In my lifetime of more than 50 years in the hobby, there are a few memories that mean more to me than any piece of cardboard or signature.
One of those memories happened 25 years ago this week, and I am still shaking my head that it happened half of my hobby life ago.
I was standing in the San Jose airport, waiting for my flight to come home from the 1996-97 Pinnacle NHL All-Star FANtasy and the NHL All-Star Game. It was a Monday morning flight to Dallas-Fort Worth, which was where more or less everyone on the flight was catching a connection.
As I looked around, I saw nothing but hockey fans. They were wearing NHL gear, and many had their tickets from the game in lanyards and around their neck. Several were carrying sealed boxes of hockey cards and were planning on passing the time on the plane busting some wax.
And then, amidst the fans, I saw a guy standing off to the side of the waiting area for our gate. I did a double take. I couldn’t believe it! It was John Vanbiesbrouck! The Beezer was on our flight!
At that point in my life, I was straddling two different jobs. I still had six weeks to go as the editor at Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine. After that, I would be leaving the Niagara region of Ontario and moving to Dallas to be the hockey brand manager at Pinnacle. I had been writing card backs and doing consulting work for Pinnacle for the past couple of years, and my lifelong dream of working full time for a sports card company was about to come true.
I was in San Jose to cover the Pinnacle NHL All-Star FANtasy for the magazine, but it was on Pinnacle’s dime. Much of my time in San Jose was spent getting to know the people I would be working with and sitting in on various meetings.
A few weeks before the flight, I interviewed Vanbiesbrouck, and he was on the cover of the then-current issue of Canadian Sports Collector.
I tried to be nonchalant as I walked toward him. My efforts failed. I was about as chalant as you could be at about 6 AM. I’m pretty sure chalant isn’t a word, but that’s the only way to describe how I was acting.
I introduced myself to Vanbiesbrouck, told him that I had interviewed him by phone a few weeks earlier, and gave him a few copies of the magazine. He was extremely nice as we exchanged pleasantries. I left him alone and went back to my little spot to stand.
As I watched him flip through the magazine, I thought about the weekend I had just spent in San Jose. There were 40,000 people who attended the NHL FANtasy. The excitement level was off the charts. Hockey was fresh and new for these fans. Sure, some of them were around in the Oakland Seals/California Golden Seals era in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But there was no comparison. The NHL in San Jose was a huge success from Day One. Fans embraced the team, the colors, the game, and anything to do with the NHL.
The Pinnacle All-Star FANtasy
At the show, Pinnacle had brought in Bryan Berg, the world’s foremost card house builder. Berg spent a couple days using Pinnacle hockey cards to build a replica of the San Jose Arena out of cards. Frankly, I thought it was the dimmest thing I had ever seen, but there was no way I was going to tell my new employers what I thought.
But then, hours before the all-star game, I saw a throng of TV reporters and other media for the photo op. They took footage of Berg putting the finishing touches on his masterpiece. And then the money shot was Sharks mascot SJ Sharkie belly flopping onto the little arena of cards. The clip made the national sports highlights from coast to coast. That was the brilliance of Laurie Goldberg at Pinnacle. She, more than anyone in the history of the hobby, knew how to create something that would give Pinnacle national mainstream exposure.
At the Donruss Trading Cards booth, fans could put on a jersey of their favorite team, stand in front of a backdrop, and they could have a hockey card of themselves made. Something like that would be routine now, but back then, photography was shot with film and was not yet digital, and the internet was in its infancy. Making hockey cards of fans was a much more complicated process than it would be today.
And here’s a blast form the past you may have forgotten about. One of the exhibitors was Team Out Hockey, which was a fully licensed collectible card game. Brian Theriot was on hand to teach the masses in California how to play this exciting new game that was going to shake down the building and take the hobby by storm.
That was sarcasm.
