By Sal Barry
When National Hockey Card Day first got its start the future of the event was unknown. Since that time, it’s become a day on the calendar that families circle.
“Daddy! It’s National Hockey Card Day!” exclaimed Tom Poray’s two young daughters on the morning of February 23. Such youthful exuberance would normally be reserved for a holiday like Christmas or Halloween. Yet since 2009 in Canada and 2012 in the United States, Upper Deck’s National Hockey Card Day has slowly and steadily transformed into an event that families look forward to each year.
Throughout the day, anyone who visited a participating card shop in Canada or the U.S. was given a free, five-card pack of hockey cards. Like every year, the Canadian and American sets differ, and each set has 16 cards. Cards 1-15 were available in the free foil packs, while the last card was given to a customer if they made a $10 purchase. This year, the bonus cards were of John Tavares in the Canadian set and Alexander Ovechkin in the American set.
Fans in both countries could also hope to pull an insert or autographed card. Some big box stores, such as Toys R Us in Canada and Dick’s Sporting Goods in several eastern U.S. states, also gave away perforated, nine-card sheets of hockey cards.
Poray, who is from Guelph, Ontario, looks forward to National Hockey Card Day each year, as do his two daughters, ages 7 and 5. This year, he took them to four different shops so that they could get enough packs to each build a set.
“To me, this is phenomenal,” he said. “This isn’t something that I’m pushing on my girls,” Poray said. “It’s nice to see that level of enthusiasm not directed at a video game or a screen.”
In 2016, Poray and fellow collector David Panopoulos started the National Hockey Card Day Trade Group on Facebook as a place where hockey card collectors could help each other finish their sets. The group currently has around 200 members. It has also become a place for Canadians and Americans to trade complete sets with each other, as many American collectors want to also have the Canadian set, and vice versa.
“We wanted to create a group that wasn’t about buying or selling,” Poray said. “It was created for people to share their experiences. Really, it was about having fun, trading and sharing the day.”
Poray’s experience, in making National Hockey Card Day into a family day, is not unique. Laura Lanteigne, of Brantford, Ontario, has made it an annual family outing for seven years now. She, her husband, son and daughter usually start the morning with breakfast at Tim Horton’s, then visit six or so stores for free hockey cards, followed by lunch, then going home and open their packs.
“We usually end up spending more money than we intend, because my husband and son like to buy sets when they are at the store,” she said. “But that’s our tradition. We make a whole day of it.”
Stateside, Paul Stratmeyer of Sioux Falls, South Dakota doesn’t have the luxury of going to many different stores for free hockey cards.
“We have two hobby stores in Sioux Falls, and only Triple Play Sports Cards was participating in (National) Hockey Card Day this year,” he said.
Still, National Hockey Card Day has become an annual event for Stratmeyer and his two sons, ages 19 and 14. The three have collected baseball and football cards for over a decade, and began collecting hockey cards about five years ago, after they started watching their local junior team, the Sioux Falls Stampede. They also collect cards of former Stampede players who have made it to the NHL, such as Thomas Vanek and T.J. Oshie. In 2016, Stratmeyer and his sons made it a point to go to shops on National Hockey Card Day and get their free packs.
“It’s nice to get something unique, something different that you can’t normally buy,” he said. “My kids like working on the set together.”
“Initially, National Hockey Card Day was designed as a way to encourage fans to visit shops,” said Chris Carlin, senior manager of Customer Experience at Upper Deck. “The family nature of the program is one that has morphed over the years, and one that we are certainly embracing when families make their annual road trip to shops.”
For example, one year Upper Deck held a contest asking families to share their pictures from National Hockey Card Day, and Lanteigne sent in a photo.
“My son Jake won, and Upper Deck sent him some game-worn jersey cards,” she said. “Every year now, Jake is like ‘Mom, take my picture here! Take my picture here!’ He was probably two years old then, and is almost seven now, so the fact that he even remembers that is pretty cool.”
National Hockey Card Day isn’t just about the cards anymore. Sure, the promise of free cards lures both hardcore and casual collectors out, encouraging them to visit one or several stores that day, trade with each other, and try and build a set. Now, it’s about building memories, too.
“It’s nice to see my girls go out and interact, and ask the store owners for cards,” Poray said. “They love it. It’s like a different version of Halloween.”
“One thing I like about it is that it interests my husband and my son,” Lanteigne said. “It’s cross-generational. It’s just nice to spend the whole day with my family, because time just goes by so fast. It gives us another reason to spend time together, which is our favorite thing to do.”
Sal Barry is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk.