Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dustin Brown Autograph Card

One player who has been amazing so far in these Olympics is Dustin Brown, for Team U.S.A. The speedy Los Angeles Kings' captain - the youngest captain in team history and first American player to get the title - who started his NHL career on a checking line but, when paired with Anze Kopitar, became a top-flight offensive threat. If Ilya Kovalchuk joins them next year, you can only imagine the heights they will reach.

Despite being only 25 years old, Brown has already represented the U.S. seven times: twice at the World Junior Championships (2002 and 2003), four times at the World Championships (2004, 2006, 2008 and 2009, winning the bronze medal in 2004), as well as the 2010 Olympic Games.

Just like in the NHL, he scores a bit more goals than he has assists in international play.

Because he plays in L.A., casual hockey fans from traditional markets (read: the Eastern Conference, Original Six teams and Canadian clubs) rarely seem him play, but the way he has performed at these games is eye-opening. It's not just his quickness, but also his tenacity, his determination to get plays done that impress.

Team USA, to me, is the international version of the Toronto Maple Leafs (fitting that they're coached and managed by the same assholes this time around as well) - the team you love to hate, but not the one you look back to and say ''they were great adversaries'', like the Boston Bruins, but more like that arrogant prick in high school who stole your girlfriend and drove off with her in his beat-up car, only to have her dump him two blocks later and would never amount to anything else in life. Well, maybe less so: the Olympics only occur every 4 years, so, technically, 1980 isn't so far away, whereas the Stanley Cup is up for grabs every year, and 1967 is two whole generations removed...

In either case, it's too bad Dustin Brown plays for a team I'm inclined to root against, because I'd love to have him on my team.

This card (#S-DB) was found in a pack of Upper Deck's 2007-08 Be A Player packs and sees a young Brown, who has the face of a teenager, sporting the Kings' black jersey with purple stripes and shoulders - a beautiful jersey even if I personally prefer the Kings' Gretzky era uniforms better. Brown signed a Be A Player sticker (that was seemingly later apposed to the card) in black sharpie and added his number at the end, even though the '3' from his '23' isn't all that clear.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Marian Gaborik Autographed Card

So we got two scares in a single game last night - first, that Lubos Bartecko's life and career might be threatened after an elbow to the head left him lying in a pool of his own blood, although it seems he'll be fine - and that Team Slovakia would end up losing the game after a late comeback from the Norwegian team.

The Slovaks were in control of most of the game, except for a flash at the end of the second period. One player who seemed to be everywhere on the ice, with at least 10 shots taken (not sure how many actually made it to the net, though), and a goal to show for his efforts is Marian Gáborík, the smooth-skating and bionic-handed New York Rangers star forward.

No matter how far back you go, you'll notice he has always been a high-producing forward; as a matter of fact, in his one junior year in Slovakia, he was given a one-game tryout with the pro team he was affiliated with in the elite league and actually scored a goal. The next year, he was good for 20 points in 33 games, playing with men five to twenty years older, followed by a 46-point season, in 50 games. He even managed to win a bronze medal at the 1999 World Junior Championships, an event in which the Slovaks usually don't qualify for the medal round because although their professional players can hold their own against other men in the world, at the junior level, the pool of players is considerably smaller than, say, Canada, Russia, Sweden and the like.

His performances as a teenager made him the third overall pick of the particularly loaded with talent 2000 NHL Draft, behind Rick DiPietro and Dany Heatley. And not only was he the Minnesota Wild's first-ever draft pick, as a rookie, playing with mostly seasoned veterans, he also managed to score the concession's very first goal.

In his sophomore season, 2001-02, he just about doubled his initial scoring output by netting 30 goals and 67 points; the next year, his second-straight 30-goal campaign, he participated in his first All Star game, and won the fastest skater competition, lapping the rink in 13.713 seconds. More importantly, though, he led the Wild not only to their first ever playoff appearance, but to the Western Conference Finals, gathering 17 points in 18 games in the process.

2003-04, however, started awry. His agent held out, hoping to get his client to sign a $6.5M-a-year contract. Gáborík started the season in his home country, with the HC Dukla Trenčín. Eager to return to the NHL, Gáborík changed agents three times in the hopes of signing a contract that would be fair to both him and the Wild. He eventually agreed to a 3-year, $10M contract.

But the 2004-05 NHL season was cancelled, due to the lock-out, and he returned to the HC Dukla Trenčín, scoring a whopping 52 points in a mere 29 games. In 2005-06, he produced his first point-per-game season (38 goals and 66 points in 65 games), but also suffered his first serious injury. The following season, he missed another 34 games - but still managed to score 30 goals, good for 57 points, in 48 games.

On December 20, 2007, Gáborík became the first player in Wild history to score 5 goals in a single game. He played in his second All Star game a month later, and finished the season with 42 goals and 41 assists in 77 games. He finished the season as the Wild' s captain.

2008-09 was his final season with the Wild; depending how you look at it, his 13 goals and 23 points in only 17 games are either spectacular or the biggest tease ever, as a hip surgery sidelined him for most of the season, and his recovery seemed to take longer than expected. Many critics claim he took his time on purpose because he knew he wouldn't be coming back to the Wild, as he was set to become a free agent come season's end.

2009-10 saw him become a Ranger, and it was more of the same: two injuries have made him miss games, but he has 35 goals (69 points) in 58 games - numbers that a few guys in his salary range (hello Scott Gomez!) would have trouble getting to in a full 82-game season. He and Henrik Lundqvist are the only reasons why the Rangers aren't flirting with last place overall.

This card (#91) is from Upper Deck's 2001-02 MVP set, and was signed before a practice in thin blue sharpie. The signature and its ink are sharp, as if that of the card, making all the dark colours - including the Wild's dark green uniform - stand out particularly well. The signing occurred in Toronto and was sent to me via trade by the same friend who sent me the Nikolai Khabibulin card I mentioned a few days ago.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Roberto Luongo Jersey Card

Today, a change of the guard occurs: Martin Brodeur will watch from the bench while Team Canada relies on Roberto Luongo to lead them to an Olympic medal.

