Clemente’s Corner: Collecting Hockey Autographs Through-the-Mail

How the Pandemic Turned Me Into a TTM Nut

It was two years ago that the pandemic forced all of us to stay home. Like many of you, I used much of my downtime to do things around the house. It also forced me to organize my card collection.

I can’t say it’s quite as organized as I would like it to be. It was during that process, however, that I refocused some of my hobby energy. I didn’t know what to do with the many junk wax base cards that I had amassed over the decades. Some I gave to charity. Others were given away to trick-or-treaters. Even with that, I had tons left over.

That’s when I discovered TTM – short for Through-the-Mail – autograph collecting. My kids and I decided why not mail cards to former NHL players to see if we could get them back signed. In doing some research online, I realized that there was an entire community out there who have been doing the same thing for years – and with much success. I watched YouTube videos and read blogs where collectors bragged about their returns. I was hooked.

It was an activity that kept my kids and I busy. I bought plenty of envelopes and stamps. We’d mail out a few requests every week – sending cards that were expendable – and eagerly awaited the arrival of the mail each afternoon. Some players charged a few bucks. Many others signed for free.   

I scoured my collection for cheap cards. I compared them to the list of players who regularly signed and I was set. I learned that a handwritten note was better than a typed one. Yes, it takes more time, but I think it’s a personal touch that could help speed up a return. I also made sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope with my note.

I sent cards to hockey players, but didn’t limit it to just them. I sent out any card I had or could find online for cheap, including baseball, football, basketball, soccer and auto racing. Once card shows came back, I would go through quarter boxes and binders looking for commons to eventually send out.

The mail started coming in. Some of the returns were great. We got back former hoops great Shaquille O’Neal, retired NFL quarterback Randall Cunningham and racing legend Richard Petty.

NHL players were among the most generous with their time and pens. I had so many worthless Pro Set and Upper Deck cards from the early 1990s that I couldn’t give away, but sentimentally were worth a fortune to me in memories. I often can’t remember what I did yesterday, but have vivid memories (some dating back to 1988) of where I was and what I was doing when I opened a pack and pulled out a certain card. 

Getting those cards signed, knowing that they were handled by an NHL player I admired as a teenager, filled me with joy. I got my addresses from Sports Card Forum and kept a log of my progress on there to help other collectors.

I’ve since scaled back on my TTM requests. I occasionally get cards signed at shows. I sometimes send in a request, but time has become more precious once again now that the kids are back in school and work has returned to normal. Despite that, I still consider myself a TTMer.

Below are my five favorite returns, in no particular order, from my two years of TTMing:   

Scotty Bowman

The legendary coach holds the record for most wins in league history (1,248 wins in the regular season and 223 in the playoffs) and ranks second all-time (behind Jean Beliveau’s 17) for most Stanley Cup victories by a player, coach or executive with 14.  

Mike Eruzione

The “Miracle on Ice” is the stuff of legend and Mike Eruzione has come to embody what remains the biggest victory in USA Hockey history. Eruzione never played in the NHL, but he has enduring power in the sport because of those Olympics and how he captained the United States to the top of the podium.   

Mike Gartner

One of the most underrated players in NHL history, Gartner was a wonderful scorer and one of my favorite players when I got into hockey in the mid-1980s. Gartner is most famous for being a member of the Washington Capitals. However, I will always recall his days playing with the New York Rangers. Gartner, sporting a great mustache, played during the time of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. As a result, his goals have gone forgotten. Nonetheless, he holds several records, including the one for most consecutive 30-goal seasons at 15 (tied with Jaromir Jagr and Alexander Ovechkin).   

Willie O’Ree

A hockey trailblazer, O’Ree has finally gotten the recognition he deserves in recent years. O’Ree never got a trading card when he played in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Instead, he was put on a series of cards decades later. O’Ree, who is now 87, was finally inducted into the NHL Hall of Fame in 2008 and fans’ awareness of him and his achievements have risen since then.   

Guy Lafleur

There’s something nostalgic about seeing a player flying down the ice with no helmet, hair flowing in the wind. That’s the image I will always have of the great Guy Lafleur and my memory of seeing him as a member of the New York Rangers during the 1988-89 season. Lafleur was always a great signer, even during his playing days.

I’m lucky to say that I was able to get Lafleur’s signature early on during the pandemic. “The Flower” died this past April at age 70. He was a true legend. The card he signed will always remind me of him flying down the ice.   

Two more tidbits to throw at you this month: The first is my latest piece in Sports Collectors Digest, where I write about the NHL stars and hockey cards to collect this season. You can read it here.

Second, for those of you who may also like soccer, my new book, “The FIFA World Cup: A History of the Planet’s Biggest Sporting Event.” You can purchase it here

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.

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Author: Clemente Lisi

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.

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