The NHL Draft is a big day on the calendar for the hockey collector. Montreal will be buzzing with fans and collectors this weekend as Upper Deck once again plays a major role as title sponsor.
When I look back on my time in the industry, probably the best thing I was responsible for was the annual card and collectibles show at the draft. It’s nothing to gloat about, though, as I am sure someone would have thought of it within a year or two anyway.
I was at Pacific Trading Cards when we hosted the first show at the 2001 draft in Sunrise, Florida. That’s a story for later in the week.
My most bizarre hobby draft moment happened three years earlier, when I was the hockey brand manager at Pinnacle.
I never get asked what the strangest thing that ever happened at the NHL Draft was. When I talk about Pinnacle, however, I often get asked what my favorite Pinnacle card is in my collection.
And that question brings us to the 1998 NHL Draft in Buffalo. My favorite Pinnacle card is a no brainer. It’s my Pinnacle Brands, Inc. American Express card.
To use the company’s tag line, that’s what you call “Guaranteed Scarce.”
My Pinnacle Amex card was just a credit card in my wallet, used for travel expenses. At the 1998 NHL Draft, my company credit card became a collector’s item.
On the morning of the draft, I stopped for gas somewhere between Buffalo and suburban Lockport, NY. I had stayed in Lockport the night before. I had played semi-pro football for the Lockport Invaders from 1992-96, and had gone to practice the night before to catch up with old friends and then go out for wings and a beverage. Most of the Pinnacle execs stayed at fancy five-star hotels. I stayed at a motel in Lockport. It wasn’t exactly Motel 6. This was like Motel Two-and-a-Half. But they did have “Free Cable TV!”
I paid my hotel bill with my American Express when I checked in. The next morning at the gas station, however, was a different story.
I put my credit card in the pump. It wasn’t working. I tried again. It was declined. I thought there was something wrong, because American Express doesn’t get declined.
Then, the attendant got on his microphone and asked me to come inside.
“I’m sorry sir, your card has been declined,” he said when I got inside. “American Express has asked me to take your card.”
My gas purchase was about $15. Remember those days? I somehow talked him out of taking my American Express card. I made up some story about being Canadian and I was going to need it to get back into Canada.
While chatting, I noticed the most recent USA Today and picked it up. The newspaper was dated Fri., June 26, 1998. The front page business story, which was teased on the paper’s main front page, had a headline that screamed something like, “Baseball card company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.” The subhead said something like Pinnacle Brands, Inc. was $300 million in debt.
One of our sales managers, hobby legend Ted Kreder, would later say the most logical thing anyone at Pinnacle ever said to me.
“How could we be $300 million in the hole? We make baseball cards.”
My dilemma at the gas station was more complicated than it would seem. Because I was a Canadian living in Dallas and working for Pinnacle, I did not qualify for an American credit card. Every 15-year-old in America had a Discover card. I could not qualify for one because I had only lived in the United States for a year. I no longer had Canadian credit cards. After my purchase of gas, a USA Today, a Diet Coke, and a delicious pre-packaged blueberry-like muffin, I had about $40 left. I had flown into Toronto and rented my car at the Pearson Airport, about a 90-minute drive from Buffalo.
I was between a rock and a hard place.
But to quote another hobby legend, Baron Bedesky, “90 per cent of all problems solve themselves.” I figured I would go to the draft, so what I was there to do, and see how things would play out.
Ken Hitchcock Makes a New Friend
If this was a Netflix documentary, this is where it would say, “Three days earlier” across the screen.
My now ex-wife and the two kids, aged 5 and 1, had boarded the plane in Dallas and flew to Toronto. We rented a car, and I drove them to my in-laws up near Pembroke, Ontario. The next day, I drive to Buffalo and Lockport. After the draft, I was going to come back, then we would visit my parents in Prescott, Ontario, and then head back to Dallas via Toronto.
When we got on the plane in Dallas, my son Jack, who was five, sat on the window seat and I was on the aisle. His mom and little brother were in the row behind us.