The All-Star Game itself was one for the ages. Domink Hasek turned in one of the greatest performances in All-Star Game history, stopping 20 of 21 shots he faced. The only goal he let in was one of the most memorable moments in All-Star Game history. Sharks star Owen Nolan already had two goals in the game. His teammates for feeding him and feeding him, hoping to get the young Sharks star a hat trick in front of his home crowd. Finally, he was sprung on a break. Nolan, who had been shut down by a super human performance by Hasek, took his right hand hand off the stick and pointed to the top corner. Moments later, that’s where the puck ended up. As it rained hats on the ice, the ovation was one of the longest and loudest in NHL All-Star game history, and in the history of that building.
“I can’t remember playing against a goalie as hot as Hasek was,” Nolan said after the game. “He was incredible. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
When asked about the called shot, Nolan gave a simple answer.
“I’d had enough,” he said. And if he missed?
“Oh God,” he said. “I’d have to pack it in.”
Hasek, when asked about the goal, had no idea that Nolan had pointed at him.
“I didn’t see that,” he said. “I was focused on the puck. I will have to watch the replay.”
The next year, we had a relationship with EA Sports. There was a subset of cards in 1997-98 Score Hockey. In the EA Signature Moves subset, star players were featured. The card backs had exclusive information on certain moves players could make in that year’s EA NHL video game. Nolan’s signature move was pointing at the goalie before shooting. I was furious when I found out Nolan was not one of the cards in the set. We had a sports team in Dallas who selected players, made checklists and edited card backs. Pinnacle was such a big company with so many hands in each pie, that sometimes a little thing like that was overlooked. Nolan’s EA subset card would have been a 25 cent card, but it would have been an awesome tribute to one of the greatest moments in All-Star Game history.
A Special Flight
Vanbiesbrouck was one of the first to board the plane. He and Panthers coach Doug McLean were sitting together in first class. Every hockey fan that boarded the plane walked by him, excited that the Beezer was on their flight. Fans were reminded by the staff to please not disturb the passenger.
After take off, something really special happened. The flight attendant emerged from behind the first class cabin’s curtain, and she made an announcement.
“I know that most of you are hockey fans and that you were at the All-Star Game,” she said. “Mr. Vanbiesbrouck said that if you lined up in the aisle, he would be more than happy to sign your tickets, cards, programs or any other collectibles you have from the event. He said that the All-Star weekend is for you, the fans, and he is more than happy to shake the hands of hockey fans.”
I was sitting in the window seat, beside a kid who was about 10 or 11 and his dad. They were thrilled. I had a couple of boxes of Score Hockey with me, and I had given one to the boy when we sat down. After the announcement, he told me they were going to meet him and get an autograph. He noticed I was reading my game program. I gave it to them and they got it signed for me. For the rest of the flight, the kid was on cloud nine. The dad was too. He opened all 36 packs on the rest of the flight, went through each card in detail, and asked me questions about the players. He thought it was really cool that I had written the card backs.
For two solid hours, John Vanbiesbrouck sat in his seat, met fans, shook hands, and gave them a genuine smile. It was one of the classiest things I have ever seen a professional athlete do.
When the flight landed, we all went out separate ways. A handful of people on the flight were from Dallas, but most went to catch connections. I ended up meeting our mortgage guy and having lunch with him at the airport, and then meeting our immigration lawyer to make sure my visa was in place for the move to go and work for Pinnacle full time.
Back in those days, people could just go into the airport to meet people. That all changed a few years later after 9-11 happened.
When I finally got back to Pearson Airport in Toronto, it was after midnight. I still had an hour drive to get home in St. Catharines. While waiting for my luggage, the entire Calgary Flames team walked by. An up-and-coming rookie ended up sitting on the same bench as me. I introduced myself to young Jarome Iginla, and told him how excited everyone at Pinnacle was to make hockey cards of him.
He smiled and shook my hand. I had no idea that he would be a 500-goal scorer, Olympic hero and a Hall of Famer.
For all of the great events I am blessed to have been able to go to, that weekend in San Jose remains special. I will never forget how John Vanbiesbrouck put the finishing touches on the All-Star fan experience for every single person on American Airlines Flight 407.