By Sean McCafferty aka 30Ranfordfan

I need to give big props to all three of the manufacturers. Trying to pick my favourite from 2011 was tough. Not only have all three manufacturers pumped out several products I really liked, but there’s still more to come (so I entirely reserve the right to change my mind once everything has been released).

Upper Deck has a dual release every year that I very much look forward to. Upper Deck Series 1 & 2. For me it’s become my standard set to build each season. With 50 Young Guns Rookie Cards in each series, it’s enough of a challenge to build that I don’t get bored. It’s also not so tough that I need to spend thousands of dollars, or multiple seasons piecing it together. Combine that with the 20+ year legacy of this release, and I’m sure there isn’t a whole lot that could happen to stop it from being my favourite.

Taylor Hall Retro & Jordan Eberle Young Guns

The bonuses with UD Series 1 & 2 are also really nice. The Hockey Heroes insert set is another aspect of these releases whose history goes back to the 91-92 Brett Hull set. The retro parallels this year were also a big winner, in my opinion. Featuring unique photos (compared to the regular issue) but with a design like Upper Deck’s inaugural release in 90-91. Throw in a healthy dose of Game Used, and the odd autograph, to stock my traders – and UD Series 1 & 2 are great products.

Upper Deck has obviously released a lot more sets than just those two. After kicking the year off with Victory, they moved onto Artifacts. This season’s release marked a return of my all-time favourite player, Bill Ranford, to one of Upper Deck’s memorabilia sets. He was featured on a Tundra Tandems dual game used card, with former teammate Bernie Nicholls.

Ranford & Nicholls Tundra Tandems Patch /15

The season has rolled on with Black Diamond, SP Game Used, SPx, SP Authentic, and OPC. They’re different products, meant to appeal to different people. I’ve been chasing a few singles from across those releases, but none of them have ever really appealed to me as a set to collect. Ultimate Collection and The Cup (their two premium sets yet to be released) fall into the same category. Way out of my price range, and not enough stuff that I’m really interested in.

Then there’s the new kid on the block. Panini. They hit the ground running with two very successful releases in Certified, and Score.

Certified saw the release of the first in-pack rookie cards of many of this year’s best star rookies, and it put Jersey / Auto Rookie Cards into collector’s hands almost as soon as the puck dropped at the beginning of the season. Cards like this normally don’t appear until January.

Yzerman Certified Mirro Gold /25

Score was a huge hit with collectors. With a low price point, it was a cheap break. It also had tough to pull short printed rookies, and featured “recollection” autographs. These were cards from the original score release in 90-91, but signed by the player and stamped with a numbering out of 5.

Donruss seemed to get a luke-warm reception from collectors. Maybe it’s the lack of history (compared to Upper Deck Series 1) but it was very comparable to its Upper Deck counterpart, while getting only a fraction of the hobby love. It also wasn’t without controversy. I know I’ve read multiple posts, complaining about the inclusion of non-hockey player inserts with their “Fans of the Game” cards. They featured celebrities who are also hockey fans, and had autographed versions. I suspect anyone who complained didn’t have the good fortune of pulling one of these, because I can tell you all that a Justin Beiber autograph is a great pull. It may not have lasted in my collection for very long, but it certainly provided a nice return on investment.

Justin Bieber Fans of the Game Autograph

With Crown Royal, Panini release what may be some of the nicest looking rookie cards we’ve ever seen. Their Rookie Silhouettes have been a smashing success. Crown Royal also included a particular autograph I hadn’t seen in a while: Bill Ranford. It may still be a pending redemption, but I made sure to grab one for my collection.

With Contenders, Limited, and Pinnacle, Panini has had some other nice releases, but ones that I was never too excited about. I was never a big Limited or Pinnacle guy when the sets were around in the 1990s, and with very little knowledge about cards from other sports – the appeal of Contenders (I guess?) just hasn’t reached me yet. With Luxury Suite, Zenith, and Dominion – I’m hoping Panini can score with a few more releases.

This leaves me with my choice as manufacturer of the year: In The Game.
In the game gets the nod from me, because they’ve given me the most of what I want: Bill Ranford.

Maybe it was just a lucky year for me, or maybe all those posts I made asking for it actually did something. Solicit collectors for requests? Crazy talk.

You see, In The Game is forced to run its company a little differently than the other two manufacturers: They don’t have an NHL or NHLPA license. Since the NHL returned from the lockout of 2004-05, it’s forced them into an unenviable corner.

The result has been interesting.

In The Game has been forced to find something they do well, and stick to it. What’s that? Two things. Niche Products, and Game Used.

Their annual releases of Heroes and Prospects, and Between The Pipes, are two very popular ones in the hobby. H&P features mostly up-and-coming players from the AHL, CHL, and Overseas (along with a few legends sprinkled in) while BTP is an all-goalie release.

These two are in addition to what has become ITG’s signature product: Ultimate Memorabilia. ‘UM’ (as it’s often referred to) is simply the best product on the market for fans of game used cards. There’s no photo-shoot jersey in there, just authentic game used materials. Loaded with autographs too.

ITG BTP Goalie Goalies Ranford. 2 Black, 3 Silver, 1 Gold

Due to not having a license, it does mean that you won’t see any NHL logos on their cards. It limits their ability to use action shots (just a lot of head shots instead) but if you’re looking to buy cards for the memorabilia logged inside them, this annual release is where it’s at.

There most recent release, Decades: 1980s, is loaded with Game Used and Autographed cards from many players that we don’t see show up in sets very often, including autographs from the entire Miracle On Ice team. Canada vs The World is set to come out later this year.

For me though, what really sets them apart is their drive to please the customer.

Company President, Dr. Brian Price, has developed a habit of soliciting the online community for who they’d like to see included in ITG sets. Having read the responses to such requests on Sportscardforum (and other hobby sites) along with posting my own requests – I have to believe that collectors are being listened to. Many of the requests I see in those threads end up being fulfilled.

With the main focus of my collection being the previously mentioned Bill Ranford, my choice for manufacturer of the year comes down to a very simple piece of criteria: Who gave me the most of what I wanted? The answer was In The Game. While the other manufacturers included him in one set each (either as a single card, or a single card with parallels) ITG included Ranford in three different sets (UM10, BTP, 80s – with two different cards in BTP, plus parallels in all three) and their ‘sister company’ also included him as part of their Famous Fabrics: Inked Edition.

If that wasn’t enough, ITG still offers what are probably the coolest cards of all time: Made To Order.

The Ultimate in Redemption Cards

These redemption cards are very tough to pull, but if you can get your hands on one they’ll offer what can only be described as the ultimate hit: A memorabilia card of your choosing. Pick the player(s) and they’ll make you a custom 1/1 card. I was lucky enough to get one as part of a group break I was part of at the Spring Expo. When I finally receive my Bill Ranford / Georges Vezina dual game used card, you can be sure I’ll have a new favourite.

The 2010-11 seasons has seen a lot of really nice releases from all three manufactures. I’m looking forward to seeing what the last few releases bring, and definitely looking forward to next year.