I bought hockey cards.
But…you see…it was a different time back then. A looser time. A time of exploration and experience. A time of non-judgement. A more innocent and idyllic time to be a collector. And the cards were everywhere you went, man. Drug stores. Chain department stores. Gas stations. Corner stores. Everyone was doin’ it, man.
If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?
But hockey cards aren’t jumping off a bridge, man.
They’re pieces of cardboard with athletes on the front and stats on the back.
And I was hooked on all of it.
In all honesty, I don’t know why I bought hockey cards when I was a kid. Maybe for a less exaggerated reason than what I wrote above. While I dabbled in basketball, I never gave one single shit about hockey. I mean, I’ve watched hockey. On Tv. Live. Endured is a better word than watched. I’ve played hockey too. There was a weird time when every kid I knew bought a hockey stick and we played street hockey.
Miller hated hockey more than anyone I've ever met.
Even more than me.
Maybe the rest of us gave in to hockey's darkness because this guy was getting bigger and bigger in Pittsburgh.
Everyone loves a star.
Yeah…I still didn’t care about him either.
But I still went searching for him in packs.
I don’t know why I dislike hockey. I know why I dislike most vegetables. It’s because they taste like dirt. Hockey doesn’t taste like dirt. But it’s the sports equivalent of tasting like dirt to me. Say what you will about baseball. But at least there’s nuance. Substance. Poetry. Hockey is a bunch of guys skating around on ice for two plus hours, for a score of 1-0. Or worse. A goddamned tie.
The same goes for soccer.
And I don’t know why I bought hockey cards. Why does anyone do anything? Out of boredom? For experience? Because I wanted a pack of football cards, and all that the goddamned Thrift Drug had to offer me that day were hockey cards. I was an impatient child. Any little bit of money that I had burned a hole in my pocket. Saving was for fools.
And necessity being the mother of invention.
The first hockey cards that I ever bought were Topps’ 1988-89 release.
The one with this dude showing off his fresh new gear.
I’ll admit, it’s a good-looking set. Frosty white borders make you feel like you’re on the ice. Even though it’s hockey, the photos of the players look great. Especially the in-action shots. And I think that thumbtack “holding” up the players name is a nice touch. It harkens back to a time when sports cards were manhandled. Put in the spokes of bikes. Thumbtacked to your wall.
The problem for me was, I didn’t care about any of the players that I got in packs. Not Lemieux. Not Gretzky. I had no clue who Paul Coffey was, even though he PLAYED for the Penguins. Or Brett Hull. Or Patrick Roy. Or Mark Messier. I couldn’t even tell you who won that year’s Stanley Cup.
Yet I spent a shit ton of my money on them.
To the point where I was on my way toward building a set.
You know, if you have good parents, they watch out how kids spend their money. Try to encourage them to save. Spend it on things worthwhile. Once, I had fifty bucks burning a hole in my pocket. Christmas or my birthday. Or something. I really wanted this Monkees boxed set. So, I bought it. My mom read me the riot act. Why’d you waste money on that. You could’ve used it for (insert said important thing that I kid should buy but never would).
That kind of shit.
Funny thing is, thirty-one years later I STILL have that Monkees boxed set.
I couldn’t tell you where my binder full of 1988-89 Topps Hockey cards are.
I didn't even talk about hockey cards with anyone else, or even know anyone other than my brother (and that's his burden to carry I've obviously got my own) who bought hockey cards. Not Phineas. Certainly not Miller. They were a deep, dark secret that I held onto. Like being a fan of the New Kids on the Block, or never having watched the movie Jaws.
Yet....there went my hard earned coin.
On fucking hockey cards.
My foray into hockey cards (and it was hit and miss at best), did, however, coincide with the rise of the Penguins in the city of Pittsburgh. Long a frustrating and losing team in the city, the franchise was beginning to build a winner by the late 80s into the early 90s. A lot of it had to do with Lemieux. A lot of it had to do with supporting players.
There was the arrival of this guy.
Now 1990-91 Score hockey cards, I would have to say, were probably my next real forays into hockey card collecting. While I didn’t care about Lemieux or Jagr, like every kid and teen back then I thought that having cards of them (and other hockey stars) would one day make me rich and save me from the work-a-day drudgery that I saw my parents and friend’s parents deal with every day.
With the exception of brief stints on the dole, I’ve been gainfully employed since I slung my first newspaper at a porch back some thirty-five years ago.
Or I bought them because I wanted to see what I was missing.
What everyone was excited about with this team.
I remember actually opening wax boxes of 1990-91 Score hockey.
Around that time, I also got a job working at the Pittsburgh Pirates Clubhouse Store in the Monroeville Mall. The same legendary mall of Romero films and my blessed American Coin. The Coin was gone by then. And I was probably more interested in sports-related clothing than cards (though I was still buying cards). Everyone was going crazy over that shit. Starter brand was all the rage.
There is this one memory.
The morning after the Penguins won their first cup. We were all on-call at the Clubhouse. If they won, we all came into work. Early. Like real early. What awaited us was box after box of Penguins Stanley Cup champion t-shirts. And hats. Our job was to get those shirts out and sorted into size as quickly as possible, on hangers, and put onto the waiting six or seven racks for when customers started coming in.
And come the customers did.
The only other time I’d ever seen the store that packed was on Black Friday.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had finally arrived.
But all they ever gave me was a burn.
You see, all of those t-shirts we got in came wrinkled. It was okay for the initial batch to go on racks wrinkled, because rabid-hockey fans didn’t care. But subsequent shirts had to be presentable. I spent the entirety of that day in the stockroom of the store, steam-ironing shirt. If you’ve ever steam-ironed something and accidently burned yourself, multiple times, then you understand where I’m coming from.
All because of this pack of assholes.
Maybe it was that day where I resolved to hate hockey and not care about the Pittsburgh Penguins, and never buy another pack of hockey cards again.
While the Steelers own the city, Pittsburgh is a hockey town too now. I did time in Buffalo, so I know my hockey towns. Hockey towns can be hard when you think the sport is dull and stupid, its fans confused an in need of corrective therapy. And the Penguins team has been competitive off and on for the last thirty years, and have actually managed to win the Stanley Cup four more times since that 1990-1991 season. Not that I watched a single period of the action.
And good old Mario Lemieux owns the team now.
I once gave his kid a library card.
I met Jagr too. This guy I worked with at the Clubhouse was a puck-boy for the Pens when Jagr was a relatively new player. He had the job of showing Jaromir around. So he took him to the goddamned mall. To his job when he was off. I was working that night, so he could brag in front of his co-workers. Jagr didn’t speak much English. It was like meeting a stranger on the street.
But he bought a two-hundred-dollar, leather White Sox jacket.
Don’t ask me why.
As for hockey cards…they still exist. The Upper Deck company is the major manufacturer or hockey cards. That sounds about right. And from what I’ve heard they do a really good job on them. Again, not that I’d know. That said, I do hope that the NHL and Upper Deck continue their relationship, and that pro-hockey cards aren’t just another domino that eventually falls into the Fanatics monopoly abyss.
Stay strong Upper Deck!
Even though you helped damage The Hobby back in the 1990s!
Thanks for reading! Happy collecting!
If you’d like to learn more about hockey cards or the Pittsburgh Penguins…go somewhere else. I’ve written more about hockey and hockey cards than I ever care to again.
Next Friday: I’m going to show off what I picked up while in Buffalo and Pittsburgh.