I started collecting sports cards much like every other sports-loving kid in America — fueled by an intense passion for baseball, football and basketball, traditional games passed down from generations that brightened our youth.
But I’m going to let you in on a secret, one only close friends and family members know.
It’s not a deep, dark secret I’ve kept hidden like those shoeboxes full of baseball cards I used to shove under my bed. It’s just that lifelong friends who grew up in my neck of the woods, as they say, just wouldn’t understand.
So here goes … I’ve fallen in love with another game. A non-traditional sport I never dreamed of watching. One that seemed somewhat odd and foreign to kids growing up in the stick-and-ball South.
In the 1970s, kids didn’t play hockey in the deep South, where college football is king and the games that mattered were played on grass or a hardwood floor.
Heck, sports fans in the South didn’t know the difference between hockey and hookey (skipping school), and you sure didn’t see such games on TV.
The first hockey game I remember watching was the 1980 “Miracle on Ice,” an historic moment that captivated the nation and put hockey on the map in the U.S. We got NHL games occasionally on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” but most southerners ignored it while they yelled at the TV to show the dang NASCAR race.
By the time I graduated high school and headed off to college, the only game I knew that was played on ice was sledding down a big hill when it snowed — kind of like NASCAR on ice.
About 20 years later, after stints covering college football, some NBA and NFL and, of course, NASCAR, I was finally introduced to big-time hockey.
In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes played the Detroit Red Wings in their first Stanley Cup Final. Living in Charlotte at the time, I listened as local sports talk shows broke down the series and talked about how hockey and the NHL were starting to catch on in the Carolinas and the South.
I decided to check out this strange new game.
The series was tied 1-1 when Game 3 went to three overtimes. I stayed up until about 2 a.m., mesmerized by one of the most intense sporting events I had ever watched.
The game was fast, physical and filled with so much drama that I sat on the edge of my seat for hours, consumed by the breathtaking action. When it finally ended on a Red Wings goal, I felt like I had been boarded into the glass. My body ached from the tension of clinging to every game-deciding moment.
Suddenly, I was hooked. That was the night I became a hockey fan.
I watched the rest of the series and the next season I began a 20-year love affair with the NHL and the Hurricanes. When they won the 2006 Stanley Cup, it was the most exciting professional sports moment I had experienced since the Braves won the 1995 World Series.
Having grown up on traditional sports, hockey fascinated me. It is fast, physical and chaotic. Every puck battle seems like a war, every rush like a five-alarm fire.
I was surprised by the skill and stamina of the players. It still amazes me that elite hockey players play such a fast, intense game ON ICE, and that before they can even think about playing hockey, they must first master the art of ice skating. The first time I stepped on ice on a pair of skates, I busted my butt and never let go of the rail again.
Also See: Connor McDavid's top rookie cards
I was attracted by the strangeness of it. I liked that I knew nothing about the game and had to learn the terminology and rules (which I still don’t completely understand), the players and the teams.
I love that it is played by high-level athletes with unique backgrounds and cool names (Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen) and play for teams with even cooler names (the Avalanche) and logos (Penguins).
In a sense, hockey is everything I love about baseball, football and basketball, all rolled into one sport, and played on ice. You can’t get much better than that.
Though I have been an avid fan for the past 20 years, I didn’t really pay attention to hockey cards until recently, when a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky card sold for a stunning $3.75 million.
Unfortunately, having grown up in the South, I missed the glory years of the “Great One.” But after seeing Gretzky’s card sell for such a staggering amount, I began to take notice of NHL cards and explore Upper Deck’s unique and beautiful sets.
Since then, I have bought several boxes of Upper Deck cards, searching for the latest rookies and special inserts featuring superstars like Connor McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon and future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby.
My son, Sam, also jumped into the game, starting a Hurricanes collection and chasing cool goalie cards. At The National in July, I picked up for him a special 2009 SPx Winning Combos patch card featuring Eric Staal and current Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour, the heroes of that 2006 Stanley Cup team.
With young stars like McDavid, Mackinnon and Toronto’s Austin Matthews taking over the game, hockey cards are hot again. Our next issue of SCD (11/1) features a look at the top NHL cards to chase this season as well as the top cards of McDavid, who just might be the game’s biggest star since Gretzky.
Checking out the latest NHL cards reignited my passion for the game, as well as the Canes’ status as a legitimate 2022-23 Stanley Cup favorite. I can’t wait for the puck to drop on the new season.
Just don’t tell my friends back home. They wouldn’t understand.
— Jeff Owens is the editor of SCD and sportscollectorsdigest.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jeffowens_jeff.