Should Rules Governing Rookie Cards Be Changed?
By RGM81 aka Richard McAdam
It has happened to all of us, either directly or vicariously through watching someone break a box of the latest product. We have all experienced at one time or another that terrible feeling that creeps up the back of your head when you come to the
realization that you have pulled a bunch of dud rookies from your break. While not every box break has an A-level pull like a Steven Stamkos or a Taylor Hall, there are just too many breaks where people pull nothing higher than a B-minus rookie and all too often that may be a generous grade. We can argue that it is the luck of the draw, we all know what we are getting into with a box break, all those other cliché statements, but really the problem boils down to there simply being too many rookie cards in every product.
The reason this issue exists is due to the lax regulations enforced by the NHL and the Players Association. Currently, all that is required for a player to receive a rookie card is for him to play in a single NHL game; for goaltenders, they simply have to dress and sit on the end of the bench as the back-up goalie. A player can play one shift of an NHL regular season game, and he is eligible to be inserted into every single product for that year’s card releases. This rule is absurd.
Envision a scenario, if you will, whereby a player plays in 3 NHL games in late 2009 because he is an injury call-up and the team needs to have a warm body to fill a spot on the fourth line. Over the course of the three games he logs a combined 13:10 TOI, is -2, and has 0 shots on goal, and is soon returned to his AHL team where he remains for the rest of the year. He spends the entire 2010-11 campaign with the AHL team. That player had 10 rookie cards in 2010-11 products, starting as early as Victory but going as late as Ultimate Collection, and along the way his SP Authentic RC was an autographed card and he also had the auto-patch parallel. At the end of the season, the club does not renew his contract and he finds work with another team.
The above scenario is not hypothetical; it is based off of the experience of a prospect who is projected to have a potential ceiling of being a third-line NHL player. This prospect played for a very popular team which also had an incredibly popular rookie in 2010-11 products. How many collectors’ eyes lit up seeing that logo thinking, “It’s the big one!” only to see a very different face and name that elicits a “Who?” response? I am not trying to denigrate the player or show him any disrespect, but the very notion of including a player such as this in mid-to-high end products is borderline insulting to collectors. A case hit of a rookie player should be considered desirable by collectors, a card that will fetch a decent return should it be put on the owner’s tradelist. While there is pretty much a market for every player on every team these days, sometimes you have to look really, really, REALLY hard to find someone to take a card such as the one described above off your hands.
The hockey card hobby market is driven by rookie cards. Every autumn, we gear up in the hopes of pulling Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, John Tavares, and Taylor Hall calibre RCs. They are the primary sellers of nearly every product, whether it’s a beautiful Young Guns, a superb Crown Royale Rookie Silhouette, or of course the supreme gem: the /99 hard-signed auto patch in The Cup or Dominion. Sure the current and retired superstars of the NHL and their signatures and game-worn memorabilia help sell some extra product, but the big hunt is for the rookie cards. There is a very good reason that 2005-06 products are still so highly priced and so fun to break, and it is all due to the possibility of hitting the Crosby, Ovechkin, Lundqvist, (or in this weirdo author’s case, Gorges) RC that totally justifies the higher price of the boxes.
I have no major issue with the current milieu in which the rookie card reigns supreme. People want them, and that is just fine. I got back into the hobby at a time when the hottest card on the market was any number of Carey Price rookie cards. When a player can burst on the scene at a young age and take over the NHL, it is great for the marketing of the game to the people. Kids grow up emulating these fellow youngsters and it helps them get into the hobby. The game and the hobby benefit from having exciting, young, marketable, and personable talents.
What I do have an issue with is how over-the-top simple it becomes to be licensed to print a rookie card. The scenario illustrated above exemplifies my issue with rookie cards. Too many players that will likely never establish themselves as full-time NHL players get massive amounts of cardboard dedicated to them. Another case in point: I recently broke a box of 2007-08 Upper Deck Series 2. The product contains 6 Young Guns, many of which are mid-season call-ups with the occasional top gun held over from Series 1, and one Rookie Materials jersey card. Three of these 7 hits are of full-time NHL players, one just became a full-timer in 2010-11, and the other three? One is looking to be a career AHL’er, one played 16 games before bolting to the KHL, and the other (who really has haunted many of my breaks) played 11 NHL games and is now in the Finnish League. It could certainly have been worse, as it could have been a much more high-end product that only has 1 RC in it and said RC could have been one of those three guys.
When the rule was made that a player had to suit up for an NHL game, it did many people a big favour. Previously, there was nothing governing RC designations, so you would see guys that had played for the Latvians at the World Junior Championship getting cards made and being considered rookie cards. It is a true anomaly to see a Jarome Iginla RC being from 1994-95 even though he did not play an NHL regular season game until 1996-97. The market is better off today for that change having been made. Now, to further aid the market, it is time to go to another step for instituting a minimum games played guideline for rookie cards to be made by Upper Deck and Panini.
This is the difficult question: What should that number be? Should it be set at the same number that the NHL allows clubs to use young players before sending them back to their junior club without using a year of contract eligibility? Nine games seems a reasonable number. If Ryan Nugent-Hopkins gets a nine-game tryout in 2011-12 and is then returned to the Red Deer Rebels, would it necessarily be a bad thing to hold off on issuing the usual torrent of rookie cards until 2012-13? If he will not be seen for the remainder of the 11-12 campaign, how much sense does it truly make to have him as the featured rookie card for an entire year? In my view, this change would benefit the hobby to a great extent.
There are, of course, problems associated with making a change from one game to nine games as the rule for making rookie cards. Early season releases would have to be held back while the manufacturers wait to see whether their projected checklists can move forward to production. Instead of being able to release the fresh Young Guns in early November, Upper Deck would have to wait until later in the month, or perhaps even into early December to wait and see which rookie accrued the nine games required. The disruption could also affect planning for the high-end releases that come out at the end of the hobby season. We know that a product such as The Cup is in the early development stage within weeks of the season starting. New rules would present new challenges and logistical issues for the companies that compel them to alter their planning involving rookie cards.
This new process could have a great benefit in that it would force the companies to devote more time to promoting the veteran stars of the game and their cards. Currently there are products where rookie cards are not the main focus; what if they were dropped entirely from some sets? If you could no longer get a non-auto’d, non-memorabilia rookie card in SP Game Used, but the actual game-used memorabilia hit content was upped substantially, would that not make for a better product? I have often written about the potential for a company to make a “super set” that combines the best elements of one or more discontinued products into a single release. SPGU, often maligned by collectors for its price point and lack of ingenuity in some areas, could be a major beneficiary of such a program.
To conclude, it is my belief that we do not need to have 22 rookie cards on the market, nor do I find it a key selling point for a product to boast 200 rookie cards on the checklist. If the companies had new rules in place that restricted the opportunity to make rookie cards, we collectors would end up with stronger checklists that give us more bang for our buck. There will always be demand for RC’s, but having fewer of them out there—in terms of both the number of players and the number of sets that produce rookies—will benefit the hobby by making those RC’s that continue to be made more desirable. Limit the supply, and demand will increase accordingly. In a time where some collectors are being turned off by the glut on the market of certain cards, changing the rules may be a way to reel those collectors back into the fold.
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