Despite appearances (like, say, unmerited Vezina trophies for career achievements when it should be awarded to the season's best), Luongo has been the best Canadian goalie for the past 5 years. We're talking about a guy who was on possibly the worst team in the league yet managed to lead it in save percentage, breaking records for most shots against and most saves made in a single season.

He was made to carry teams; from his junior years, where he led two different teams to the Memorial Cup, two World Junior Championships (no medal as Mathieu Garon's back-up, silver as a starter), to appearing in 3 World Championships two gold medals, one silver), to being the highest-drafted goalie at the time (4th overall, since surpassed by both Rick DiPietro and fellow Canadian netminder Marc-André Fleury).

He still has a lot of playing left to do, both in these Olympic Games and in the NHL, so I'll leave it at that for now.

This card (#52) is from Pacific's 2000-01 Private Stock set and Authentic Game-Used Gear sub-set, and includes a swatch of a game-worn white jersey from his New York Islanders jersey, although the card lists him as a member of the Florida Panthers - he was traded on draft day by 'Crazy' Mike Milbury right after announcing their picking DiPietro; Luongo was sent to the Panthers along with the team's eventual captain Olli Jokinen in exchange for second-rate sniper Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.

Luongo was quoted as saying:
"I didn't expect it at all. One day they're telling me I'm the goalie of the future, and the next day I'm gone. I didn't really appreciate that. The good side is that [the Panthers] wanted me."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Nikolai Khabibulin Autographed Card

Although he certainly could have been an Olympian had he not been injured, Nikolai Khabibulin made the news this week for completely different reasons: he was arrested near Phoenix for speeding and drunk driving.

For those wondering what he was doing riding his black Ferrari at double the speed limit in the middle of the Arizona desert while on leave from the Edmonton Oilers after an operation for a herniated disc that could sideline him until the end of the regular season, it is important to note that he had kept his residence in North Scottsdale even after leaving the Phoenix Coyotes for the IHL Long Beach Ice Dogs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Chicago Blackhawks, and Oilers. And if you had the liberty to recover from an operation at home, would you prefer doing so in frigid Edmonton, or in the dead heat of the Arizona desert? I'd pick Arizona, myself.

I mentioned something about the Olympics to start this post, saying he could have made the team, but that remains to be proven; Khabibulin, even though he has proven himself to be able to do the job time and time again, has often been shunned by the Russian Federation. It started at the 1992 Olympics, when he was named the team's third-string goalie despite still being of age to play in junior hockey; the Commonwealth Of Independent States, as it was known at the time, under the rigid reign of Viktok Tikhonov, actually won the gold medal. Tikhonov elected to keep Khabibulin's medal, however, claiming Khabibulin wasn't a 'real' member of the team, seeing as he hadn't appeared in a single game (coaches and managers aren't given medals at the Olympics).

For ten years, Khabibulin had refused to represent Russia in World Championships and the 1998 Olympics because of the injustice he figured he'd been a victim of (he did make an exception for the 1996 World Cup, when Tikhonov chose not to coach the national team). By 2002, the International Ice Hockey Federation awarded him a gold medal for his services in the 1992 games, and he accepted to represent Russia in the tournament, winning the bronze medal. He also wore Russia's jersey at the 2006 games, but didn't play a single minute, as the country elected to go with Evgeni Nabokov, who is their top choice again this year, with Ilya Bryzgalov of the Coyotes backing him up.

It's true that Khabibulin is already 37 years old, much older than the other top Russian goalies, but he has proven time and time again to be able to withstand the pressure of important games: while playing in the IHL in a bitter contract dispute with the Coyotes, he was named league MVP when he wasn't allowed to fail; he won the Stanley Cup representing the Lightning; as a Blackhawk, when everyone thought he'd be traded since the team had signed sought-after free agent Cristobal Huet to a hefty starting-goalie contract, he stole the #1 goalie job and led them to a decent position in the regular season and a Conference Final in the playoffs.

In fact, the only thing you might be able to hold against him is that he is a mercenary in the most obvious definition of the term: he will only go to the highest bidder regardless of what their prospects for victory are, and will only bring his A game when there is something on the line. But that's exactly why you'd want him on your Olympic team - he'll get the job done if it kills him.

This beautiful card (#271) is from the 1999-2000 Upper Deck set, and sees him wearing the Coyotes' white home jersey. I think Upper Deck, by extending the picture right to be border of the card, and by making their logo and the writing a bronze foil coating, made this a very classy set.

Also, while I'm not a fan of the Coyotes, their jersey, or their colours, I am a fan of goalies and goalie equipment, and the pads and especially the catching glove look great with the uniform.

This was sent to me by a friend from Toronto who got it in person while attending a Lightning practice when they came to town during their championship run, his final year with that team. He signed it in sharp blue sharpie and added his jersey number (35) at the tail end. The signature complements the equipment, and overall colours, very well.

Get well soon, Nikolai.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Bill Ranford Autographed Card

So Team Canada pulled a Sweden and almost lost to the Swiss... instead of glorifying someone who played terribly last night, I'll revert to someone who has shined in representing Canada in the one tournament I most closely followed - the 1991 Canada Cup. But first things first...

In the late 80s and early 90s, the Edmonton Oilers were one of three teams I cheered for (the other two being my favourite team, the Québec Nordiques, and my hometown Montréal Canadiens). They had my then-favourite player (Wayne Gretzky), favourite defenseman (Kevin Lowe), and my two favourite goalies not wearing Patrick Roy's and Mario Gosselin's #33 - Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog.

You can imagine my disappointment when Moog was traded to the hated Boston Bruins for Geoff Courtnall and Bill Ranford - I had to stop cheering for Moog, and endure having a former Bruin back up Fuhr. And as luck would have it, the two teams met in the Finals, the Oilers sweeping the series 4-0 in 5 games (one game was cancelled after a power failure, tied 3-3). and Gretzly winning the Conn Smythe trophy.

