By Richard McAdam aka RGM81

When Upper Deck released 2009-10 The Cup on October 1st, it not only brought closure to the 09-10 collecting season but also marked the end of an era. For the previous five years, Upper Deck held an exclusive license to manufacture and distribute NHL hockey cards. During this period, collectors were introduced to wildly successful products such as The Cup and the one-off Montreal Canadiens Centennial, bringing in a new wave of collectors, myself included after a 13-year hobby vacation. Every one of the rookie cards of superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Evgeni Malkin, Steven Stamkos, and John Tavares feature the distinctive UD logo. It wasn’t all sunshine and 1-of-1s, however. Collectors also had to endure years-long waiting periods for redemptions, frustrating customer service experiences, product redundancy and predictability, and numerous product delays. It was a period oddly reminiscent of the life of a government: initial enthusiasm, strong popularity, a plateau, a couple scandals, resting on laurels, lack of innovation, hostility, and calls for a massive change in scenery. By the end of the Exclusive Era, collectors were screaming for change.

Let me state plainly, as I have on many occasions in the past: I am a not pro- or anti- any manufacturer collector. I am a pro-hobby collector. If one company does something very right with a product or service, I will give them due praise. If said company also makes a painful gaffe, I will give them due criticism. My own personal experiences with Upper Deck during the Exclusive Era have been largely positive: only one redemption had to be replaced (unfortunately it was for my #2 priority player), any inquiries made on the phone or e-mail were answered fairly promptly and with a satisfactory answer, and the products that I liked, I liked a lot. The cards and products that did not interest me went largely ignored, or I may have left a small comment in the SCF Hockey Card Talk forum and moved on to the next project or set or discussion.

I have, however, seen the multitude of letdowns, disappointments, errors and grievances that my fellow hobbyists have had in their experiences. I have felt their anger when they had to request a replacement for a PC item they’d waited two years for and received a card or bunch of cards that simply did not measure. I have felt their frustrations when a product has been live for over a week and there is still no official checklist posted on the very poorly maintained Upper Deck website. It is very easy to find critiques and criticisms of Upper Deck’s performance in the past two years, which seemed to really intensify in 2010. The sheer numbers of people who stopped collecting UD products speaks volumes about their sensibilities to being treated fairly as customers. When well-known supporters (financial, verbal, and otherwise) of UD products simply throw up their hands and state that they are taking their hobby dollars elsewhere, it becomes clear that a change is needed.

This past spring there was a lot of discussion about what would happen with hockey card licensing. Who would be granted permission? Would the exclusivity be extended? Would we see a return to the days of multiple manufacturers? How many products would each be allowed to release? Would In The Game get a license? Would a new company arrive on the scene to shake things up? What direction was our beloved hobby going to take?

On March 24th, we got our answer.

“Having considered the input from all stakeholders, we have concluded that a semi-exclusive model would bring customer choice, revive legacy brands and add new and innovative products and marketing initiatives that appeal to all consumer segments,” said Dave McCarthy, Vice President of Integrated Marketing, NHL.[*]

With that announcement, Panini officially entered the hockey card market. The company had been in the hockey collectibles business for some time with its sticker sets, but this was a great leap forward for them. Panini has been involved with the other major sports for some time, producing cards in basketball, football, and baseball as well as entertainment-related releases. Some collectors were at first skeptical, noting Panini’s tendencies to create “parallel hell” for player collectors and that set designs lacked innovation. Others were enthusiastic about the announcement of Al Muir as the head of their hockey division; Muir himself has been a collector for nearly 40 years and has worked in the hobby for a long time.

