If you’ve moved away from home, your parents have probably had to forward mail to you. Sometimes the change of address takes a while to catch up. Iowa collector Jeff Johnson recently received an envelope from home that took him back in time.
The address on the envelope was written in his own hand, bearing a stamp from Valentine’s Day 1995. Inside was a hockey card, signed by former NHL player Shaun Van Allen. Johnson had sent the card and the envelope to Van Allen, hoping for an autograph. He finally got his wish—20 years later.
It’s a story for the TTM Autograph Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been collecting for a long time, but this story takes the cake,” Johnson told Sports Collectors Daily via email.
Johnson was just out of college and looking to begin his career when he used some of his spare time to send self-addressed, stamped envelopes and cards to athletes, along with a short letter requesting they be returned with a signature. It’s a practice that’s been going on for decades and collectors often report a decent success rate. Players expect mail and with some exceptions, are usually willing to cooperate. A quick signature, a lick of an envelope and a drop in a mailbox is a fairly simple way to keep fans happy, although mail can pile up quickly.
That may have been what happened to Van Allen, who had just caught on with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks when Johnson’s letter arrived. After a few struggling seasons, his career began to take off in the mid-1990s and his NHL travels would take him to Ottawa, Dallas, Montreal and back to Ottawa before he retired in 2005. Now settled in Ottawa, where he does broadcasting work with the Senators and serves as a college assistant coach, Van Allen apparently located the very old request from Johnson and sent it back, better late than never. Johnson says Van Allen apparently mailed the card from a post office at or near the airport in Montreal.
“I can tell it was sent from Canada because of the H4T postal code stamp,” Johnson revealed. “It made it to my parents’ house in Cedar Rapids, despite the stamp being an American stamp and 20 years old.”
Now a sportswriter for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Johnson wrote about receiving the card in a column this week and while he’s appreciative that his long-lost letter and card weren’t just tossed in the trash, he’s hoping to find out what took so long. “I need to try and find Van Allen and see if he recently sent some signed cards out, I guess. I’m pretty curious.”
If Van Allen did just find the letter and card, it wouldn’t be the first time a former player has discovered some ancient TTM requests in a forgotten box and opted to respond. A few years ago, a collector received a signed card from baseball’s Kevin Reimer 20 years after it was sent. Ex-Phillies pitcher Don Carman dug out a box of requests and returned signed cards after 16 years. So did former Royals’ pitcher Kevin Appier and New York Giant Leonard Marshall. Wayne Fontes, the former Detroit Lions coach, did the same after nine years had passed. Another collector got a reply from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers after five years. Many TTM collectors all have their own stories about strange or long-delayed responses.
The odds of a person, especially a young person, still living at the original address are small, but the post office will often deliver mail if the name of the current resident matches. In Johnson’s case, his parents decision not to move meant the signed card wasn’t given the Elvis treatment—returned to sender, address unknown. It’s now in Johnson’s hands, and even though Van Allen wasn’t a superstar, it ranks among the favorite autographs in his collection.
And it didn’t even come postage due.