Low and behold, onto the plane come Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bob Gainey. I had met Hitchcock a few times because of the numerous promotional projects Pinnacle had done with the Stars. The sat across the aisle from us. Jack was a Stars fan, and we had gone to quite a few games. He was very excited. He got his crayons out and spent 20 minutes drawing a Stars logo, putting all of his heart and soul and passion into it. He reached over and gave it to Hitch. Before I knew it, the two of them were deep into a conversation about hockey.
Then, Jack dropped a bomb, as only a five-year-old kid could.
“Who’s your favorite player on the Stars?” Hitchcock asked him.
“Well,” Jack said, pondering. “My favorite player is Mike Modano, but my dad says he is a floater and a turtle.”
Hitchcock gave me look. “Is that so?” he said to my son. I had a really stupid look on my face and I shrugged my shoulders. Hey, I’m from Prescott. Mike Modano was a great player, but he just didn’t have that Leo Boivin-esque edge that we expect in Prescott. I figured while Hitch and Jack chatted, maybe I should nod off and have a nap.
Did He Just Say That?
Meanwhile in Buffalo, I managed to get into the Marine Midland Arena in Buffalo for the draft. My task, before the great Pinnacle financial implosion, was to talk to agents to line up autograph deals with rookies and draft picks. How on earth was that going to happen when USA Today had announced to the world that we were in bankruptcy protection?
In the arena, I ran into Richard Scott, who was working for Canadian Sports Collector magazine. When I left that magazine to go to Pinnacle, Richard was hired. We spent the day together and completely geeked out.
The first draft selection in 1998 proved to be one of the most awkward, uncomfortable and cringeworthy moments in NHL Draft history. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Art Williams announced the first overall selection, Vincent Lecavalier. He proclaimed, right then and there, on the draft stage and on live TV – at least it was live in Canada – that Lecavalier was going to be the Michael Jordan of hockey.
Even typing what he said still makes my head flush and makes me throw up in my mouth a tiny bit, just like it did in Buffalo. When he said that, Richard Scott and I just looked at each other, paused for a moment, and we both laughed.
Poor Vincent Lecavalier. He was a great player, and he won a Stanley Cup. Maybe he was the Chris Bosh of hockey, but certainly not the MJ of his sport.
Fear And Loathing On The 401
During the afternoon, crowds gathered in the mezzanine to watch the 1998 World Cup, which began that day. Italy was playing Norway. By the sixth round of the draft, the World Cup became more compelling than the draft. Anyone there to snag Vincent Lecavalier’s autograph had it by now.
After the draft, I ended up at Richard’s house in St. Catharines, Ontario, across the border from Buffalo. He and his wife let me crash on their couch. I will forever be thankful to them for that. I had a full tank of gas. We hit the local 7-Eleven and we bought some Cheet-ohs, Diet Coke, and Panini 1998 World Cup stickers and a sticker album. We spent hours that night opening stickers and putting them in our albums while watching the World Cup.
As a collector, that was like the best night ever.
The next morning, I drove around Lake Ontario, got onto Highway 401, and just had enough gas to roll into Prescott. I didn’t have a cell phone, so I couldn’t call my parents or my in-laws. I got to my parents’ place, told my dad what had happened, and he gave me a hundred bucks so that we could get home. I phoned Pembroke from the land line, went up there the next day, and then the next day headed back to Toronto and home to Dallas.
When I got back to Pinnacle, let’s just say that our office was now kind of open concept. Our cubicles and office furniture had been repossessed. Brian Foye, Greg Bocchicchio and I sat on the floor in Greg’s empty office.
Meanwhile, Kelly Reed, one of our human resources people, was trying to keep everyone upbeat. She was one of the nicest, sweetest, prettiest, most positive girls you could ever meet. She would tell us we can still turn things around, and not to give up. God bless her for that. Unfortunately, it was way too late, and we didn’t have the heart to tell her and break her heart.
That all happened 24 years ago. Now, Vincent Lecavalier works in hockey operations for the Montreal Canadiens, who own the first pick in this weekend’s draft. The expectation is that the Habs will pick Shane Wright first overall.
Lecavalier may or may not have a hand in Wright’s development on or off the ice. But we do know that when that pick is announced, Wright will not be referred to as the Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady or Mike Trout of hockey.