Things only got worse after that - The Trade, as Greztky was moved to the Los Angeles Kings with and for other players and, perhaps more importantly, ten million dollars, made Mark Messier the leader of my Oilers - and he was a bit of a dick, playing hockey the Gordie Howe way, with nothing allowed to stand between him and the opposing net, and he'd elbow opponents in the face if he had to. The Oilers went from flashy-and-talented to angry-and-bullying. And then Fuhr got injured and missed most of the 1989-90 season, allowing Ranford to play in 56 regular season games and get the nod in the playoffs. Once more, the Oilers faced Andy Moog's Bruins, and, honestly, for a second there, I contemplated rooting for the Bruins. But I didn't, and the Oilers won it in 5 games. Ranford won the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP.

Ranford's state of grace led him to be invited to make the controversial 1991 Canada Cup team. Controversial? Oh, yes, so much. For starters, they elected to invite junior superstar Eric Lindros despite his never having played a professional game and his shunning of the Nordiques; additionally, they snubbed Joe Sakic, captain of the same Nordiques, who had become my favourite player. Also, because Mike Keenan was the head coach, he picked Dirk Graham (who just happened to play for his Chicago Blackhawks) to be the team's shut-down third-line centerman instead of reigning Selke trophy winner Guy Carbonneau. He also went with Ed Belfour (also of his Blackhawks, oddly enough) and the New Jersey Devils' Sean Burke instead of the world's best goalie Roy, or the past decade's best, Fuhr. Oh, but he took Habs bad-boy Shayne Corson and speedy-but-can't-put-the-puck-in-the-net Russ Courtnall; but no Mario Lemieux or Trevor Linden, eh? Go figure.

Le Forum, in Montréal, was the host of two round-robin games and the first of the two-game Finals; Le Colisée, in Québec, also had a round-robin game. I saw all four of those games live, in person, and the rest on TV. Despite some awkward personnel choices, it was the best hockey I could dream to see - for the most part.

Ironically, the two events I remember the most are the two that broke my pre-teenage heart apart.

The first one occurred right in front of my eyes, on my birthday, September 14th, 1991, the first game of the best-of-three Finals, when Gary Suter viciously cross-checked Gretzky - the best player of all time - in the back, knocking him out of the tournament and of a huge chunk of the ensuing NHL regular season. Sure, Gretzky would end up still putting up impressive numbers in the seasons to come, but the herniated discs he suffered as a result of that check - known at the time as 'The Only Hit Gretzky Couldn't Avoid'' - hampered his playing, slowed him down, and was statistically now in the league's top-5 or top-10, when previously he'd been alone on top. Even with the injury, had he played just one or two more seasons, he could have reached incredible milestones - he already had 2000 career assists, he could have added 1000 career goals, and 3000 career points. And had he not been injured, the sky's the limit, as they say.

The second bittersweet moment came when they announced the tournament All-Star team:
the forwards: Gretzky, Sweden's (and Nordiques') Mats Sundin, and USA's Jeremy Roenick
on defense: USA's (and former Hab) Chris Chelios, and Canada's Al MacInnis
goalie: Bill Ranford

And then they announced the tournament MVP. I was expecting they'd give it to Gretzky, seeing as he led the tournament in scoring despite playing one game less than everybody else, but no... it went to Ranford.

Bill Ranford. Best goalie in the world, and most valuable player on the best team in the world. I was shocked, and shaken. You'll likely never get me to agree that he was that good, but even I must admit that for a 2-year span, he was in a state of grace and seemed to make saves no one else could, or should.

His stock quickly declined after that, though, as he was traded back to the Bruins, then pretty much dealt to the Washington Capitals for Jim Carey (Adam Oates and Rick Tocchet accompanied him, with Jason Allison and Anson Carter going to Boston), before going to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings in meaningless trades. He signed back with the Oilers as a free agent in 2000 to retire as Swedish Olympian Tommy Salo's backup, a fitting end, in my book.

This card (#42) is from the 1990-91 Upper Deck set, a very pretty one at that (kudos, Upper Deck). A friend of mine had it signed in person, in black sharpie, at the 2003 Heritage Classic, the first outdoors regular-season NHL game held in Edmonton and gave it to me on my birthday a couple of years ago. He shared duties with Fuhr as they both helped their Oilers shut out the Canadiens in an alumni players' game held before the actual current-players game (which the Habs won 5-4).

Fun trivia fact: Ranford also played the actual hockey parts of Team USA goalie Jim Craig (if you understand French, I strongly suggest you read this article about Craig here) in the Disney biopic Miracle.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ulf Samuelsson Autographed Card

So Sweden barely got away with that one, eh?

Since it was a close call with no real standout from current NHLers, I decided to talk about a former Team Sweden representative... Ulf Samuelsson. Before Zdeno Chara, Samuelsson was the scariest big guy on defense, the guy who made opponents think twice upon entering the zone on his side, and even though he lacked Chara's monstrous slap shot, he made up for it in his defensive zone with a nasty edge and, many times, dirty play; he is responsible for ending at least 5 NHL careers with knee-on-knee shots (Cam Neely of the Boston Bruins being the most famous of them), as well as the occasional 'dirty hit from another body part', such as when he stopped Montréal Canadiens' Pierre Mondou's career short with a stick to the eye. He and Bryan Marchment were probably the two dirtiest players of their era.

Samuelsson was drafted in the third round of the 1982 NHL draft (67th overall) by the Hartford Whalers (the team that became the Carolina Hurricanes when they lost their soul, and who had been the New England Whalers in the WHA). He had some decent seasons at a Whaler, manning the defense with Adam Burt and Dave Babych in front of goalie Mike Liut, with Ron Francis and Kevin Dineen taking care of the bulk of the offense. A Canadiens-Whalers playoff series was a staple of the 1980s, and when the Habs wouldn't take care of eliminating the Whalers, the Québec Nordiques usually did.

Everything changed on March 4th, 1991: the Whalers sent Samuelsson, team captain Francis, and Grant Jennings to the Pittsburgh Penguins for John Cullen, Jeff Parker and Zarley Zalapski; this gave the Penguins the best second line is the league (and one that could rival every other team's first), stabilized their defense, ensured they would win two straight Stanley Cups - thus ensuring the team's survival - and pretty much spelled the end for the Whalers. One trade having a huge impact on the future of two separate franchises.

He would eventually play for 3 more teams (and also belonging to the Atlanta Thrashers for a week without actually playing for them in the summer of 1999) to play over 1000 games in his NHL career, but he was never as effective with those other teams than he was with the Whalers and Penguins.

