By Sean McCafferty aka 30ranfordfan

For the first time in a long time, there is some debate over what exactly constitutes a “Rookie Card”. That’s right. One of the manufacturers has done a little bit of thinking outside the box, and created cards that some collectors consider to be “true RCs” but others aren’t so sure. Kudos to Upper Deck, for at least making us think. With the end of their 5 year Exclusive deal, it was forced to make a choice as to which products they would continue and which ones they would end. With over 15 releases last year, Upper Deck needed to trim it down to 11 this season. One of the more notable sets to get the axe: Ice.

Ice took a lot of criticism over the years. Many boxes returned only a fraction of the value people spent on them. The rookie subset was always bloated, with many common players that never had more than a cup of coffee in the NHL. What Ice always was though, was something unique when stacked up with Upper Deck’s other products. It’s acetate cards were always very astatically pleasing, even if not many of them were ever worth much. When it came to the big name Rookies each year though?? The Ice Premiers, numbered to 99 copies, have been some of the most popular Rookie Cards to be released each season. Many hobbyists were disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t be made for 2010-11.

Upper Deck though, in a stroke of creativity, found a way to rectify this. Instead of scratching the brand, they’ve reinvented it. Ice will not be released like a normal product, but instead it’s being included as a ‘Bonus Pack’ on other products. With the release of Black Diamond, the flow of Ice Premieres has begun. With SPx, more will follow soon. This begs the question though: Should we, the hobby, accept these cards as true Rookie Cards? The generally accepted definition of a rookie card has been that it is the first licensed issue from a major manufacturer that is widely distributed. It needs to be part of regular set (not an insert) in the sense that it follows the same numbering pattern as the base set. Many rookies in this modern era are short printed, but they are an extension of a base set. In the Early 2000s, an arbitrary minimum of 99 copies was also added as a requirement, after Pacific released supposed rookie cards numbered to a player’s jersey.

Beckett, the hobby’s leading publisher & most read price guide, can have a big influence. It was Beckett that decided those Pacific rookies were not “true RCs” because of how limited they were. Beckett has also left the ‘RC’ tag of the 2010-11 Ice Premieres. Clearly their editors feel that these Ice cards do not fit the accepted definition of a true Rookie Card. Beckett leaving the tag off the cards hasn’t hurt their immediate sale value. This year’s hottest rookie – Taylor Hall – is topping out at well over $500 in early eBay sales. The exclusion of the RC tag by Beckett though, has some people wondering what the long term value of these cards will be. The normally very popular Ice Premieres always remain one of the hottest selling rookie cards for years after the cards debut.  My take? True rookie card or not, the cards will be sought after for a long time. They’re exceptionally limited, and very unique (when stacked up against every other product on the market). I do, however, think Beckett has it right. These cards shouldn’t be considered true rookie cards. To me, Ice has been turned into a massive Insert set, spread across multiple products. I don’t say this as a criticism, I simply state it as what seems very obvious to me. Ice is inserted, via a bonus pack, into boxes of Black Diamond. In the coming months, we’ll see the same method of distribution in boxes of SPx.

We cannot go out and buy a box of Ice. The single packs don’t even read “Ice”. They’re labelled “Black Diamond Bonus Pack”. Most importantly, Upper Deck has been licensed for 11 products releases this year. That means a maximum of 11 rookie cards per player (and 10 when you consider that UD Series 1 & 2 are just extensions of each other). The same thing goes for Panini – 11 releases, that’s it. The most common reasoning behind collectors’ insistence that these should, in fact be rookie cards, is that there is a base set in addition to the rookies. They fall into a sequentially numbered set (1-105, maybe bigger?) so that makes them regular cards. Fortunately there’s several sets from the last 15 years that set precedent saying otherwise.1994-95 Upper Deck SP. It was inserted into Upper Deck packs. None of the eligible rookies are considered to be true rookie cards. With a 180 card set, all with regular looking numbers, this is just as much of as base set as this year’s Ice. For the 1997-98 season, Pacific added an extra 110 card set to their Dynagon product, called “Best Kept Secrets”. Again, none of the cards of the RC eligible players from that season are considered to be Rookie Cards. Pacific also did their “Pacific Complete” set. It was a cross brand issue (much like this year’s Ice) released in both 2002-03, and 2003-04. Were those Rookie Cards? Nope. Again, none of the eligible rookies are considered to be true rookie cards. The other case that has been citied is the Victory Update cards released inside packs of Upper Deck Series 2 since the 05-06 season. These should obviously be looked at in a different light. Victory is an early season release, and Upper Deck later releases an update set for them. Instead of making an entire release devoted to them, they keep the set small and include it in those Series 2 packs. I’m afraid we’re heading down a dangerous path here.

While it’s perfectly fine for the hobby to accept these Ice Rookie Premiers as very desirable, big money cards from the 2010-11 season – if the masses do consider them to truly be rookie cards, where is this path going to lead? How many more releases, inside releases, are we going to get? Could the popular Black Rookie Lettermen make a comeback as a bonus card, inside a bonus pack, inside another release? What about the Hot Prospects Auto-Rookie-Patches? Sweet Shot’s Sweet Beginnings? Maybe each release could have its own bonus release inside of it?

The whole point to limiting the number of releases for each manufacturer, is to limit the amount of product in the hobby. With a maximum of 22 total releases, we should be insured that there will be a maximum of 22 different rookie cards for any given player. The idea is to ensure collectability – because making it easy to own an limited rookie card of a player, is a sure way to make certain that its long term value is minimal. If Taylor Hall is inducted into the Hall of Fame in 30 years, how hard will his rookie cards ever really be to get a hold of. I don’t even want to include the cheaper brands (Victory, OPC, Score) but just look at the mid-range & premium ones. Some will have copies in the thousands, some will have copies in the hundreds. Some will be limited to 99 copies. The more brands that there are out there, the lower future demand will always be.

I don’t think that 1 extra RC, with 99 copies, is going to put things over that edge, but it will start us down what could become a very slippery slope. What do I think will happen with these Ice Premieres? There are an awful lot of collectors spending an awful lot of money on them. They will all very much disagree with both my assessment of these cards, and that of Beckett. Beckett, as it’s their job to report hobby trends (not set them) will eventually cave into collector’s insistence that these be classified as Rookie Cards. The most recent, and obvious, example was Sidney Crosby’s McDonald’s card from 2005-06. Food issues had never been considered rookie cards, but Beckett received too many calls for them to make an exception, they really had to do it.Collectors expecting these cards to be classified as Rookies probably have nothing to fear. I just hope I’m being paranoid, and we haven’t opened Pandora’s Box. We haven’t given manufacturers a way to flush any value out of Rookie cards, like they’ve already done to Inserts, Game Used, and Autographed cards.