By Rick Firfer
Given that Chicago Blackhawks fans were forced to endure the team’s dead last finish in the Central Division last season, you might expect that the 11th Annual Chicago Blackhawks Fan Convention would have been a total bust. Nothing could have been further from reality, though. Win or lose, Blackhawks fans are nothing if not loyal to the team.
John McDonough, the Blackhawks’ current president, is the father of the modern fan convention concept, having conceived of the idea many years ago, when he was the marketing director of the Chicago Cubs. Clearly, no one knows better than McDonough how to connect with fans of a professional sports team. When he, along with long-time friend and associate Jay Blunk, moved from the Cubs to the Blackhawks in November 2007, they brought with them all the knowledge and experience necessary to produce one of the most successful fan conventions imaginable.
On Friday night, the autograph stages and photo ops began not long after the opening ceremonies concluded. There was also plenty of time for fans to wander around the venue in order to soak up the exhibits and other activities that were going on, including the opportunity to shoot pucks at open nets and to participate in hockey skills activities set up in one of the hotel salons.
In addition, fans could place bids on coveted game-used equipment at the first of the Blackhawks Locker Room Live Auctions, one of which was held each day of the convention.
Simultaneously, there was also a silent auction taking place with some pretty nifty items, including Patrick Kane’s game-used skates, which sold for $725. In the same auction, Kane’s game-used stick sold for $775, and his game-used gloves sold for $675. Team captain Jonathan Toews saw his skates sell for $675, and one of his hockey sticks sell for $800. The silent auction was actually a combination style auction, with fans placing bids in writing first, and then, if they were on the written bid sheet at the closing of the silent portion of the auction, the fans could participate in a live bidding war with anyone else on the bid sheet who wanted to make it a contest. This led to some hefty increases in the final bidding.
The seminars and panels were interesting this year. There were sessions with various players in which they discussed their careers and how they felt about the Blackhawks’ chances to be a championship team once again. There were also sessions with the coaches and the front office people, and in particular a very candid session with McDonough.
The interviewer asked McDonough how the team was going to deal with last year’s setback. His answer was basically that last season was over and the team would focus only on the future and what the current group of guys can do. Some things, he said, like injuries, are simply out of the team’s control, so they can’t worry about that stuff. All they can do is focus on making the playoffs again, because if you don’t make the playoffs, you can’t win the Stanley Cup. And that is, after all, their ultimate goal every year.
This theme was also voiced by the players we talked to in the media room before the convention opened. Everyone was clearly pulling in the same direction as far as playing hockey was concerned. Switching subjects we asked the players how they felt about the collecting hobby. This also gave us a chance to find out what, if anything, they may have collected when they were younger, or even what they collect now. Interestingly, their answers were all over the place.
It turns out that several of the current Blackhawks players were avid hockey card collectors when they were kids, including the European players. That group included Czech players Dominik Kahun and David Kampf, who, as kids, collected cards featuring Czech players; and Victor Ejdsell, from Sweden, who collected cards featuring Swedish players.
There was also Connor Murphy, whose dad, Gord Murphy, was a star player in his own right and an NHL coach. Connor collected the cards of a wide variety of players, many of whom he got to meet in person by tagging along with his dad when he was younger.
Being of the younger generation, most of the players we spoke to professed to still own the cards they collected in their youth, and they believe the cards are still in mint condition. Unlike the Baby Boomers, most of whose mothers threw their old baseball cards away, the younger guys have kept tabs on their cards. This is good for them, but bad for any future appreciation in value, since supply will probably always exceed demand.
One player whose old cards are definitely not in mint condition is Jan Rutta. Rutta, also a Czech-born player, used to collect cards along with his buddies so that they could play rock-paper-scissors with them. Evidently, this was their equivalent of card-flipping, in which the winner of each round got to keep the card the other player put at risk in that round. It would be hard to keep a card in mint condition if it is going back and forth in a game like that. Nevertheless, Rutta said he feels lucky to have collected at a time when kids could have fun with their cards and not worry about putting them in plastic holders and never touching them again.
Rutta also said that he gave most of his old cards away to another youngster when he outgrew them. Although he recalled having over 2,000 cards at one time, the only set he saved was one that had a player from each team in the Czech league. By trading with his friends, he said he managed to put together an entire set, a feat of which he was very proud. Rutta also said that he enjoys signing autographs for fans, although when he is in a hurry, he just concentrates on the kids.
“I once did a signing in a memorabilia shop,” he said. “That was really fun because I felt like I was a kid again myself.”
David Kampf did not collect autographs himself, but he said he does not mind signing for others. “It is a very positive thing,” he said. “Not a problem. I try to sign for everyone.”
Kampf also said that he does not collect memorabilia, instead concentrating on perfecting his hockey game.
The only Blackhawks player who would admit to having a favorite older player was Kahun, who said he was a fan of Jaromir Jagr. He also said that he has a lot of respect for Alex Ovechkin. But Kahun, like most of his teammates, said that he has little interest in obtaining game-used equipment from other players, no matter how much he might admire those other players. Unlike many of today’s major league baseball players who chase each other around asking for signed jerseys, bats and baseballs, evidently hockey players do not think such behavior is “cool.”
However, some of the players, like Carl Dahlstrom, do save their own memorabilia. Dahlstrom said that he saves his jerseys, as well as pucks and sticks that hold special memories for him, like the puck he used to score his first professional goal. He also enjoyed seeing himself on a hockey card for the first time because it gave him something fun to talk to his friends about.
Victor Ejdsell does not collect memorabilia generally, but does trade some stuff with his teammates and other friends in the league. He also does not ask other players for autographs, but likes signing for fans.
“I enjoy signing for the fans because I like interacting with them,” Ejdsell said. “It is part of my job. After all, sports brings everybody together.”
Connor Murphy does not actively collect modern stuff, but said he maintains an interest in vintage hockey equipment and may go looking for some of that stuff one day so he can display it at home. He is fortunate to have a head start in that regard because his dad used to pick up stuff here and there during his playing career and passed it on to Connor.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.