Story and photos by Clemente Lisi
Sports card collectors have the annual National Sports Collectors Convention to look forward to at the end of every July. Hockey card collectors, on the other hand, got to enjoy the Toronto Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo during the first week of June.
Sometimes referred to as the “Canadian National,” the Expo typically features tons of hockey cards and collectibles and sections of the showroom floor do sometimes feel like you’ve stumbled into a museum. The spring edition of the Expo that took place from June 2-5 was no different.
It was the first spring Expo held at The International Centre, located near Toronto’s Pearson Airport, since the pandemic forced stay-at-home orders and halted travel. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions, both in the U.S. and Canada, made for large crowds during the four-day show, which was moved from March.
While the majority of people at the show hailed from all over Canada, a few out there, like me, made the trek across the border to Toronto. After four days in Toronto, I totally recommend taking such a trip in the future. For example, Toronto takes as much time for me to get to from New York City by plane (just two hours) as Atlantic City, site of the next National, is by car. It’s true that airfare costs more, but finding a deal is possible.
For anyone considering attending the Toronto Sport Expo in the future, here are five things from this last show that you should know.
5. Buy a VIP pass
I purchased the “bronze package” (cost online was $60 Canadian, which equals roughly to $47 U.S.) and it was worth it if you want to attend all four days, including the Thursday night preview. It also allowed me to get into the show earlier each day, bypassing the long lines that formed every morning for those who are only seeking to purchase single-day tickets.
Since this show was four days, rather than the usual three, and with more interest in the hobby now than ever before, it certainly is worth springing a little extra so that you can get in early and walk the floor before the crowds show up. This was especially true on Saturday, which saw the largest crowds.
The preview was fun because it gave collectors the chance to survey tables, chat up dealers and make an inventory of what they may want to purchase. I found this very useful, especially when thumbing through $1 boxes and trying to look at showcases without having people jostling me.
The freebies at the show (for those with a VIP lanyard) included a pack of Upper Deck Series 1 Hockey at the door when you came in, but overall there seemed little interest in the product given that it came out months ago. With the delay of Series 2, the show and a release didn’t coincide as is normally the case. That was obvious given the sparse attendance at the Upper Deck Pavilion, located in the middle of the showroom, and open to those who were ripping boxes.
4. It’s (mostly) all about hockey!
It’s called the Sport Card Expo, but hockey dominates this show like nothing I have ever seen in the United States. It’s something to marvel at as an American since so many U.S. shows – including big regional ones such as the Chicago Sports Spectacular and the CSA Show in Chantilly, Va. – are dominated by baseball and, in recent years, basketball.
Instead, this show had very little baseball — limited only to dealers selling team sets and jerseys of the Toronto Blue Jays and the old Montreal Expos — but there was a smattering of soccer and Formula One cards. These two have surged in interest during the pandemic and the younger collectors seemed very interested in it. There was also the usual assortment of Pokémon cards.
What I didn’t see – and this was a good thing – was young men with silver Pelican cases trying to flip cards. Some dealers were buying, especially on Friday, but few attendees were selling. People at this show were actually interested in buying.
The cards that loomed large at this show were ones of Wayne Gretzky and Connor McDavid. The Great One’s OPC rookie card was available in a range of grades and prices and lots of people were getting theirs graded at the PSA submission booth.
As for McDavid, his cards – specifically his Young Guns and SP Authentic Future Watch Autograph – drew lots of interest. It certainly helped fuel interest and prices that McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers were playing in the Western Conference Finals.
3. Take advantage of autograph guests
The Expo had quite the lineup. Naturally, the signers were largely hockey stars of yesteryear. The headliner was former NHL great Jaromir Jagr, who signed on Saturday morning. The price for his autograph was steep at $149 Canadian (about $117 in U.S. dollars), but he doesn’t sign often so collectors turned out in large numbers for him.
Other noteworthy signers included former goaltender Curtis Joseph, who took his time to talk with fans and even walk part of the floor to greet vendors. Bobby Hull, a fixture at the Expo and many shows across North America over the years, also made an appearance as did Frank Mahovlich, Brad Park and Bernie Parent.
One of the friendliest signers was Joseph, who took the time to snap photos with fans and even answer their questions. Upon seeing his 1990-91 OPC Premier rookie card, Joseph said, “Wow! My rookie card,” he exclaimed. “What’s this worth like 25 cents?”
Not quite, but close. His card, released during the Junk Wax era, could be had at the show anywhere from $2 raw to $10 in a PSA 10.
2. Expect to bump into hockey stars everywhere
You just never know who you will see as you stroll the massive hall crammed with 200 tables.
The VIP Night featured a free signing with former Washington Capitals and Minnesota North Stars center Dennis Maruk, who regaled collectors with stories from his playing days back in the 1980s. Maruk, one of the most underrated players in NHL history, told me New York’s Madison Square Garden was always a tough place to play.
“The fans are pretty wild,” he said. “That didn’t stop me from scoring there lots of times.”
One table at the show even featured Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne. The former Los Angeles Kings star was peddling his own merchandise (hats, bobbleheads and small hockey sticks – all featuring his autograph) and glossy signed photos from his playing days.
1. You’ll see stuff up close for the very first time
In a world where you can buy anything online, the point of a card show is to see things up close and socialize. That’s something the virtual editions of the Expo that I attended remotely during the pandemic just couldn’t replicate. It’s also why so many people decided to come to the Expo this time, making it one of the largest in show history.
The Expo had more than cards. There were vintage jerseys (along with game-used sticks and pucks), signed posters, old advertisements and even arena seats. There was also cardboard you wouldn’t normally see unless you’re checking eBay. I had never seen the 1990 Pro Set Stanley Cup Hologram card #/5000 or the Mario Lemieux OPC Box Bottom rookie card. It was very cool to see those up close, although they were way out of my budget.
As for my pickups, I purchased some marquee Young Guns that I was missing – Kirill Kaprizov from last year’s Series 2 and this season’s Trevor Zegras from Series 1. Both cards had eluded me after failing to pull them from hobby boxes and blasters.
I didn’t come away from the show with a huge haul, but the chance to see so many priceless cards and memorabilia under one roof with such knowledgeable collectors was a chance I’m glad I didn’t pass up.
The biannual show returns in November. To learn more about the Expo and to get information about future shows, you can visit sportcardexpotoronto.com.
Clemente Lisi is a lifelong Rangers fan who first started collecting cards in 1986. He collects both vintage and modern with a focus on rookie cards. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.