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While the modern sports card market for the three major U.S. sports is experiencing a dramatic downturn, one sport appears to be immune from the market volatility.

Hockey.

Both Topps and Panini, which produce cards for baseball, basketball and football, have seen the market for modern cards take a big dip this year after a historic boom in 2020-21. Meanwhile, Upper Deck, which owns the license to produce NHL cards, has seen the market for hockey cards hold steady and, in some cases, increase.

While sports card investors drove the modern card market to unsustainable heights, they mostly stayed away from speculating on hockey. As a result, the hockey card market remains strong.

“I think the biggest difference between what is going on in hockey and what has been going on in the other sports, we didn’t get the same mass of speculators all of a sudden coming out of the woodwork for hockey like they did for the other sports that causes a massive boom,” Upper Deck President Jason Masherah said in an exclusive interview with Sports Collectors Digest.

Also See: Top 10 hockey cards to collect this season 

While the widespread popularity of baseball, basketball and football cards helped spark the card market boom, hockey is more of a niche sport in the United States, but one with a loyal, passionate fan base. That applies to hockey card collectors as well.

2022-23 Upper Deck Matt Beniers Young Guns rookie card.

2022-23 Upper Deck Matt Beniers Young Guns rookie card.

“Hockey, by its nature, is really collector driven,” Masherah said. “It’s really about collecting your favorite set, your team, your player. A lot of collectors that are in the hockey card market are really in it to buying and collecting and not flipping.

“So, what we have seen starting in 2015, we have seen steady growth year over year and it really hasn’t slowed down this year at all. We have kind of seen the market continue to be steady for hockey, because we didn’t see the great ups that other sports had, which means we are not going to see the big downs that other sports had. Hockey is one of the few sports that is still trending up over the year when everything else is trending down.”

Upper Deck recently launched two new programs focused on hockey’s passionate fan base.

It’s third annual “My MVP” contest highlights the most passionate fans from every NHL team. In the past, it has celebrated such loyal fans as a couple who wore NHL jerseys to their hockey-themed wedding.

“Those are the type of people that we really wanted to highlight and celebrate because they bring so much fervor and passion to the game,” said Paul Nguyen, Upper Deck’s senior marketing manager. “It’s connecting what we do and what we love to the fans of the game. We’re expecting a lot of nominations and entries, so we’re really excited to see how it goes this season.”

Upper Deck also participated in the NHL Global Series, which featured season-opening games in Prague between the Nashville Predators and San Jose Sharks, by providing fans at the games with personalized trading cards and producing a free digital trading card set around the games.

While Upper Deck Hockey has been immune from the current downturn in the market, it has not been able to avoid the supply-chain issues and other problems that have caused production delays for all the card manufacturers.

The 2019-20 NHL season was cut short because of the pandemic, while the start of the 2020-21 season was delayed for the same reason. The aftermath of the pandemic and the current downturn in the economy has also led to numerous delays with the production of trading cards and new sets.

Like both Topps and Panini, Upper Deck is still trying to catch up on its 2021-22 releases. Masherah says it could take 18 to 24 months for the company to catch up and get all its scheduled products on the market.

2022-23 Upper Deck Hockey Series One.

2022-23 Upper Deck Hockey Series One.

“It has really put us behind the last two years with the starts to the season and some of the turmoil with getting photography and supply chain,” he said. “So what we have tried to do is really start to get some of the core releases back on track.”

Also See: Celebrating the 1992 NBA Dream Team and its top collectibles 

While Upper Deck is still scrambling to release some 2021-22 products, it released one 2022-23 set — MVP Hockey — recently and hopes to release its flagship 2022-23 Upper Deck Series 1 in time for the annual Toronto Sport Card Expo Nov. 10-13.

2022-23 Upper Deck MVP Hockey.

2022-23 Upper Deck MVP Hockey.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that we have it ready for fall expo up in Toronto, which has always gone hand-in-hand,” Masherah said. “And then we will gradually be trying to work to get everything kind of back on schedule again, but it is going to take some time.”

Collectors are anxious to get the new hockey releases they have come to expect, and Upper Deck is anxious to get them on the market.