His international career was also somewhat tumultuous. He has represented Sweden 3 times in the World Juniors, once at the Europeans Junior Championships, twice at the World Championships (winning silver in 1990), the 1991 Canada Cup, and the first half of the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games.

The first half? That's right - his Swedish citizenship was revoked when it was found that Samuelsson had demanded (and obtained) U.S. citizenship, and he was promptly evicted from the Olympic team. In 2003, when Sweden changed its laws to allow for dual citizenship, he was again considered a Swede.

He also played for the NHL All Star Team who faced the Soviet Stars in Rendez-Vous '87, which took place in Québec City in lieu of an All Star Game that year.

After fittingly being an Assistant Coach for the AHL's Hartford Wolf Pack in the 2005-06, he was named to the same position for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. In another ''back to the roots'' happentance, his son Phillip was drafted by the Penguins in 2009, 61st overall.

This card (#E17) was from the Euro-Stars sub-set of Upper Deck's 1991-92 Upper Deck Hockey set. It was signed at what was then known as the Molson Centre when his New York Rangers came to town. He graciously accepted my ''compliment'' as the league's most-feared defenseman and made a scary face at me, then signed very clearly in black sharpie.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sergei Zholtok Autographed Card

Keeping with this Olympic spirit...

One player who would be in this year's Olympics if he could is Sergei Zholtok (Latvian: Sergejs Žoltoks, Russian: Сергей Жолток), manning the Latvian wing despite his 37 years of age, but a heart condition and sub-par medical facilities in professional hockey rinks of the former-U.S.S.R. have ensured he is no longer among us.

Unlike many NHLers, Zholtok didn't develop an interest in hockey until he was 8 years old, watching a Canada-U.S.S.R. game from the 1980 Olympics on TV, but as soon as he saw it, he wanted to take part in it. He and his grandfather begged the local club to let him practice and learn to skate with them until he was eventually good enough to actually make the team.

By 1989, he was already a member of the Soviet Union team that captured the silver medal at the European Junior Championships, gathering 6 goals and 10 points in six games. A year later, it was silver at the World Juniors, and in 1992, World Junior gold.

He had made enough of an impression with the Boston Bruins to become their third-round pick (55th overall) at the 1992 NHL draft (a draft that yielded 15 All Star players including Nikolai Khabibulin, Sergei Gonchar, Roman Hamrlik and Valeri Bure, as well as fellow third-rounders Brent Gretzky, Manny Fernandez, Kirk Maltby, Craig Rivet and German star Stefan Ustorf). However, he didn't make a good enough impression to last with the Bruins, who only let him play 25 games in three seasons in the NHL, spending the rest of his time with their AHL affiliate in Providence.

Zholtok needed a change of scenery, and he got it with the IHL's Las Vegas Thunder. In his first season there, 1995-96, he amassed 51 goals and 101 points in 80 games (plus 20 another points in 15 playoff games), and he started the 1996-97 campaign scoring 13 goals (and 27 points) in a mere 19 games before the Ottawa Senators called on him to finish the season with them, where his 28 points in 57 games propelled them to their first-ever playoff appearance. The following season, despite his statistics dropping somewhat, the team still managed to make it to the second round.

1998-99 saw him traded to the Montréal Canadiens, where again his statistics would decline (on a terrible team) with only 7 goals in 70 games and a short stint in the AHL with the Fredericton Canadiens, but by the time the season ended, he took part in his third World Championships for Latvia. It must have instilled some confidence in him, because the next season, he scored a team-high 26 goals for the Habs that heightened both the fans' and management's expectations of him. His lone goal in the 2000-01 season's first 32 games, however, were more than disappointing, so the Canadiens sent him to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Chad Kilger, who had a tremendous stretch of success upon arriving in Montréal, while Zholtok put up 20 points in 37 games to lead the Oilers to the playoffs.

His play with the Oilers had caught the eye of Minnesota Wild management, and they called upon him to lead them in their sophomore season in the NHL, and he came up with 39 points in 73 games. The next year, the team made the playoffs and went on a surprise run to the Western Conference Finals, as he followed a 42-point regular season (78 games) with a strong showing in the playoffs - 13 points in 18 games. He was even named team captain in January 2003.

In 2003-04, in what was his final NHL season, he was traded by the Wild to the Nashville Predators as they, themselves, were making their playoff push, which they managed despite Zholtok barely collecting a goal and an assist in 11 regular season games, and a mere goal in 6 playoff games.

During the lock-out 2004-05 season, he elected to go back home to Riga, Latvia to play with former Wild teammate (and good friend) Darby Hendrickson for HK Riga 2000 in the BHL, the team that is currently the KHL's Dinamo Riga farm club. He had 7 points and was playing in his sixth game when, with 5 minutes remaining in a game against HC Dinamo Minsk, he left the ice to head to the dressing room, feeling ill. As he collapsed, Hendrickson ran down the hall to help him; by the time medics arrived, he had already passed away, his friend by his side. They listed the cause of death as being heart failure.

His NHL career might have been uneven, but his international career, however, is laden with success; the medals playing for the Soviet team, and the 6 times playing with Latvia at the Worlds, including many surprising showings and quite a few unexpected wins as everyone's favourite underdog country can surely attest to that.

This card (#659) is from the 1991-92 Upper Deck High Number Series set, back in the day when Upper Deck made only one hockey set, split in two: the ''regular numbers'' in time for the start of the season, and the ''high numbers'', updated with players who had been traded, rookies, or, at times, international players on their way to the NHL, at mid-season, near the All Star break.

I actually prefer these old Upper Deck sets to the newer ones; sure, the first three sets had basically the same simple, white-border design, but there was a big, clear picture at the back that added class, in addition that Upper Deck usually tried to have both team jerseys (home and away) appear on the card - in this case, the front is the red ''away'' CCCP jersey, while the back sees Zholtok sport the white ''home'' one.

