Certified autograph cards have been a part of the pack-ripping experience for collectors for 30 years and thousands of athletes have been asked by trading card manufacturers to sign for them.
For hockey cards, these thrills started when Pro Set, Score, and Upper Deck had limited Patrick Roy, Bobby Orr, and Brett Hull autographs as part of their core 1991-92 releases. It was cause for excitement then, and even now, there is something special about pulling something signed by a favorite player or superstar.
Even after all these years, though, there are some players who have not been compelled to sign for a company – and that can be a source of frustration for both collectors and card company executives. Efforts are made to track these elusive talents down, with varying degrees of success. Even if contact is made, the athlete can flatly refuse without giving a reason or chew the poor employee out for taking up their time. In hockey, most former players are generally quite receptive and express thanks at being considered – which makes up for the rare name that feels you wasted their time.
In your author’s personal experience, I spent a decade contacting retired players for In The Game, encompassing the 2004-05 to 2013-14 seasons. I spoke with hundreds of players during that span and it was a thrill to speak to each one of them. Each time I approached a new name, I knew I was taking a risk when it came to their reaction. Thankfully, their responses tended to be overwhelmingly positive.
However, there were a few that were not interested. I tried not to take this personally. Of this list of 10 former NHL players, I attempted to reach an agreement with four of them and could not get in direct contract with two others. Their reasons for refusing are ultimately personal, whether financial agreements could not be reached or that the athlete themselves is simply uninterested.
Let’s take a look at 10 retired NHL greats from whom collectors would love to see certified autographed cards:
For decades, getting an autograph from former Toronto Maple Leafs captain and Hockey Hall of Fame member George Armstrong has been a challenging task for many ink seekers. A relatively private person when he wasn’t scouting out top junior talent, his reasons for refusing can vary. If the four-time Stanley Cup champion is in a great mood, he is more than willing to sign – but don’t count on it and be prepared for a bit of a testy response as some autograph hounds have learned. He has been known to sign for charity, but he feels uncomfortable with requests to participate in trading card projects as well.
The odds of Armstrong signing for a trading card company are essentially zero at this point. However, cut signatures and previously signed items have popped up in packs over the years. My personal experience is that he was very nice to speak with and he listened to the pitch, but he stated that he felt too humble to be a part of hockey card sets. I understood his position and it was an honor to just speak with him for a few minutes. Now 89 years old, Armstrong scored the last goal of the NHL’s “Original Six” era when Toronto clinched the 1967 Stanley Cup.
A rock-hard defender who could expertly throw a check, Leo Boivin enjoyed a lengthy NHL career and as compared to former teammate Armstrong, has been a much more willing signer through the mail.
When it comes to a paid autograph signing or being part of a trading card release, he steadfastly refuses today. In conversation several years ago, he alluded to me that he a bad experience with a card show promoter in the past. Thankfully, he has at least been willing to provide some ink for fans in normal situations. His vintage cards, especially from the later part of his career, are affordable and it may be worth sending one along to him with a nice note.
One of the greatest defenders to play for the mighty Soviet Union clubs that dominated the international scene in the 1970s and 1980s, Slava Fetisov came to the NHL as a member of the New Jersey Devils in time for the 1989-90 season. By the end of that decade, he was part of the famed Russian Five which helped the Detroit Red Wings to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. He also won another title as an assistant coach for the Devils in 1999-00.
In retirement, Fetisov served as Russia’s Minister of Sport and moved into the political realm. He helped bring the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi, too, but he somehow has never signed for a trading card company as an active player or since hanging up his skates. It could be that no one has been able to get through to his to pitch a deal, or he’s simply ignored the request for one reason or another. Regardless, third-party certified on-card autographs do pop up for sale and we may need to be content with that. Should he ever sign for a card company, there is little doubt that initial demand would be incredibly strong and remain steady afterward.
Modern fans know Bill Hay’s name due to his long-time service as Chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame, but his legacy within the game runs deeper than that. An early collegiate hockey star that joined the Chicago Blackhawks (then Black Hawks) in 1959-60, he won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year and captured a Stanley Cup as a sophomore. While he retired at the end of the Original Six era, he eventually became President and CEO with the Calgary Flames and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015.
Strangely, Hay has not signed for a trading card company and his absence needs to be remedied. The fact that he was a solid player with Chicago would appeal to some collectors, but those wanting Hall of Fame signatures remain hopeful that he will be included sooner than later as recently celebrated his 84th birthday.
Like Fetisov, Makarov was an elite talent in the old Soviet Union and burst onto the NHL scene in 1989-90 with the Calgary Flames. He gave a fine performance as a 31-year-old “rookie” and won the Calder, but the league changed its rules immediately after to set an age limit of 26 going forward.
His seven seasons in North America were decent, but his prime years were spent behind the Iron Curtain and made the case for his eventual enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame. While he skated for the San Jose Sharks in 1994-95 when the first Be A Player set was released, he was not included. He took the next season off before making a brief four-game comeback with the Dallas Stars and his career drew to a quiet close. Today, he lives in Russia and helps young players that want to follow in his footsteps and play overseas. Since he is not involved in the Russian political world, it may be easier for a card company to sign Makarov. However, I would not advise holding your breath waiting for it to happen.
