Eight Indigenous players who once played in the National Hockey League and were never featured on an official trading card are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
Upper Deck released the NHL First Peoples Rookie Cards set on Jan. 13 featuring players such as Ted Nolan of the Detroit Red Wings, Jason Simon of the Phoenix Coyotes, Rocky Trottier of the New Jersey Devils, Dan Frawley of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Danny Hodgson of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Victor Mercredi of the Atlanta Flames.
The eight-card set — a total of 10,000 of which were produced — will be distributed for free at a variety of Indigenous hockey camps and youth tournaments throughout Canada and at an Indigenous-owned hobby shop called First Row Collectibles in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“We are able to get into places where we know that the community is going to be involved,” said Naim Cardinal, a member of Tallcree First Nation in the Canadian province of Alberta who worked with Upper Deck on the set. “This is going to be accessible for people.”
Cardinal said it will be especially impactful for children to get their hands on these cards.
“I think for young kids having access to these hockey cards is going to be very impactful,” he said. “When they open up that pack of cards, they’re going to see a piece of who they are on those cards.”
Collectors in the United States hoping to get their hands on these cards will have to rely on the secondary market in places such as eBay or COMC.
The set was designed by Jacob Alexis, an artist from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation in Alberta, while Cardinal worked with Upper Deck on which players to feature. Some of the hurdles, Cardinal said, included finding photos of the players to use on the front of the cards.
The collaboration with Upper Deck and the idea for this set came in July 2020 after Cardinal appeared on an Instagram live conversation with Ken Reid. The Canadian broadcaster has written several books, including “Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favorite Players” in 2014 and the sequel “Hockey Card Stories 2: 59 More True Tales from Your Favorite Players” in 2018.
Cardinal, who has been collecting hockey cards since 1989, has become famous in the hobby for his large collection of rookie cards featuring Indigenous players who once skated in the NHL. His collection includes such notable players as Hall of Fame goaltender Grant Fuhr and center Bryan Trottier, whose brother Rocky is part of the new set.
Notable current players who have Indigenous heritage include Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, Vancouver Canucks defenseman Brady Keeper and Washington Capitals right winger T.J. Oshie.
Cardinal said he started as a set collector, but focused on NHLers with Indigenous heritage when he returned to collecting in 2004 following a 10-year gap.
“Going after rookies and pulling them from packs each year was kind of getting old for me,” Cardinal said. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to collect anymore. If I wanted to stay in collecting I wanted it to be something meaningful.”
In Canada, Indigenous groups comprise the First Nations, Inuit and Metis. Of the more than 7,600 players in NHL history – some 5,100 hailing from Canada – about 80 have been of Indigenous heritage.
Hockey continues to grow among Indigenous communities across Canada at the recreational and organized level at annual events such as the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships for elite teens each May.
Cardinal said he tried being a player collector, but it clicked for him one day that he should focus on players of Indigenous ancestry.
“The thought came to me, ‘What if I collected all of the rookie cards of the Indigenous players who have played in the NHL. So that’s where it began.”
He scoured the internet and researched the players who had such a heritage. He then compiled a list of names and that’s where the genesis of the current set came to be.
“I never thought my hobby would be able to open up so many doors for me,” Cardinal said.
Paul Nguyen, Upper Deck’s senior marketing manager, said the player checklist was a collaborative effort.
“We really wanted to make this [set] as authentic as possible,” he said. “[Cardinal] helped devise an advisory-type board that would help us really understand what the needs are for a set like this and who they’d want to feature.”
Nguyen likened this set to what Upper Deck has done in the past when putting out cards of Will O’Ree, the former Boston Bruins player of the 1960s who was the first black player in the NHL. He added that the focus of this set was to focus on those who had never had a card.
“That really was the first prerequisite of it all,” he added. “If they didn’t have a card, we really wanted to feature them.”
During the set’s development, Cardinal discovered he was related to Hodgson, one of the players featured in the set. Cardinal said it came about after he had a conversation with his father if he had ever heard of the Maple Leafs center.
“I didn’t know [Hodgson] existed until years after I started putting my hockey card collection together,” he admitted. “I’m constantly adding players to my collection.”
The set includes players from a variety of eras, two of whom are deceased. It includes Johnny Harms of the Chicago Blackhawks, who died in 2003 and played during the 1940s and ‘50s. The set also spotlights William LeCaine, who died in 2019 and played in just four NHL games with the Penguins during the 1968-69 season. He played a majority of his career in the now-defunct International Hockey League.
Cardinal said the set is a source of pride.
“Being asked to be a part of this Upper Deck project was a huge honor for me,” he said. “Not only from a collector’s perspective, but as an Indigenous person and coming from where I come from.”