I love looking back through my old notes, and I have become very fixated on what happened 25 years ago.
There are a few reasons for this. I was transitioning from being the editor at Canadian Sports Collector and a part-time Pinnacle consultant and card back writer to becoming a full-time product development and brand manager at Pinnacle.
And while any mention of the year 1997 will make collectors think of the words junk and wax, it was really one of the most exciting years in the sports card industry.
Game-used jersey cards were welcomed by collectors with open arms. Printing technology was rapidly improving. Collectors could take their pick from hundreds of Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan cards being released each year, not to mention young baseball stars like A-Rod, Jeter, Chipper, Junior and Andruw. Football had Favre, Elway, Marino and a cast of quarterbacks that was probably the best in NFL history until now.
What was great about that era was how competitive we were. At Pinnacle, we had to battle Upper Deck, Topps, Fleer, Pacific, and even football only companies like Playoff and Collector’s Edge for our piece of the market. We had to battle Donruss, even though the Donruss team was on the same floor of our building, and we reported to the same people. We even went for lunch together all the time to bounce ideas off each other.
As competitive as we were, we were all friends, and we genuinely liked each other. Rich Bradley was at Fleer, Steve Ryan and Mike Gardiner were among my friends at Upper Deck, and everyone knew and liked Mike Monson and Mike Cramer at Pacific, and Ann Blake, Janice Maybra and Tom Puckett at Playoff. Doug Goddard, who was my counterpart at Donruss, was an absolute genius and a wonderful guy.
We all got together at shows and conventions, and we all pushed each other as we competed. The hobby is missing that now. The era of monopolies has taken that drive out of products today. As a result, Leaf CEO Brian Gray has become one of the more interesting people in the industry, as he is forcing everyone to compete with him, at least on some level.
One thing Upper Deck did very well back then was align themselves with certain athletes and insiders. Looking through my 1997 notebook, I found notes from an interview I had with Upper Deck’s 1996-97 Collector’s Choice featured expert, Scotty Bowman. Not only did our chat take place 25 years ago this month, but I am now in the middle of reading the book on Bowman written by Ken Dryden. By the way, if you’re a hockey fan, it’s a must read.
Bowman The Collector
I met with Scotty Bowman after a game in Buffalo. Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings were in town to face the Sabres. The Wings were developing into a great team, and that year, they went on to win their first Stanley Cup since 1955.
“Look what I bought today,” Bowman said excitedly, looking at me with a big smile on his face. I was excited to see what he had picked up, but more excited that Scotty Bowman was excited to show something he bought to a ham-and-egger hobby writer like me.
He pulled something out of the inside pocket of his blazer. It was a 1974-75 Topps Scotty Bowman rookie card. He is wearing a blue Adidas track jacket with a Montreal Canadiens logo. The Bowman and Don Cherry cards from that set are iconic among collectors of 1970s hockey.
“Look at it,” he said, showing me the card in a screw down. “The corners are perfect. I picked it up in a shop in Tonawanda. I had a great time there.”
I knew without asking that he had been to Dave and Adam’s.
“I have a few of these, but this is the nicer than any of the others,” he said.
Bowman tucked it back in his pocket and had this look of pride on his face. How many Stanley Cup rings did this guy already have? It didn’t matter. When you find a gem-mint card, especially when it’s your own rookie card, that’s pretty cool.
You and me? We have no idea what having a enough Stanley Cup rings that you are working on a second fistful, or a gem-mint rookie card of yourself feels like.
Bowman wasn’t finished there. He pulled out another set of cards to show me. It was the complete 20-card subset of Upper Deck Collector’s Choice Scotty Bowman’s Winning Formula cards. He handed them to me and asked me to take a look.
It was a typical 1990s Upper Deck subset. It had a great design and great photography. It featured 19 of the greatest stars of the game at the time, and it also included a card of Bowman. The players included were Paul Kariya, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Lindros, Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Keith Tkachuk, Mark Messier, Jeremy Roenick, Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Theoren Fleury, Chris Chelios, Vladimir Konstantinov, Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy.
Bowman picked the players to be in the set and then wrote the card backs.
“It was fun, and it was really easy,” he said. “I got to be a fan and a collector, and choose the greatest players in the game that I admire and write about why they are great. It was really an enjoyable project to work on.”
Bowman On The ’96-97 Wings
It was interesting to look at the notes from the hockey part of our interview. The previous season, the Red Wings were easily the best regular season team in the NHL, but they came up short in the playoffs. Bowman fine-tuned his line-up and gave up some offense for some 200-foot play. He traded Hall of Famer Paul Coffey and Keith Primeau to Hartford for Brendan Shanahan.
“I won’t say Brendan Shanahan is the missing link,” Bowman said. “He is certainly the type of player we need on this team and he will make us a better hockey club. I can’t say that Brendan is the guy that will give us the Stanley Cup. We will need a big effort from a lot of players for that.”
I also found Bowman’s comments about his young blueline interesting.
“Jamie Pushor has been a pleasant surprise for us as a rookie, and Nicklas Lidstrom is really coming into his own,” Bowman said.
With great goaltending from Chris Osgoode and Mike Vernon, as well as line-up that included Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, Bowman felt that anything short of a Stanley Cup would be a disappointment.
“I think most teams in the league will tell you that a season falling short of winning a Stanley Cup will be a failure,” he said. “There was a lot of disappointment here last year, and the players came into the season very focused on winning the Cup. When the playoffs begin, you are going to see a team very hungry to win it all.”
The Red Wings did win the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups that year, and then won another in 2001-02. He ended up with nine Stanley Cup rings as an NHL head coach. Including his roles in management after coaching, he has won 14 Stanley Cup rings.
The 1996-97 Scotty Bowman’s Winning Formula subset is a fun one to have, and each card in the set can be found for between $1 and $4. They aren’t exactly an investment, but for the collector who is a big fan, it’s a great and inexpensive addition to any hockey collection.
And as for the 1974-75 Scotty Bowman card? Mine is an O-Pee-Chee version, but the corners aren’t nearly as crisp as the one he bought the day I got to meet him.