A recent addition to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Nedomansky was a pioneering talent that dominated the competition in Czechoslovakia before the WHA’s Toronto Toros brought him and Richard Farda over in 1974-75. By 1977-78, he was in the NHL with Detroit and had a couple respectable seasons before age began to catch up with him.
In the time before he was inducted, tracking him down to sign for a card company was a daunting task. Despite personal attempts to get him inked to a deal, the calls and messages to his family were never returned. Thankfully for collectors, he does sign and even made an appearance at the Fall 2019 Sportcard & Memorabilia Expo in Toronto. With all this attention, the odds of him eventually having a certified autograph card are reasonable.
One of the most underrated stars from the 1980s, Tonelli started out with the WHA’s Houston Aeros before jumping to the New York Islanders roster in 1978-79. He ultimately won four straight Stanley Cups with the club, but had a couple of huge years which earned a spot on the NHL’s Second All-Star Team.
All told, Tonelli had a strong career, but his interest in signing for a card company is minimal at best. Despite a strong and friendly start, my personal attempt to negotiate a deal did not go well in the end due to his demands and he even hung up the phone at one point – something that only happened once in all my dealings with players. He picked up when I called back, but a deal couldn’t be reached despite willingness to work with him. Granted, he did listen to the offer that was being made. Would he do a deal with a card company in the future? That is hard to say, but he does get credit for asking that part of his fee be donated to a minor hockey team that he was involved with. There was eagerness to do just that, of course, but the potential agreement simply fell apart. If he were to eventually sign a deal, there would be a moderate and relatively consistent demand for his autographed cards as he played such an important role in the Islanders dynasty.
We have previously written about Sasakamoose’s impact on the game and for those who are unaware, he is a cult figure in the hockey card community since he was the first Native Canadian to suit up for the Chicago Blackhawks. He was part of the 1954-55 Parkhurst set, but it was his only cardboard appearance as he only played a handful of games.
A survivor of the residential school system which took so many Native Canadian children away from their families as religious and government powers attempted to destroy their culture, he went back home to the Ahtahkakoop Reserve near Prince Albert, Saskatchewan after his playing days and devoted his energy to promoting youth sports.
A member of the Order of Canada, which is Canada’s top civilian honor, he was contacted by your humble author on behalf of In The Game in 2005 to be part of the 2004-05 NHL Franchises Update Set. While he initially expressed interest in participating in the project, financial terms could not be agreed upon. Hopefully, his position has changed over time, especially in light of the fact that he appeared at the Summit Sports Collectible Show in Edmonton, Alberta in 2017 to sign for fans.
A slick stickhandler who racked up 361 goals during his 15-year career, Boldirev was the first player born in the former Yugoslavia to make it to the NHL. He came to Canada as a toddler and starred with the Oshawa Generals before being taken by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 1969 NHL Amateur Draft. Since the parent team was so loaded, he did not get much of a chance to shine there – but he did get his name carved in the Stanley Cup in 1970 since he was on their roster during the playoffs (but did not play in a postseason game).
Traded to the California Golden Seals in 1971-72, he began to demonstrate some offensive spark and record his first 25-goal season in 1973-74 before being shipped off to Chicago. In the Windy City, he emerged as an offensive leader by the end of the decade and appeared in the 1978 NHL All-Star Game.
Despite his importance to Chicago’s offense, he was on the move in a blockbuster deal with the Atlanta Flames near the end of 1978-79 – his second straight year with 35 goals. He left the team before it moved to Calgary, ending up in Vancouver and making a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1982. As his career wound down, he was off to Detroit and continued to produce – hitting the 80-point mark for the final time in 1983-84 as the Red Wings made the playoffs for the first time since 1977-78. He played one more year before retiring.
For a player that accomplished as much as Boldirev did, he seems to be a bit forgotten by fans and collectors. His feats in Detroit certainly warranted consideration for inclusion in a few card sets, but he proved impossible to track down. His first certified autographs could be popular if they ever come to market.
At this point, nearly every living goaltender from the past and present that won at least 100 career games has gladly signed for a trading card company. Some might be surprised to see that even notorious trading card industry hater Ken Dryden has even given in to put a paint pen down on a rare insert found the 1972 Team Canada-themed release produced by Future Trends in 1991-92.
So, who else is left on the list? There is 1980s journeyman Steve Weeks, who would look good with a Hartford Whalers-themed certified autograph, and Wayne Thomas, who spent eight seasons in the NHL with Montreal, Toronto, and the New York Rangers.
What gives Thomas the edge over Weeks? Well, he did play for the 1978-79 Rangers team that went to the Stanley Cup Final and had some very cool masks in Toronto and New York – the latter of which can be seen perfectly on his 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee and Topps cards.
Thomas made a greater impact on the game after retiring as an active player. He was a goaltending coach briefly for the Rangers and won a Turner Cup while running the bench for the IHL’s Salt Lake Golden Eagles in 1986-87. For a few years, he was part of the St. Louis Blues organization, but his final home in hockey came with the San Jose Sharks. From 1993 to 2015, he held a variety of roles – most notably as Vice President starting in 2001.
Thomas has flown under the radar within the modern hobby and he would be a strong addition to an autograph lineup for a vintage-themed release. The fact that he had a respectable career with three different Original Six teams gives team collectors something to chase and goalie enthusiasts would be excited to see a card with his Maple Leafs mask make it into their collections.