While the collecting world is anticipating this weekend’s Fall Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo in Toronto, the excitement of the first in person Fall Expo since 2019 is overshadowing the 30th anniversary of the first Expo.
In 1991, the hobby exploded, and the sports collectibles industry grew to something no one anticipated. Just a few short months before that first show, Anaheim was turned upside down by tens of thousands of collectors who invaded the west coast for the National. Everyone was going to get rich collecting cards that year. And getting your hands on Classic Baseball Brien Taylor promo cards was worth standing in line for hours for, and then getting back in line for another round.
The Toronto show later that year was not one you could compare to Anaheim as far as the size of the show and number of collectors, but there was a parallel. Many of the same corporate people were there. Collectors showed up by the thousands and formed long lines for promo cards. Upper Deck, Score and Pro Set were about to enter their second year as NHL trading card companies. People were carrying copies of Beckett Hockey and Beckett Baseball around like they were Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.
And while collectors in Anaheim stood in line for hours to get their Brien Taylor promo cards, their Canadian counterparts formed huge queues to get their hands on an Eric Lindros Class Draft Picks hockey card.
I had just started writing for a sport collectibles magazine called Canadian Sportscard Collector. It was printed in tabloid newspaper format, much like Sports Collectors Digest, the Hockey News, USA Today Baseball Weekly and the Sporting News were. In a few months, I would move from Ottawa to St. Catharines, Ontario, near Buffalo, to become the editor of the publication.
The whole thing seemed to happen so quickly. I have been a sports card collector all my life. I still have the cards from the first pack my dad ever bought me when I was five. I have some Post Cereal cards cut out from the back of cereal boxes and some disks from under the lids of jars of York Peanut Butter that are even older.
In 1991, I was working for our family community newspaper business by day, travelling to Watertown, NY three or four times a week to play semi-pro football by night, and ripping open packs of cards in between. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I could transition my skills as a journalist to write about sports cards instead of school board meetings and giant pumpkin contests at country fairs.
More Than Hockey
While the Expo evolved over the years into a hockey-driven show, the 1991 Fall Expo featured a little bit of everything. Sure, there was a lot of hockey, but there was a lot of everything.
When you think back to the fall 1991, there was a lot going on, especially in Toronto. The Toronto Blue Jays owned the town. They were selling out their shiny new domed stadium with the retractable roof every night. They won the American League East that year but lost to the Minnesota Twins in the ALCS. Roberto Alomar, Kelly Gruber and Joe Carter were the darlings of the city. By the time the Spring Expo rolled around in 1992, Minnesota’s 1991 World Series hero Jack Morris was now a Blue Jay. So was Dave Winfield. And just before the 1992 Spring Expo, NHL players had ended a one-week post-season strike that delayed the start of the playoffs. The strike was over their share of NHL licensed hockey card royalties.
In hockey, the 1991-92 Upper Deck Hockey boxes were sold out before they went to press. The 1990-91 Upper Deck and Score products were huge hits among collectors. While superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have always driven hockey card sales, it was Eric Lindros who really drove the hockey card boom in 1991. The Score Hockey Canadian factory set included a five-card bonus set of cards featuring “The Next One,” as Lindros was then called. The Score factory set was one of the biggest sellers on the floor at that show. Many dealers were selling the five-card set separately for a premium price, and then selling the remainder of the cards as a complete set, or in $1 grab bags for 10 cards with a star or draft pick guaranteed.
Many don’t remember but in the fall of 1991, the last Canada Cup tournament was played. Although Score had a deal with Lindros to produce cards before he made it to the NHL, Upper deck found a creative way to include him in their 1991-92 NHL product. They got a license for the Canada Cup to include as a subset in their 1991-92 hockey product. Lindros played for Team Canada even though he was not yet in the NHL. Classic also unveiled their 1991 NHL Draft Picks set that year, with Lindros as the centerpiece of the product.
While the Lindros Classic promo cards and Score subset cards were big on the show floor, so were Rocket Ismail cards. All World Trading Cards (AW) signed Ismail to an exclusive CFL deal and produced hundreds of thousands of boxes and sets. Although virtually worthless in today’s markets because of the overproduction, the timing was right for their product and Ismail promo cards at the 1991 Expo.
The Argos won the Grey Cup that fall, with Ismail being named the game’s MVP. AW CFL Football turned out to be arguably the most overproduced football card set ever made.
AW was not the only company cashing in the popularity of Ismail at that show. If Classic’s Canadian distributors were not busy enough handing out Eric Lindros promo cards, they also had Rocket Ismail 1991 Classic Draft Picks promo cards, picturing Ismail playing for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
While the Argos, who in 1991 were owned by Bruce McNall, Wayne Gretzky and John Candy, were a big deal in Toronto, so were the Buffalo Bills. Toronto is a Bills market, and an exciting young team with Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith drove an already hot football market.
The 1991 Fall Expo in Toronto was certainly not the 1991 National in Anaheim, but it was the closest thing Canada had ever seen to that show. More than 20,000 collectors showed up for the three-day event. Aisles were jam packed. Wax boxes for all sports, as well as some non-sports products, were flying out of dealer booths. Canadian hockey memorabilia from the 1940s through the 1980s that would never be found in Anaheim were on the floor at the Expo. The corporate companies were wining and dining Canadian distributors and key dealers at receptions in the nearby hotel ballrooms.
First Expo In Two Years
Steve Menzie, who in 2016 bought the show from its original owner, Al Sinclair, was not involved in the hobby in the fall of 1991.
“We didn’t really plan anything for the 30th anniversary of the show, but a lot of that is because there is so much going on with COVID and regulations,” Menzie said. “People are just so excited to get back to the show and there are so many people new to the hobby, we didn’t really have a chance to. Maybe in the spring we will be able to go back and revisit it.”
He did say, however, that there are some elements that have come full circle as the show marks 30 years.
“In 1991, a lot of the people at the show had never been to an event like that. Aside from the card manufacturers, there were also a lot of ancillary businesses that got into the industry at that time,” Menzie said. “We are seeing a lot of that right now. The types of businesses are entirely different, but there are many exhibitors this year that are new to the industry. Although there have been changes to cards over the years, the real change in the industry is how they are valued, how they are sold, and how they are marketed. We are also seeing a difference with the professionalism of the dealers and how they are managing their displays. It’s very different than the old days of piles of cardboard boxes.”
The Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo takes place Nov. 11-14 at the International Centre in Toronto.