Mother Nature can’t halt Toronto Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo

By Hank Davis

There were some notable sports legends on hand to sign autographs, including appearances by Bobby Orr, Joe Montana and Cal Ripken Jr. And there was a non-stop package of corporate entertainment from Upper Deck, President’s Choice, Ultra-Pro, Beckett, and Universal Distribution. Despite that, there was one guest nobody could do anything about and she insisted on grabbing some unwanted headlines.

Eddie Shack, known as “The Entertainer,” played for six NHL teams
between 1959 and 1975. (Hank Davis photos)

Mother Nature (a.k.a “The Weather”) had her way with just about everybody’s travel plans and took a shot at the building as well (the 100,000 sq. ft. Toronto International Centre). On opening day, freakish winds of over 70 mph toppled trees and power lines, leaving much of southern Ontario (including the Greater Toronto area) in the dark and without telephone service. Airline schedules were still a mess the following day. There was simply no way the Toronto Sport Card & Memorabilia Expo could get away unscathed.

Expo Operations Director Jeremy Renaud did his best to keep things under control.

“For everyone, dealers, guests and exhibitors who have been coming to the show for the past 25 years, this was something they’d never experienced before,” Renaud said. “The noise on the metal roof was deafening. The wind, the rain, the thunder… I’ll admit. It was scary.

“The lights in the building flickered several times and that told me to get to work. I knew the power was going to go out. There were backup generators, but before they cut in we had to let everybody know what was happening. Public safety was obviously our first concern. The last thing you want to even imagine is thousands of frightened people running for the exits in the dark. I immediately grabbed a microphone and let everybody know what was going on, that they were safe. ‘There are backup generators. Just stay calm. Everything is under control.’

All-time hockey great Bobby Orr.

“In fact, the staff here at the International Center was great. There’s an emergency plan in effect and it worked well. The generators cut in. The power eventually came back on. There was no damage to person or property. But it just reminds you, no matter how much preparation you do, things happen. You just can’t control it all. There are bigger factors at work and the weather is definitely one of them. You can do your best and that’s all. Airline flights get delayed or cancelled. Guest signings got delayed by two or three hours, but customers and fans understood. They might have been without power themselves when they left home.”

Renaud’s words were reassuring with one exception.

“We did lose a portion of the roof back there,” he said pointing. “I was standing in the back of the room and I actually saw some of the roof peel off with that wind. The rest of it held up OK but there was that one area. You could just see the power of the storm.”

On Saturday, 24 hours after the event, people who worked in the back of the room, near the autograph Pavilion, were still pointing towards the ceiling to illustrate their personal experience.

The show

Rick “Nifty” Middleton (New York Rangers and Boston Bruins, 1974-1988) engages with a fan.

The evolution of sport card design is an ongoing process and like natural evolution, it is based on competition. The goal is to come up with something different that succeeds. Those are the winners.

I looked in vain for the “In The Game” booth, one of the show’s regular exhibitors. I did however see a card manufacturer that was new to me, although its name is hardly unfamiliar to people in this area. “President’s Choice” is the famous house brand of Zehrs/Loblaw’s, an omni-present string of supermarkets. You can’t go far in this region, and probably most of Canada and not see a package of President’s Choice products: cookies, cereal, ice cream, bread, sausages or frozen lasagna. Even my cell phone plan is run by President’s Choice. But sports cards?

Dan Hurst, the company rep at the Expo, laughed and said, “Do you know how many people ask me that question every day? No, we’re not them. We have nothing to do with them. Our President, Dr. Brian Price, owns the company and these cards are his choice. Hurst shrugs his shoulders and looks at me sheepishly. Our lawyers have gone over it. The name is clear. But it’s still confusing.

“Brian Price used to own In the Game but he sold the brand to Leaf. Everyone told him he ought to start a new company so he did. This is it. We’ve been in business for about 2 ½ years.”

I ask Hurst what his company does that goes beyond the norm and he shows me a new wrinkle in the “game used” sweepstakes that most companies feel obligated to take on these days.

Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr.

“We have a new product coming out next month (June) that celebrates the Montreal Canadiens, and we don’t believe it’s ever been done like this.”

Hurst showed me a John Ferguson card that includes a game worn fight strap. The whole thing. Buckle and all. What next I wondered. Jock straps?

“Game used memorabilia cards have been around since around 1970. Bits of uniforms, that sort of thing. We’ve taken it to a whole other level. We’ve got pieces of actual goal nets from the Montreal Forum on a Ken Dryden (goalie) card, pieces of sticks, blades, helmets, gloves, and laces on others. Perhaps the crowning achievement of this series is a card containing the goalie pads from Georges Vezina, who played for the Canadiens one hundred years ago (career between 1917-1926). We have actual goalie pads from Vezina,” Hurst told me.

He added, “There were only two sets known to exist. He was buried in the first. The second one sold at auction and we bought it. When we cut it up for use on our cards some saw it as heresy. ‘How could you do that?’ they asked. But once the cards came out, it seems everyone wanted one.”

Hank Davis is a contributor to Sports Collectors Digest, as well as the author of Small-Town Heroes: Images of Minor League Baseball. He can be contacted at hdavis@uoguelph.ca.

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