“I know it is driving collectors crazy, it is driving all of us crazy, but two years of being off track, I can’t just get it back flowing tomorrow unfortunately,” Masherah said. “We still have, believe it or not, one 2020-21 product left, and that’s The Cup. And we have been struggling to collect autographs on that, like we do a lot of the time.

“A majority of 2021-22 products will be releasing over the next six months to try to catch us up. So the focus now is trying to get the 21-22, and then start to release the 2022-23 and also not cause a glut in the marketplace between the two.”

The product delays have produced an interesting dynamic in hockey, as well as other sports, as collectors try to chase rookie cards from the hottest new prospects. Some of the most sought-after rookie cards have not come out yet, despite those players having already made their professional debuts or, in some cases, completed their first seasons.

“What is fascinating with where we are at, particularly with young hockey prospects and rookies and up-and-coming players, is that, in many cases, it is taking them a little bit longer to mature and really come out as key players, and it’s kind of weird having three years of product all going at once, because you are starting to see some players from 2020-21 start to come up and really play well, and then 21-22, those players are now in their second year and they are starting to develop,” Masherah said. “On night one, we saw Cole Caufield score two goals and we saw [Trevor] Zegras score a goal so people are excited about that product, and now they also want the 2022-23 because those are going to be the first cards of the current rookie class.

“So it’s kind of a weird time, but you can see as the players are progressing, people are still excited for those products that they have waited so long to come out still.”

2021-22 Upper Deck Moritz Seider Young Guns rookie card.

2021-22 Upper Deck Moritz Seider Young Guns rookie card.

Hockey is different from other major national and international sports in that the NHL and Upper Deck have a long-standing agreement that players are not officially declared rookies until they skate in an official NHL game. Instead of the mass confusion caused by a glut of baseball rookie and prospect cards, the strict NHL rule makes hockey rookie cards much easier to define and target.

“I think that makes it very easy and very clear for collectors,” Masherah said. “You don’t have to debate what a rookie card is. I think that’s the advantage that we have over other sports. There is no gray, it is very black-and-white and it makes it easy to collect and it makes it easy to invest because you know what the rookie cards are for any given player.”

While hockey card collectors continue to chase young stars like Zegras and Caufield and recent No. 1 picks Alexis Lafrenière and Owen Power, veteran stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid and Alexander Ovechkin are still mainstays among collectors. Ovechkin cards are particularly hot this season as he chases Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record, while McDavid is the league’s LeBron James and arguably the greatest hockey player since “The Great One.”

2022-23 Upper Deck Series 1 Connor McDavid Freestyles insert.

2022-23 Upper Deck Series 1 Connor McDavid Freestyles insert.

“Those are the three veterans everyone is really focused on,” Masherah said. “And then it really comes down to the young stars of the last couple of years and then the hot rookies for this year.”

Also See: Top Connor McDavid rookie cards to collect 

McDavid, a seven-time all-star and the league’s most dominant player, is Upper Deck’s greatest hockey asset. Not only are his cards hot, but he has an exclusive autograph and memorabilia agreement with Upper Deck.

He is also one of the most accomplished athletes in American sports, dominating hockey the way Michael Jordan once dominated the NBA.

“Very rarely do we all get to see these generational talents in the various sports and when you see Connor live, in particular, you see that he is at a level above everybody else on the ice, and it really showed through in the playoffs last year,” Masherah said. “He just took it to another level. The guy is special. It’s like watching Gretzky in the ‘80s and the separation between him and pretty much everybody else. It’s the same place we are at with Connor.

“So if people aren’t following hockey closely or not into hockey, I just keep telling everybody, if nothing else, you need to watch the Oilers and you need to watch Connor, because it is something special.” 

McDavid, who has been an Upper Deck spokesman since 2014, is also special off the ice.

“He’s phenomenal, everything you could ask for in a superstar athlete,” Masherah said. “He’s down to earth, very respectful, very classy. It’s one of those things where they tell you, ‘don’t meet your hero.’ But Connor is everything you would want in a superstar athlete.”

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