Notice how Zholtok even signed the back of the card? I found that awesome. The card was signed in black ball-point pen - no one had a sharpie at hand - while he was a member of the Wild; it was less than an hour after a game, I was with a friend who was wearing a Zholtok Habs jersey, and even though he was rushed by Wild staff to get on the team bus, he took a bit of time to talk to us about Montréal, its fans, its restaurants, and life in general. A class act, really.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Zdeno Chara Jersey Card

The Olympics are upon us, finally. I just hope the refs fare better than they do in this current NHL regular season so far and let the talent shine through.

I'll be coming up with the usual stars from the usual teams (think Russia, Sweden and Canada, maybe a bit of Team USA if the right guy steps up or if I find my Ryan Miller memorabilia in time) when they give me a reason to with their play on the ice, but I wanted to start off with a guy who is the centerpiece of his country's defense, and one that I predict will have a top-4 finish - Team Slovakia, and Zdeno Chára. Despite an apparent lack of depth when compared to the Big Five (the previously-named 4 countries and the Czech Republic), a team that has Marian Hossa up front (or his brother Marcel), Chára on defense and a hot Jaroslav Halak in nets can accomplish almost anything, except perhaps beat Russia in a gold medal game. But anything else is definitely a possibility.

Chára was always Slovakia's best hope on defense, but he wasn't always seen as a sure-shot NHL star. For starters, he was chosen in the third round (56th overall) of the 1996 NHL draft, by the lowly New York Islanders at that (in comparison, my hometown Canadiens chose both Matt Higgins - yes, Matt, not Chris - and decent goalie Mathieu Garon ahead of him, and Arron Asham in round three). The Isles themselves had chosen Jean-Pierre Dumont and Dan LaCouture before him.

But the Islanders have a shady reputation in choosing players personnel; as a matter of fact, ever since they stopped winning Stanley Cups in the mid-1980s, even the good choices they made were sent packing for terrible choices in what is known in hockey circles as the 'Crazy' Mike Milbury era that has seen him trade away six (6!) top-2 defensemen, the second-best goalie in the world for the past 5 years (Roberto Luongo), and the equivalent of three (!) complete first lines to get very little in return.

Chára's trade was just more of the same: at the 2001 NHL draft, the 6'9'', 255-pound behemoth was sent to the Ottawa Senators along with utility player Bill Muckalt and a second-overall pick that ended up being Jason Spezza for washed-up, big-contract has-been Alexei Yashin, whom they made captain right away, to make matters worse. In doing so, the Islanders acquired the Sens' problem child while giving them a 100-point #1 center to play with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley, and a first-pairing defenseman to play with Wade Redden in all situations - 5 on 5, 4 on 4, powerplay, and shorthanded.

It was as a Senator that Chára became recognized as the league's strongest man. Being the tallest and heaviest player in the league does have its perks, but when you can back it up with the hardest and quickest slap shot, you're starting to get a decent overall game going. Add skating speed that is average or better and he becomes more than just a passing threat, and when he decided he kind of liked dropping the gloves and fighting, he became a force to be reckoned with.

For the first half the the 2000s, Ottawa was the team to beat in the East, despite only reaching the Cup finals once. And each year, Chára's talents became more and more recognized. Keep in mind that these are the Nicklas Lidstrom years, arguably the best defenseman of all time (and even those who disagree can attest that he may be a top-3 of all time), so at the end of any given year, Lidstrom's name is on the ballot for the Norris trophy, as is perennial runner-up (and once a winner), Scott Niedermayer. With only one nominee spot remaining and a full league of talent to choose from, you could still count Chára among the 6 to 10 candidates to be in nomination in any given year, which in itself is quite a feat; he was, indeed, nominated in 2003-04.

At the end of the 2005-06 season, the Sens had a very difficult choice to make: with three top-flight forwards making a ton of money each, they could only keep one of Chára or Redden under the salary cap; in retrospect, they have made the wrong choice by going with Redden, who is now with the New York Rangers. Chára then went to free agency and signed with division rivals Boston Bruins, and was made their captain, becoming only the third Slovak to be named captain of an NHL team (after Peter Stastny of the Québec Nordiques, and Stan Mikita of the Chicago Blackhawks).

As a Bruin, Chára has thrice represented his team at the All Star game (once as starter), and broke the record for the fastest shot, clocking in at 105.4 mph (170 km/h). And last year, his solid play even garnered him not a nomination, but the actual James Norris trophy as the league's best defenseman, ahead of Lidstrom and Mike Green.

He has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and speaks five languages (Slovak, German, Swedish, English and Russian). He is unstoppable. I never thought he'd actually ever win a Norris, so when you add that to all his other accomplishments, you figure a Grammy-winning album, and Oscar-winning documentary and a clothing line for giants can't be far along the way, maybe even a cure for cancer.

This card (#CT-ZC) shows him in a red Senators jersey and is from Upper Deck's 2005-06 Ice set, the Cool Threads (get it? ''Ice'', ''cool''...) sub-set and has more than tripled in value in the past year alone, going from a ''common'' card ($10) to a ''star'' card ($35). Not that I wish a Bruin would continue winning awards or anything... but a silver medal would be nice.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ron Tugnutt Autographed Card

Seeing as my hometown Montréal Canadiens' front office now is identical to that of the Ottawa Senators' of the late 1990s, I thought it'd be appropriate to post a Ron Tugnutt card, their best goalie of that era.

Many of his critics at the time said he was nothing more than a lucky #2 goalie, that he didn't have the size or skill-set to be a steady #1, that he couldn't lead a team; on bad teams, he was said to be benefiting from having so many shots against and that he couldn't hold it together on a better team, when relied upon, when it counted; on good teams, they said the good statistics weren't of his own making, that he was merely enjoying the benefits of playing behind star players. Remind you of anyone?

