by Richard McAdam aka RGM81

Player collectors are a fun breed of hobbyist. As a collector of two current NHL players, I can readily attest to this. The endless scouring through eBay for good deals, waiting for months to track down that shockingly hard-to-find numbered-out-of-one-hundred parallel, and numerous searches through fellow collectors’ trade and sales threads at SCF are but three of the symptoms of being a player collector. In addition to these practices, there is one other special ritual that we perform roughly twenty-two times each hockey season: whenever a new product release’s checklist is posted on the manufacturer’s official website, we do a search for our player to see what is included in the latest card set.

Depending on the release and the player involved, there will be one of a small handful of instant responses by the player collector when he finishes scouring that checklist. If the release is a parallel-heavy set, and the player is a superstar with a considerable hobby following, the response tends to be one of dread at the thought of tracking down another thirty cards or more for the collection. If the player is a mid-level star or a rookie, the collector will usually be pretty content to see a small assortment that includes an autograph and/or memorabilia card inserted along with the main card. These are the most common responses; individual responses will vary. Some star player collectors do enjoy the thrill of the chase, so seeing Sidney Crosby’s name fifty times is not always a hair-pulling inducing event.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the mega-star collectors, you have the niche player collector. This is the person that collects a 3rd line centre, a 2nd pairing defenceman, or a journeyman goalie. His reaction at the mere sight of his player’s name on the checklist is generally one of unadulterated joy. For you see, this vision is not a common occurrence. In a hobby that has consolidated many 100-card base card checklists to include 2-3 players per team, there is not a strong demand for the lunch pail players to be included. That statement is doubly true when it comes to autograph and memorabilia content. When collectors are paying top dollar for their products, pulling a “scrub” at the exclusion of an Alexander Ovechkin is for many a frustrating experience. But for the niche player collector, just knowing that there are new cards to chase is an equally happy moment.

My largest player collection (PC) is that of Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price. He is the guy that everybody would be happy to have pulled out of their box break. He is in every set, and he has many cards in every set. I take great joy in adding new cards to my collection, even as the collection approaches the 400 unique cards mark. It is still an amazing amount of fun to pursue his newest releases; it has not gotten old to go after yet another autograph or yet another dual memorabilia card that also features legendary Habs netminder Patrick Roy. I truly enjoy collecting Carey Price cards.

But in some ways, I almost enjoy collecting a niche player even more. My secondary PC is that of Carey’s teammate, defenceman Josh Gorges. Beyond his debut year in 2005-06, it has been a rare event for him to be featured in any product. Indeed, in 2008-09 he did not even have a card in O-Pee-Chee. In a set featuring 800 cards, they could not find a way to work in Josh Gorges. However, in the past year or so people have started to take notice of Gorges and his on-ice play. He does not put up offensive numbers, but he and Hal Gill earned tremendous accolades for their superlative work efforts last spring in shutting down Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He is the Canadiens’ current iron man, having played in nearly 150 consecutive games, a span which includes a scary evening last season when he took a Mike Green slap shot in the back of the head. Below is what the puck did to Josh’s helmet. Josh played the next game, but the puck has not been seen since.

Josh Gorges' Helmet After Being Struck By a Mike Green Slap Shot

In the recently-released 2010-11 Donruss set, Panini included a memorabilia card of Gorges in their Boys of Winter subsets. When I saw his name on that checklist, I turned to my wife (the lovely Mrs. RGM81) with a look of absolute joy on my face. Now, keep in mind that I own a number of Gorges 1/1 cards and some pretty spectacular Price cards too. Yet a simple jersey card (and its patch variation) had me all smiles. This is something that is highly unlikely to happen for a collector of a superstar. Jarome Iginla has over 1,000 memorabilia cards over the course of his spectacular career; it would take something truly unique and jaw-dropping to get an Iginla collector truly excited over the sight of a jersey card.

The First Josh Gorges Jersey Card in 4 Years

Why the joy for me over this card? Josh Gorges has not had a memorabilia card since 2006-07 Be A Player Portraits, a card made when he was still with the San Jose Sharks. He did not have any made when he was a junior playing with the Kelowna Rockets, and until Donruss he did not have any since he was traded to the Canadiens. For me, this is a very special and significant card to collect. I will probably try to acquire a number of copies, especially of the patch version, since it may well be a long time before he has another memorabilia card. The card also has a special distinction in my collection: it just happened to be the 100th card I have acquired.

What is it that motivates some collectors to pursue these niche players? They are definitely cheaper alternatives than superstars, and that does somewhat play into my decision to collect Gorges. It is usually something deeper than economic reasons, however. In my case Gorges was the captain of my hometown major junior team when they won the Memorial Cup in 2004. For a pretty small town like Kelowna, that was a major moment, and a lot of the guys on that team still have a strong connection to the city years after graduating to NHL success. One of the Super Collectors at SCF summed it up really well in his statement about why he collected a niche player, Tyler Kennedy of the Pittsburgh Penguins:

I’ve always cheered for the underdogs of the world; Kennedy reminds me of an underdog. He’s not a big guy, nor does he have the talent of some of the other Penguins players – what he has is heart and determination. He’s small in stature, but he plays big. He never takes a shift off. To me, he’s someone you can admire and respect because you know he’s always working his butt off on the ice.

Substitute “Gorges” for “Kennedy” and “Canadiens” for “Penguins” and the statement is equally applicable. These are guys that give it their all every night because they are not superstars and they have to prove it consistently that they deserve to be in the NHL.

So keep this in mind the next time you pull that common jersey or autograph card and get angry that it’s not Stamkos or Crosby: while it may be worthless to you, to somebody out there that card is gold. It may only net you a five dollar sale, and not help you recoup your cost from the break, but that card is somebody’s The Cup Property Of… because their player will never get such a card in such a high-end product. That is the joy of being a niche player collector.