By Richard McAdam aka RGM81

The beginning of the 2010-11 card season seems to have brought about a shift in thinking about parallels. It began with Upper Deck Victory and the inclusion of the rack pack exclusive Red parallels. Not since the 05-06 numbered to 5 Black parallels has there been so much interest in Victory; people were breaking the packs in bunches in the hopes of landing a superstar or top rookie, or even to do the entire parallel set. It has continued with Panini Certified. Even though some player checklists are of epic proportions there are still large numbers of collectors jumping for joy when they hit a Platinum Hot Box, and the variations in the Fabric of the Game memorabilia cards are very nice to look at, especially those featuring the Prime designation on a team with a lengthy name. It looks set to continue with Upper Deck Series One and its 20th Anniversary parallels. All of this begs the question: why now?

Hockey collectors have traditionally not been big fans of parallel cards. There are some exceptions, as one would expect, but for the most part parallels end up in dollar bins at card shows or stuck in the untradeable pile in collections. Sets such as Artifacts and SP Game Used are considered the worst offenders, featuring up to—and sometimes exceeding—50 cards for one of the more popular players in each release. For that reason these sets have been labelled “parallel hell” for player collectors, severely damaging their chances of achieving a complete set for their player and diminishing their chances of applying successfully to be recognized for their collection in the SCF Super Collector Hall of Fame. Indeed, “parallel hell” has caused many player collectors to simply throw up their hands and take their collections in new directions. At some point, it becomes a question of quality over quantity: a person can buy one really nice auto/patch card from The Cup for $50, or they can buy 10 parallels at $5 each. Many have chosen to go the route of focusing on high-end pieces to have a better visual collection at the expense of completeness, and who can blame them?

Even though parallels are popular in other sports (as anybody who followed Steven Strasburg-Mania earlier in 2010 can attest), I believe that they are less so in hockey and it comes down to two factors: one, the sheer volume of parallels in some sets; and two, the lack of ingenuity put into the parallels. When you consider a set such as Artifacts, a base card will have 5 variations: /5, /50, /10, /75, and /25. Most star players will also have a Stars subset /999 card that has 4 additional parallels: /50, /10, /75, and /25. Already you have 11 cards for that player and I have not even mentioned memorabilia and autograph subsets. What makes this so particularly frustrating is that not only are there so many, the only thing that differentiates one card from another is the foil stamping. The shiny stuff looks nice, but that’s really where the added value ends with this type of parallel. Moreover, with so many parallel sets being so similar in appearance, there is often confusion over exactly which card is which. On SCF’s Hockey Card Talk Forum, there is a reference guide for one set (2008-09 O-Pee-Chee) that has nearly 2000 views from collectors trying to discern the difference between the parallels. Because of all these factors, it is not at all uncommon to see a parallel #’d /25 go for an opening 99 cent bid on eBay.

There are parallel sets that do strike the right balance between numbers and feature enough differentiation to make pursuing the “rainbow” desirable. For a rookie collector, there is no higher objective than completing a rainbow from The Cup. O-Pee-Chee is one other that immediately springs to mind. For the last two seasons the set has featured a retro parallel that harkens back to the old days of OPC, complete with hard-to-find blank back versions, and also features a different photo than the regular base card. The Metal parallels featured in the 2008-09 Update Set were also of interest (and a source of some confusion – see above), and in all made for a nice group of seven cards to chase down from a relatively inexpensive set.

There is, then, a happy medium for collectors. So long as the numbers are kept low and the variations in the cards are interesting, parallels can be desirable and collectible. Different images, memorabilia, and autographs can give parallels that extra “oomph” and make them something hotly desired by collectors. To use one recent set as an example, Panini Certified’s tiers for the Masked Marvels goalie subset have made certain variations incredibly popular. Looking at Carey Price, the auto/jersey version /25 has sold as high as $50 while a non-auto, non-memorabilia Emerald /5 sold for only slightly less than that. Price’s other auto-memorabilia cards in Certified have eclipsed $70 in sales as well. As somebody that obviously watches the Price market very closely, I have been very surprised to see these sales – clearly the combination of Price’s on-ice play early in the 2010-11 season has a role in this, but even taking that into consideration clearly there is a high level of interest in these parallel cards that Panini created in their hockey debut that doesn’t exist in other product releases.

Does the early season interest in parallel cards bode well for the card manufacturers? After years of complaining about getting parallel on top of parallel in their breaks, are collectors coming around and embracing parallels? This seems to be the case. At the beginning of this article, I asked the question, “Why now?” I believe I have the answer. With three manufacturers producing hockey cards now, each has to go an extra mile to create cards that people want in their collections. Whereas in the past parallels have simply been something to put in the set in the hopes that they’ll catch on and entice people to chase the rainbow, they are now being used as a focal selling point. When you look at an UD 20th Anniversary parallel, it takes you back to that first UD release. When you compare your Certified Mirror Blue Materials and Mirror Red Materials you see something different beyond the foil colour. I am not predicting a universal love of parallels across all sets, as there will still be some head scratchers, but I do believe that the days of viewing releases as “parallel hell” may be more limited in scope and stature in this season and beyond.