Here are a few of his accomplishments, though:

- modern-day record of most shots stopped in a non-loss (70 of 73 shots in a 3-3- tie to the Boston Bruins in what Ray Bourque called ''the most unbelievable display of goaltending I've ever seen'')
- holds three teams' records for most saves in a game (Québec Nordiques, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Ottawa Senators)
- holds two different teams' records for lowest goals-against averages (Ottawa and Columbus Blue Jackets)
- not just an All Star game but an actual First All Star Team selection at the end of the 1998-99 season (in addition to having been an OHL All Star in juniors)
- 10th all-time lowest goals-against record in NHL history, and lowest in modern times
- tied with a certain Dominik Hasek for Ottawa's highest save-percentage
- holds team record for highest playoffs save percentage for two different teams (Ottawa and Pittsburgh Penguins) and is third all-time for the Edmonton Oilers
- NHL record holder for most wins on an expansion team (Columbus), with 22
- has a division named after him in the FCHL
- in the 1998 World Championships, he posted a 4-3 record, 2.01 GAA and .915%

It could be argued that if Sens' general manager Pierre Gauthier and head coach Jacques Martin didn't prefer small, skilled and fearful forwards to guys with a bit of grit, they may not have fallen to the in-your-face, forechecking experts and borderline-goons Toronto Maple Leafs for four straight seasons, and Tugnutt may have had a chance to demonstrate the extent of his talent on hockey's ultimate stage - the Stanley Cup Finals. Which doesn't make me feel any better about the Habs' chances this year, mind you.

Tugnutt ended up playing for 8 different NHL teams; that's at least 8 GMs and coaches who thought he could be useful to their team. And most of them were right. The jerseys he looked like a fit in, though, are both Nordiques' jerseys (blue and white), and the black Senators one - three jerseys he just belonged in.

This card (#27), part of the regular 1990-91 Upper Deck set (Upper Deck's first hockey set), was autographed in black sharpie three years ago and sent back to me by mail; I had sent it to him via Hockey Night In Canada, where he briefly served as colour commentator. He is now the goaltending coach of the OHL Oshawa Generals.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Karl Malone Game-Used Floor Card

Yes, that's exactly what it sounds like, and Upper Deck just may have gone too far. A floor? What's next, actual melted-then-dried ice from NHL rinks?

I don't know how many pieces of floor they cut up, nor how many cards the set has, but every piece of floor has a logo on it, usually one of the team the player on the card played for when he was on the floor in question.

In this case, the Karl Malone card sports the 2001 NBA All Star Game logo on it, the one that was held in Washington, DC, in which Malone was a reserve power forward, in his 13th appearance (of an eventual 14) in the mid-season classic, even though he is seen wearing his Utah Jazz uniform. He was named All Star Game MVP in 1989 and 1993.

Nicknamed ''The Mailman'' because of his consistency (''the mailman always delivers''!), Malone twice was named the NBA MVP and only trails the great Kareen Abdul-Jabbar in career points scored - both considerable feats considering he was a contemporary of Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman and Hakeem Olajuwon, most of whom he played with on the Dream Team that won Olympic gold in 1992 and 1996. His eleven consecutive 2000 point seasons are above and beyond what any other player has managed to amass. He also holds the record for most seasons as the league-leader in free throws made, with 7.

The card (#KA) is from the 2001-02 SP Game Floor Edition, by Upper Deck, and, yes, the piece of floor is dented, like it got hit by a chair or something.

Daniel Marois Autographed Card

Of course, I have a pretty strict No Leafs rule, but every rule has a few exceptions. One exception is if a foreigner worthy of mention played his whole career with the Leafs - it's not Borje Salming's fault, he didn't know any better and never got traded. Another exception is a local-boy who is unlucky enough to get drafted by them and has amazing career seasons there and I can't find a decent card of him in any other uniform.

Such is the case for Daniel Marois. By the time the Toronto Maple Leafs sent him packing to the New York Islanders, he was no longer an impact player and had fewer and fewer cards of him made. And we're talking about a guy who scored 31 goals in his rookie season and 39 the next!

The Montréal native, who played most of his junior career with his hometown Junior Canadiens, never again played a full season after the Leafs shipped him off, playing a grand total of 40 NHL games with the Islanders spread over two seasons, 22 with the Boston Bruins in 1993-94 and only 3 with the Dallas Stars two years later. After a stint in the IHL, he elected to play in Europe for the remainder of his pro career, mostly in Switzerland. He did come back home to play semi-pro with the Verdun Dragons in 2004-05, scoring 14 goals and gathering 37 points in 31 games.

This card was fresh from a pack of Topps' 1991-92 Stadium Club set (card #197), an odd picture showing him in the Leafs' blue 80s-era blue jersey where he is shot from the back and barely covers half the card, as if Topps preferred showing the boards 40 feet away than the goalie he was right next to. It was signed by him, in person, using a black sharpie, at one of the Dragons' local games in the winter of the 2004-05 season.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Christoph Schubert Autograph Card

Christoph Schubert represents a new breed of player brought forth by the New NHL: a skilled player who is not quite of top-line caliber, but better than any checker on his team, so he is asked to play his original position (in Schubert's case, defense) as often as he is asked to contribute elsewhere (winger), in place of someone less skilled.

Ironically, for the moment, these players come relatively cheap, usually nearing the average salary, so in a cap era, come trade time, they are worth more than some star players. That is, of course, until the player himself becomes a highly-paid star, as is now the case with Mark Streit.

Unfortunately, Schubert now plays for the Atlanta Thrashers, where his fine play goes largely unnoticed by most of the hockey world, fans and media alike, case in point: despite having been a member of Germany's 2006 Olympic team, he didn't make the cut for the 2010 edition, despite there being only 7 NHLers on the roster - and many of them being role or reserve players with their respective teams.

Before being claimed off waivers by the Thrashers, Schubert had been an integral part of the Ottawa Senators for half a decade. In the team's skills competition, he is the second-hardest shot in team history (behind Zdeno Chara, of course) with a shot clocked at over 100 mph; he has also achieved first place in the puck-control relay portion.

This card is from Fleer's 2005-06 Hot Prospects set (card #208), the Prized Prospects sub-set, manufactured by Upper Deck, and is serial numbered 207/999. It consists of a blue sharpie autograph on a sticker that was later apposed to the card, in which he is sporting the beautiful, old-model Sens' white jersey.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Kelly Schumacher Autograph Card

So the Super Bowl's over, and the New Orleans Saints won the Vince Lombardi trophy... did you know there's another league in the U.S. that hands their champions a ball on top of a pyramid? Indeed - it's the WNBA champions (the women's professional basketball league) that hands out such a trophy, and here is a card honouring the 2007 champions Phoenix Mercury, and, in this case specifically, Kelly Schumacher.

