals), and Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) regularly sign sticks, hockey cards, and pucks. Acquiring these, either at games, conventions, or through eBay, is a solid investment. Signed gear by important players can be realized for over a thousand dollars at auction, making it relatively easy to begin building a collection around a few nice pieces.
While not everyone can get their hands on a signed Gretzky stick or a Mario Lemieux jersey, a flourishing community of hockey card collectors provides crossover appeal with other paper memorabilia enthusiasts.
Vintage cards, of course, capture the nostalgia of great hockey dynasties. But it’s not all baby boomers doing the collecting – young people have been buying packs with more frequency, looking for rare and valuable inserts they can then “flip” for quadruple their price. Even more limited are the special “game used” sets, which often contain pieces of material from worn jerseys or equipment. The majority of people in this community do their deals online, and eBay is a popular destination for people looking to sell Upper Deck Series cards, with more recent packs including materials from Stanley Cup Finals, Stadium Series and Winter Classics. Geoff Conolly, owner of the sports card shop Clouts n Chara in Kitchener, Ontario, notes that the hobby store is still a great way to meet other collectors and learn tips of the trade, particularly for younger generation starting out.
He also speculated that the recent increase in popularity is due in part to the hype around emerging talents such as recent draft pick Connor McDavid (rumored to be the next Great One). “Whenever there is a generational player in our industry it most definitely opens the eyes of a lot of new collectors. It is still a niche hobby but we have noticed over the last 4-5 years that more and more 15-30 collectors are emerging whereas before the average age group was in the 40-50’s age group.”
Generally, rookie cards yield the most value over time, and keeping track of new players in the NHL is a good way to determine which guys will stick around. Beckett Hockey Card Price Guides and the Beckett website is a good resource for beginners looking to get the lay of the land.
At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of personal preference. Hockey memorabilia is a small field in this country, but its fan-base is one of the more devoted and loyal, whose love of the game is often tied to family and hometown pride. Dealers, collectors, and traders will be more than happy to explain the history of an item in painstaking detail, as though recalling the exploits of a good friend. And with hockey becoming more accessible to American consumers, the time is ripe to take a peek into this niche within the sports memorabilia field.
Erica P. Lome holds an MA in Design History from the Bard Graduate Center, and will be attending a PhD Program in American History from the University of Delaware. She is also an avid hockey fan and aspiring collector.