In the weeks leading up to the 2010-11 season, there was a lot of buzz in the hobby community. The enthusiasm for change continued to build throughout the summer and into the change of seasons into autumn. As we got closer and closer to the first puck drop of the new campaign, Panini made a very bold decision to delay its initial release, Certified, from mid-September until mid-October. So doing would allow them to get the first rookie cards of players who debuted on opening night live into the product, scooping Upper Deck, which usually had the first releases in the staple Upper Deck Series One set with the hugely popular Young Guns. The freshman roster would include first overall draft choice Taylor Hall, his teammates Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, and Tyler Seguin. Not only would Panini get these rookies live in the product, they would also provide autographed memorabilia cards featuring sticker autos and jerseys used at the annual Rookie Photo Shoot. All this was in addition to the stable of hard-signed rookie cards of players that made their debuts late in the 2009-10 season, a roster including P.K. Subban and Nazem Kadri.

The announcement was a huge hit with collectors that have become accustomed to waiting until after Christmas for autographed/memorabilia rookie cards. Panini’s move garnered tremendous positive feelings and people began to get on board with the new licensee. The question did linger of course until release day: how would the buzz translate into sales once the product was released?

The answer came on October 20th when the SCF Hockey Pack/Box Breaks forum began to light up like a Christmas tree. Members were breaking boxes upon boxes of Certified, and many were stating very positive reviews. The “hot boxes” provided extra value and happiness. The rookies went over huge. The autograph and memorabilia content garnered positive sentiments, particularly due to some unique materials being used. After looking at some of the breaks, I noticed that the Carey Price jersey cards had swatches in them that were not the traditional deep blue of a Montreal Canadiens jersey; they seemed more reminiscent of a Colorado Avalanche jersey but there was also something familiar about them. So I posted a thread in the Panini Discussion forum inquiring as to the memorabilia’s origin, wondering if this was an error or if perhaps they had used a non-traditional jersey for the memorabilia. Within a couple hours, Al Muir responded on the forum and confirmed that the Price swatches came from a 1909-10 Centennial throwback jersey, and he further added that there would be future releases featuring other Centennial jerseys for other Canadiens players. It was also quickly noted that Panini had acquired a powder blue Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby jersey for inclusion into Certified. Secondary market sales have been very strong out of the gate and collectors are very quickly coming to decisions as to which parallel sets they want to pursue. It hasn’t been a flawless debut, as there have been a couple hiccups, but Panini has certainly gotten most of the big things right with its first hockey product release.

All of this has given Panini incredible momentum for their first foray into the hockey card market. The look and feel of the cards is notably different from Upper Deck products—that’s not a qualitative statement, and I’m not saying one is better than the other, just noting that they’re different—and the desire among collectors to go after the cards of the new guy on the scene is palpable. Will that momentum carry over into Score, Donruss, and the rest of the Panini release schedule? Time will tell.

No doubt Upper Deck is keenly aware of the buzz surrounding Panini at this time. They will certainly be jolted out of complacency and they will do all in their power to rise to the newcomer’s challenge. Upper Deck has already announced its full release schedule for the 2010-11 season, and while there are no new product lines they will be announcing new subsets and taking bold steps to pump up these products to new heights of interest and collectability. Chris Carlin has stated that there will be a number of interesting side releases throughout the year, among them a special Toronto Maple Leafs-themed set to coincide with the Toronto Fall Expo, and the third year of release for the popular National Hockey Card Day set. Upper Deck has long prided itself as being the leading manufacturer of sports cards, and they have shown their intentions to retain that title in the face of new competition.

For collectors, the new era in the hobby, which can really only best be defined for the time being as the “post-Exclusive era,” is a welcome injection of enthusiasm. Collectors have to learn all about Panini and their products and what they bring to the table, and they seem to be enjoying learning on the fly. They are intensely interested to see what Upper Deck will do to remain the best. They can still look to In The Game to provide a viable and bang-for-your-buck alternative. For a long time now, collectors have wanted greater choice in their hockey card products. That has been delivered. Collectors now have three legitimate, credible, and interesting options to spend their hobby dollars, and it seems that no matter which way they turn they will be rewarded. A new day has arrived in the hobby, and it is one that promises to be filled with excitement for collectors.