Schumacher was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in October 1977, but her family soon moved to Canada, where she was raised. Thus, every time she achieves something, both the American and Canadian media are cheering for a ''local'' talent.

After defending the colours of the University Of Connecticut, she played for USA Basketball before the WNBA gave her a nod, via the Indiana Fever. For the 2005-06 season, she played in Spain, for the Perfumerias Avenida de Salamanca, where she won the championship. Her North American rights were then traded to the New York Liberty, who sent her to Phoenix the following year. After another championship, she signed with the Detroit Shock, where she played until 2009. She is believed to be back in Spain.

This particular card, manufactured by Rittenhouse, a company that is gaining more and more momentum actually producing cards, namely for hit TV shows but now also for sports - rather than just re-packaging other companies' cards as a ''hope-you-can-find-the-rare-card-amongst-all-these-Pro-Set-cards-I'm-over-charging-you-for'' novelty act like they used to. It is part of the 2007 WNBA Finals series, and despite not having an actual card number nor serial number, claims ''This Limited Edition card has been signed by'', although they fail to mention just how limited it actually is.

This card doesn't fetch so much on the market, $5-10 at most, but I wanted at least one WNBA collectible, and she's not a pain to look at - although she's no Sue Bird.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Two Yann Danis Jersey Cards

You might know him best as the guy who now watches Martin Brodeur play every night, but once upon a time not too long ago, Yann Danis was a top NHL goaltending prospect.

It started while he was in high school, in his rookie year in Junior A when he was named to the Rookie All Star Team and Academic All Star Team; then came Junior AAA and another All Star nomination, and a scholarship from Brown University, where he received just about every award imaginable (including for best goaltender and best player of the league), recording three seasons with a save percentage of .929 or higher, and two with a goals-against average under 1.90.

Undrafted, he was signed to a free agent contract by his hometown Montréal Canadiens, with whom he played 6 games in the 2005-06 season, going 3-2-0, with a very respectable 2.69 GAA and .908 save % - but he spent most of his time with their AHL affiliate Hamilton Bulldogs, where he spent 5 seasons. Tired of not getting a real chance with the Habs, he signed as a free agent with the lowly New York Islanders in 2008-09 (31 games, 10-17-3, 2.86, .910) before joining the New Jersey Devils for the current season (with a GAA under 2.00 and a save % over .925 in 8 games so far).

These cards are from the 2005-06 Upper Deck set, the Rookie Threads sub-set. For this sub-set, Upper Deck was in such a rush to be the first to produce rookie jersey cards that they set up a photo shoot to have pictures with the players, then cut their jerseys to pieces and put them on the cards. If the picture on the card matches the piece of memorabilia (i.e. if he was indeed wearing the Canadiens' white jersey), it would mean that the first patch, all red, would be from either the shoulder, wrist or waist of the jersey, a rare enough piece, while the two-colour blue and white patch would inevitably be from the waist.

The red patch goes for $10-20 on the open market, while the dual-coloured one can reach $30-40. Imagine if he had his chance at putting up those high numbers in more games - the sky is the limit.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Two Aaron Ross Autograph Cards

It's Super Bowl weekend, and I thought I'd start it off with an actual Super Bowl winner... Aaron Ross, who won it when his New York Giants beat the heavily-favoured New England Patriots in the last minute in his rookie year.

These are from his College years, where he attended University of Texas; he actually enrolled in 2002 but wasn't allowed to play that year because his grades weren't good enough, so he started playing college ball in 2003 instead. By 2006, he was a star - All-American and All-Big 12 - as well as being the Thorpe Award winner as the U.S.' top defensive back, and led to his being picked 20th overall by the Giants in the 2007 draft's first round. It is of note that 8 of his teammates also made it to the NFL, in what is considered by many to be the strongest class ever.

The card on the left, where he is sporting the University of Texas Longhorns' orange uniform is from the 2007 Press Pass set, while the one one the right, wearing the Longhorns' white, is from Sage's 2007 Hit series. Both are signed in blue sharpie, the Sage card displaying a longer first name but both being clearly from the same handwriting.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fred Brathwaite Autograph Card

Yeah, I have a thing for goalies, and that includes journeyman goalies - the type that have to move from team to team trying to find their niche. Some eventually do, many don't, but it's fun when one you've been following for a while actually does something spectacular.

Such is the case for Fred Brathwaite. I first discovered who he was when I purchased a bunch of 7th Inning Sketch junior hockey cards in late 1990, and one of them was of him, in which he was sporting the Oshawa Generals' uniform. He really stood out, and his statistics made it seem that he could be an impact player at the professional level. I didn't realize until much later that he was short - 5'7'' officially, but maybe even shorter in real life. In contrast, in 1990, I was 12 years old, and already taller than he was.

Brathwaite went undrafted after 4 years of junior hockey, though, and the Edmonton Oilers signed him to a free agent contract for the 1993-94 season - to send him to their AHL affiliate Cap Breton Oilers. After three years alternating between the AHL and NHL Oilers, he spent another two with the Manitoba Moose, then of the IHL, before a stint with the Canadian National Team (when NHLers weren't allowed to play in the Olympics, Team Canada was a semi-pro team onto itself, playing games year-round) before becoming part of the Calgary Flames, where he put up decent numbers (always a save % over .900).

After that, he was the backup for the St. Louis Blues for two seasons, for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2003-04, and Kazak Ak-Bars for two years, before returning to North America to play for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for two more seasons. Then he moved to Germany to play in the DEL for the Mannheim Eagles, where, finally, in 2008-09, he was named the league's MVP with a 2.37 GAA and a spectacular .925 save percentage. He is still playing there this season.

This card (#66) is from In The Game's 2000-01 Be A Player Signature Series, and sees Brathwaite sporting the Flames' late-90s white home jersey with angular black and yellow lines. It is viewed as a ''common'' autograph card, but it holds a special place in my heart.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Michel Goulet Jersey Card

Oh, how I wish this were a Québec Nordiques card!

