Have you ever had a random player that you have collected at one time or another?
I’m not talking about Hall of Famers or superstars or even All-Stars. Maybe there is just one player that for some reason is your favorite and you have decided to collect him.
There were a few of those players I collected in various sports for various reasons.
As I gleamed over the autograph line-up for the first full day of the Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto, low and behold, there he was.
Are you kidding me?
Les Freaking Tap Dancing Binkley, my favorite goalie as a kid. Well, he was my favorite until Ken Dryden showed up on the scene.
In an autograph line-up filled with superstars and Hall of Famers, my first question was the obvious one. Les Binkley? The question didn’t even need words around it. Just, Les Binkley? Yet, the 89-year-old former goalie was joining the likes of Brett Hull, Adam Oates, Larry Robinson, Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer, Dave Taylor, Dave Keon, Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, and a number of other household names to collectors.
I can imagine all of the younger collectors out there wondering who on earth Les Binkley is. Any hockey fan north of 50 would remember him. He was the first goalie for the expansion Pittsburgh Penguins in 1967, then went to the Ottawa Nationals of the WHA. The Nationals moved to Toronto and became the Toros, and the veteran Binkley was one of their goalies through the 1976 season.
And yes, I am an old guy. I am, well, deep into my 40-teens. I started collecting cards when I was five years old and I have never stopped. I wrote card backs, I was the editor and publisher of a national hobby magazine, and then I developed products for Pinnacle, Collector’s Edge and Pacific. Then I became a hobby magazine editor and publisher again, but after the magazine did not survive the recession of 2008 and the brutal impact it had on the hobby, I became a collector, an eBay dealer and every now and then I would get a table at a local show.
Through all of that time, I was often asked, ‘what’s your favorite hockey card?’
The answer is the same every time.
“Les Binkley 1970-71 O-Pee-Chee Hockey card number 200.”
I always get the same look. Dog hears master’s voice. The young readers won’t get that reference either. In fact, they may not even know who RCA is. Thank goodness for Google.
Now here is the thing. The question is my favorite card. It is clearly not the most valuable card in my collection. Of the hundreds of thousands of cards that I have, it would be probably the least valuable.
But why Les Binkley?
First of all, Les Binkley was the first card in the very first pack of hockey cards I ever opened in my life.
I remember the moment vividly.
I was playing in the Prescott Minor Hockey Association. We lived a couple miles out of town. Prescott seemed like a big deal at that time, even though it was and still is a town of 5,000 people with three stoplights. But home is home, and growing up in that little town south of Ottawa and along the St. Lawrence directly across from Ogdensburg, NY was the best place in the world to grow up.
Plus there were three different stores in town that sold hockey and baseball cards!
Dave Clunas and I both played for the Penguins, and our dads would alternate taking us to Tuesday night practice. Mr. Clunas, a science teacher, stopped in at Everyman’s Smoke Shop on King Street on the way home while Dave and I waited in the car.
“Dad, can you get us some hockey cards,” Dave asked as his dad left the car.
“What are hockey cards?” I asked.
Dave explained it to me. He was six and had an older brother so he knew all about hockey cards. I was still five and my universe was minutes away from taking a direction that would last forever.
Mr. Clunas gave us each a pack of cards. Woah! My mind was blown. I opened the pack. You mean you even get gum?
The first card, the first player, the first connection I had in this exciting new world of collecting? Card number 200, Les Binkley, goalie, Pittsburgh Penguins.
The team Dave and I played for in the Prescott Minor Hockey Association Tyke House League was the Penguins. We didn’t really understand at that time how the draft and scouting and the minor leagues worked. All we knew was that we played for the Penguins, and that the other teams in our league were the North Stars, Blues and Blackhawks. We had also figured out during one of those deep and philosophical Kindergarten discussions while going through our growing stack of cards that year that the Penguins must own our rights. If I made the NHL, I thought, Les Binkley and I might be teammates one day.
On the way home from Everyman’s, I was immersed with the card. Dave and I could both read and had a pretty good grasp of math for our ages. There were no gifted programs back then, so they pushed us ahead in school. “Mr. Clunas,” I asked. “Les Binkley is number 30 for the Penguins, but how come on his card he is number 200? There are no number 200s in hockey.”
Mr. Clunas explained to me that the number on the back of the card was not the jersey number, but that each card had a number to identify it in the set. There were 264 cards in the set.
I processed it and understood how it made sense. My Stan Mikita card, for example, was number 20 but everyone knows Mikita wore 21 with the Blackhawks.
I remained a Les Binkley fan through my childhood. It was amazing that Les Binkley ended up being the goalie for the Ottawa Nationals. I never got to see a Nationals game at the Civic Centre, now known as TD Place Arena, in Ottawa. The team moved to Toronto and became the Toros before I got a chance to get to a game with my dad.
Binkley was an AHL journeyman and didn’t make it to the NHL until he was 33 years old. He led the Penguins to their first playoff series victory in 1970. He did get two Stanley Cup rings, as he was a scout for the Penguins in 1991 and 1992.
A couple of months ago, there was a Les Binkley autographed 8×10 that went on sale in a local MaxSold auction. I bid on it, I bid again, and I bid again. Some total ham and egger was bidding against me, and he clicked last before the bidding ended. He ended up with the Binkley autograph. Thank goodness he would be at the Expo. Although I was in Ottawa Friday and not at the Expo, I will get my Les Binkley autograph through a mail order.
As for my Les Binkley card, it remains my favorite card and might even be the most important card, to me at least, in my collection. It saw a lot of time in my back pocket and was sat on, played with, stuck in an elastic band with other cards. It’s amazing that it is still in tact. But it is, along with Pete Stemkowski, Stan Mikita, Bruce MacGregor and the rest of my first pack of cards.
As Ted DiBiase, the Million Dollar Man, would say, ‘everything has a price.’ I am sure that if I was made the right offer, I would sell anything in my collection.
But the wrinkled up, barely still in one piece Les Binkley 1970-71 card is not for sale. In fact, when I day and I am cremated, that card will likely be in my pocket, the way it was when my obsession for the hobby began.