With the Toronto Spring Expo fast approaching, I wanted to go back through time and think about some memorable shows from past years.
I attended by first Toronto Spring Expo in 1991. I had just started working for Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine, which in its infancy was in a newspaper format rather than a magazine format. While the show has always been very international, drawing collectors, dealers and corporate exhibitors from across Canada, the United States and Europe, that show in particular seemed to be the perfect storm of everything that was good in the hobby at that time.
The Upper Deck Company was deep into its first season as an NHL hockey card maker. By the time the show rolled around, I had completed the entire base set. I was not, however, impressed with the fact that when I purchased a High Number Series box, there were only four High Number cards per pack and the rest of the cards were from the first series that I already had.
But, as a collector, you just do what you have to do to complete the set. It’s always been that way.
Think back to this show and the timing and what was going on. It took place a couple of months before the famous 1991 Anaheim National. Upper Deck had brought their revolutionary bright white, heavy stock cards with bright colors and aqueous coating to hockey collectors around the world. They had Wayne Gretzky as their spokesman.
Score, meanwhile, was also in its first year in the hobby. And while Upper Deck had “The Great One,” Score had locked up “The Next One” as they had signed Eric Lindros to an exclusive deal. If you remember how big Yankees prospect Brien Taylor was at the 1991 National, with collectors spending hours in line for a promo card of Taylor, consider that Lindros was an even bigger deal in Canada. The fact that Lindros was from Toronto amplified it even more.
Hockey was not the only driver of that show, though. The Toronto Blue Jays were the hottest ticket in town, and while the majority of people at the show were hockey collectors, most were also into baseball.
There was also excitement about Rocket Ismail shunning the NFL to sign with the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. While Upper Deck did not make CFL cards until more than two decades later, it was interesting that two of the three owners – Gretzky and L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall – both had relationships with Upper Deck. John Candy was the third owner. He had a relationship with wings and beer more than Upper Deck.
With all of this buzz going on in the hobby, there was one product on the floor at the 1991 Spring Expo that had created an absolute frenzy.
Upper Deck French Hockey was the perfect example of how everything could go right and how everything could go wrong with a sports card product. The first series of Upper Deck French Hockey was a bust. It proved to be the worst example ever of how corporate Americans in expensive suits have tried to create something for Canada despite having no knowledge of their Canadian customer base… at least until Target belly flopped in spectacular fashion in their disastrous attempt to expand into Canada a few years ago. Target’s attempt at Canadian retail was uglier than a 50 Cent ceremonial first pitch.
At CSC, we had heard rumblings that the Upper Deck French High Numbered Series may not even be produced because the first set was such a failure.
Then, we heard that it was going to be produced, and that it was going to be extremely limited. Only 600 24-box cases were going to be produced. It would be the most limited hockey product ever. That certainly got our attention.
Upper Deck’s suits had mistakenly assumed that French Canadians were not collectors. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they didn’t understand was that collectors in Quebec wanted the same cards everyone else was collecting. How Upper Deck presented and tried to sell the first series of 1990-91 Upper Deck French Hockey was taken as insulting by the general hockey fan and collector base in Quebec.
But with the high-numbered series, Upper Deck had little or no interest at all in selling that product into the French Canadian market. They were banking on it being shipped right back to the United States, where the scarcity of the product would drive the value sky high.
And it did.
At the Toronto Spring Expo, I remember walking the floor and seeing dealers lucky enough to have gotten their hands on some of it, selling boxes for between $800 and $1,000 Canadian. At the time, the Canadian dollar was worth about 70 cents US.
Like the English series, the French high-number packs had eight low-number series cards and four high-number series cards. The Sergei Fedorov French high number rookie card was the card everyone was after. They were in screwdown holders in dealer cases on the floor for between $175 and $250. Remember, this was before grading was a thing.
Fedorov was already a big name to Canadian collectors and hockey fans. He and linemates Pavel Bure and Alexander Mogilny gave the Soviet Union the most productive line in the history of the World Junior Championship tournament. Bure’s Young Guns rookie card was in this series as well. Fedorov defected to North America to play for the Detroit Red Wings. Because the World Junior Tournament has the same mainstream popularity in Canada that the NCAA basketball tournament has in the United States, Fedorov was a household name and a can’t miss superstar to Canadian hockey collectors.
High Numbers, Low Values
But after a while, something started to happen to the Fedorov card. The values started to go down. The dreaded down arrows started to appear both in our magazine and in Beckett Hockey Monthly. Something just didn’t seem right.
There were rumors out there that Upper Deck reprinted the set and produced more cases. This was causing the Fedorov and other key cards to slide down in value. The down arrows were synonymous with the product. But seriously, Upper Deck couldn’t have done that. Or could they?
Pete Williams, in his book ‘Card Sharks’, documented the story of how Upper Deck reprinted the red hot set. Williams covered the hobby for USA Today in the 1990s. His book provides a detailed account of how Upper Deck revolutionized the sports card industry and then became driven by corporate greed in the early-to-mid 1990s.
The NHL and NHLPA had also heard the rumors of the reprinted set. Upper Deck had covered their tracks adequately. Ilene Kent of the NHL and Ted Saskin of the NHLPA both looked into the matter. Neither saw any evidence of foul play. I contacted them both in 1991 to ask about the rumors. It was the first time I had spoken to either of them. Ilene Kent is someone who I really respected and looked up to in the next several years in the hobby.
There were no rules prohibiting Upper Deck from reprinting the cards to make more cases. They were a private company. There was nothing that obligated them to publicly release production runs.
According to a note obtained by Williams, Brian Burr, who was then assistant to the president at Upper Deck, ordered the production of 1,000 additional cases of French High Numbered Hockey. The order for more cases was made on Fri., May 3, which incidentally was the first day of the 1991 Toronto Spring Expo.
Williams reported that the first 100 cases were stamped with the date of production, which was in May. The other cases had been stamped either March 28, 1991, or March 29, 1991. The cases also had a packout that included six high numbered cards per pack instead of four.
The first 100 cases were purchased by Upper Deck President Richard McWilliam and then consigned to California-based sports card dealer Walt Harris. Williams wrote that McWilliam was furious over the stamped date on the cases. When Upper Deck received called from dealers over the production date, accusing the company of reprinting the product. Upper Deck informed them that the company had returned product that was repackaged. They also said that at the end of the production run, the machines were out of balance and produced the packs with six high numbered cards.
By the 1991 Fall Expo, six months after the ordered reprint, Upper Deck French High Numbered Series had crashed back down to earth. The cards still had a higher value than the English cards, but the Fedorov card had dropped in price by a significant margin. There were just under 1,600 cases produced rather than the 600 cases everyone had assumed. The number didn’t mean anything. It could have been 100 extra cases instead of 1,000. It was a matter of product integrity.
For the Upper Deck executives, it was a valuable lesson for a group of non-collectors on how fragile production runs are. It was also a blue print on how to turn the hottest product in the hobby into a punch line.