Michel Goulet... the Péribonka (a small village of 500 near Lac St-Jean, Qc) native made quite a name for himself in the 1980s, playing alongside the Stastny brothers - four straight 50-goal seasons, followed by two of 49 and 48, four 100-point seasons and two more with over 90 - he was a force to be reckoned with for my favourite team growing up.

And, sure, by the end of the 80s, his point production was down a bit, and the team was losing a little too regularly, but he was still almost a point-per-game player in his last season in Québec (45 points in 57 games, following a 64 point/69 game season) when he was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks with Greg Millen for three guys who never really made an impact with their new team - Daniel Vincelette, Mario Doyon, and Everett Sanipass. Oh, what a terrible trade!

It was while in Chicago that he made it to the Stanley Cup Finals - losing to the repeat champions Pittsburgh Penguins in four straight games - with a team that also included superstars Chris Chelios, Ed Belfour, Steve Larmer, Jeremy Roenick (who infamously said, after his team lost the last game, ''that's fine, I'm still young, I'll win it someday''), Brent Sutter, Steve Smith, Dominik Hasek, Jimmy Waite, and one of my favourite perennially-forgotten players, Rob Brown.

Unfortunately, Goulet's career was cut short on March 16th, 1994, at the Montréal Forum, where he'd played in so many epic games as a Nordique. Sensing the end was near, knowing it would be one of the last times he would make that trip since he only had 'a few more' years left, he asked for the team's permission to have his wife fly aboard the team plane so she could see him play at the Colisée de Québec and Forum and visit friends and family - the first time he ever made such a demand - and the team agreed. It was in front of his wife that a freak accident occurred, during which he fell to the ice, unaided by either teammates or opponents, for no apparent reason, and slid head-first into the end boards; the play was continuing, but (Canadiens' goalie) Patrick Roy, in a moment of great humanity and fair-play, held his arms in the air and screamed at the referees to get their attention and got them to stop the play. He laid on the ice for several minutes before he could be taken away on a stretcher, in a coma.

He awoke from his coma 45 minutes later, in the ambulance, and his first reflex was to ask the medics if they could drive him back so he could finish the game. He would never suit up in an NHL game, a victim of post-concussion syndrome and post-trauma symptoms.

A year to the day after the accident, the Nordiques retired his #16 jersey. He was named to the Hockey Hall Of Fame in 1998, sandwiched between two Stanley Cups (1996 and 2001) won as the Colorado Avalanche (the team the Nordiques became when they moved to Colorado in 1995) director of player personnel. He has since graduated to assistant general manager.

This card, even if it depicts him wearing the Blackhawks' red jersey, sports an awkward white patch with red stains that look a bit like washed-out blood. It's a little creepy, and I hope it isn't from his last game. It is a 2001-02 Fleer Legacy card by Fleer (at the time manufactured by Skybox), the Tailor Made sub-set (the third player of only eight to have jersey cards in this sub-set, the others being Dino Ciccarelli, Tony Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Denis Savard, Larry Robinson, Mario Lemieux and Borje Salming).

Keith Ballard Autograph Card

Keith Ballard is a bizarre case. A gifted offensive defenseman, he is prone to making bad decisions at times, but unlike other offensive defensemen, his bad decisions don't necessarily entail giving the puck away to opponents as much as demonstrate a tendency to react in ways no one else would.

Case in point: late in the 2007-08 season, as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, he had an altercation with a fan at Vancouver's BC Place. This season, while a member of the Florida Panthers, after his team gave up a goal, he accidentally slashed his teammate Tomas Vokoun in the back of the head (he was aiming to break his stick on the cross bar and missed), cutting him at the ear and forcing him to leave on a stretcher; the following game, he ran into Colorado Avalanche goalie (and former teammate) Craig Anderson, whose head hit the goal post rather abruptly.

Such events take away from the attention he should be getting on the ice: in 2005-06, the year this card was released, incidentally, he led all NHL defensemen in shorthanded goals, with 3. Also, a rare feat for a defenseman, he was almost a point-per-game player in both the USHL (with the Omaha Lancers) and NCAA (with the renowned University of Minnesota Golden Gophers).

In the NHL, he has always been a part of strong top-3 or top-4 on the D, but make no mistake about it, he is always a centerpiece, never a side dish, and is killer on the powerplay.

Although the scan doesn't render it justice, this beautiful card from Upper Deck's 2005-06 Ice series (Glacial Graphs sub-set, card # GG-KB) depicting Ballard in his white Coyotes jersey isn't with a white-and-silver background, more like transparent-and-see-through. Its worth is in the high $20s, but when collectors wake up to how spectacular of a talent Ballard actually is, could skyrocket.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Alicia Arden Autograph Card

Alicia Arden is one of the world's most sought-after models, not only for the obvious reason (her totally off-the-charts hotness), but also because any brand that hires her know she will disappear - as much as she can - behind the image the said brand wants to project, rather than force the brand to adapt to her like many other top models do.

By being such a chameleon, she can 'act' her way through different brands' ads and/or photo shoots and seem like a different person each time, thus not limiting her horizons, but expanding them.

For example, film actors can brand themselves however they want, from being the perennial good guy (Tom Cruise), to the always evil foreign guy (Jurgen Prochnow), to those who like to alternate between gig and small films (Brad Pitt). TV actors, though, because people identify them to their roles so much, rarely get to play in more than one show at a time.

Mrs. Arden, however, gets to play a recurring role on General Hospital while hosting Talk Soup and appearing in Real Time With Bill Maher, as well as guest spots on Baywatch and Silk Stockings - all while appearing in varied magazines like Maxim, Elle, W, Vogue, Redbook, and Bride's Magazine, as well as being the face on make up products as varied as Andrea Waxes, Bare Nicole Miller, and English Ideas Makeup and appearing in ads for Budweiser, Yamaha, Power Bars, and Aqua Tech Pools. Crazy, eh?

This particular card is from the 2006 Benchwarmer series. I love the way this series operates: their pictures are all taken by their own photographer, and autograph cards are all signed in the presence of a company representative. Additionally, most of the girls like to have fun with it, as proven here with Alicia Arden's signature, which not only is clear, legible and airy, but also goes over the allotted space for the signature - just like the heart she added. Good stuff!