Growing up in Southern California, Jeffrey Griffith harbored a deep love of history and hockey. Those two passions became intertwined in 1994 when Jeffrey's family became season ticket holders for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who were taking to the ice of the Arrowhead Pond for their sophomore season in the National Hockey League (NHL).
A self-proclaimed "causal card collector" up until that time, the then-eight-year-old Jeffrey saw his introduction to the game of hockey serve as the impetus to morph him into a far more serious and focused collector.
"Because I always had a fascination with history, it just made sense that, as I became more interested in hockey, I also developed an interest in knowing more about the history of the game," says Griffith. "That was when I focused my attention on hockey cards. To me, the players, the photos, the information on the cards, even their design, all played a part in documenting the history of hockey."
Today, having earned duel master's degrees from California State University, Fullerton in business administration and history, the latter for which he wrote a thesis: "Commemorating Greatness: The Hockey Hall of Fame's Celebration of Hockey, Canada and the Individual," Griffith has worked as a financial investment advisor and is currently pursuing a Ph.D in history.
While his career may be on hold as he advances his education, the same is not true for card collecting. His collection of hockey cards, and knowledge of Wayne Gretzky cards in particular, has become revered in the hobby; so much so he wrote a book entitled Gretzky Cards (2008) that chronicles every card that depicted "The Great One" through 2008.
Along with his Gretzky collection, Jeffrey has also amassed an impressive set of rookie cards of hockey's Hall of Famers.
Sports Market Report recently caught up with Griffith to gain some insight on his own collection, as well as his feelings on the state of hockey card collecting in general. We began our visit by asking him if he has ever considered how different his life may have been had his father not decided to get season tickets for the Ducks.
Jeffrey Griffith (JG): [laughs] It was by going to those games that I really developed my love for hockey and, subsequently, hockey cards. That was when I started buying packs of hockey cards and began building sets.
Sports Market Report (SMR): Back in the mid-1990s, Southern California, especially Orange County, was not exactly known as hockey country.
JG: That's true. None of my friends were into hockey. But I loved the speed of the game. And, of course, having the chance to go to the games and really be involved with the excitement didn't hurt either. I've always felt that hockey is better experienced in-person - actually [being] at the game - rather than on television. Going to those games and collecting cards was also something that served as a great bonding experience for me and my dad.
SMR: So you and your father were a team when it came to collecting?
JG: Well, I started out as a casual collector, like most kids - collecting all sorts of cards. Then, after we started going to the Ducks games, my dad and I would go to Toronto each year for the Sportscard Expo and to the National Sports Collectors Convention wherever it was being held.
SMR: Jeffrey, we have to ask - how does a Duck's fan become so enamored with Wayne Gretzky?
JG: [laughs] That is "the" question, huh. That started because we had gotten to know one of the ushers at the Arrowhead Pond, as it was called back then. Her boyfriend worked in the Duck's locker room and, through him, she got me a signed Gretzky puck. This was just when I was really getting into hockey, and once I had that puck, I started to learn everything I could about him.
I became fascinated with his significance to the game and, from then on, became really hooked on him. I was also very lucky to have had the chance to see him play because, at that time, he was with the Los Angeles Kings and they played the Ducks quite a lot.
SMR: Did you ever get the chance to meet him?
JG: I have, which has been a huge honor. In 2008, after I wrote the book on his cards, I got the opportunity to meet him and give him a few copies of the book. I also got him to sign a copy for me along with the original cover art that had been done by Paul Madden. That was a great moment.
SMR: Are you still actively collecting Gretzky cards today?
JG: Sure. My Gretzky collection has been, and always will be, the foundation of anything I collect. That is my core collection, which began when my dad and I would go to those [sportscard] shows. Every time we went, I would get more and more Gretzky cards.
And I loved them so much I decided to write and self-publish the book, which is a look at the history of all of his cards broken down into the different manufacturers - Upper Deck, O-Pee-Chee and In The Game - they each had a section. I also covered the background on various cards and why some are rarer than others. I included pictures of 750 cards in the book.
SMR: We know you have branched out since your days of just collecting Gretzky cards. Tell us about the other cards you collect.
JG: Beyond my Gretzky cards, I have also built a Terry Sawchuk collection, because I have always loved [hockey] history. When I first really got into hockey, I developed a love for the history of the game. I read everything I could find about the history of hockey and the formation of the NHL. And in doing so, I became fascinated with Terry Sawchuk, who was the Detroit Red Wings goalie in the 1950s.
After that, I started a collection of Georges Vézina cards. So, my real focus, for the past 15 years, has really been around Gretzky, Sawchuk, and Vézina. Then, I decided to expand it to collecting every hockey Hall of Famer.
SMR: Tell us about that.
JG: Sure. Actually, there are various distinct parts to that collection. Collecting the rookie card of every Hall of Famer is one of them. Then there's autographed cards and the jersey cards. The jersey cards first came out when I was 10 years old. I remember when there would be one-in-2,500 packs. Well, in 1997 I pulled a Dominik HaÅ¡ek jersey card out of a pack, which was just phenomenal. So that's another subset of my Hall of Fame collection.
I have found that when it comes to collecting hockey cards, many collectors tend to either go all vintage or all modern. I've always felt that my collection bridges that gap. The core of my collection is every Hall of Famer, all graded by PSA, from 1910 through 1991.
Then I also have what I call my "significant singles" subset that is made up of contemporary cards that feature the same player with every team they have played for. So, let's take Gretzky as an example. I have his rookie cards from when he was an Oiler, his 1988 card as a King, a card from 1995 that shows him as a Blue and a card from 1996 when he was with the Rangers.
I love that subset because it tells the history of his entire career through his cards - the pictures, the uniforms and the information on the backs.
SMR: Jeffrey, you know better than anyone that hockey cards are a bit of a mystery to some seasoned sportscard collectors. As hockey cards become more popular, what recommendations would you give to someone who wanted to start a collection?
JG: That is just one of the reasons the PSA Registry is such a beautiful thing. It is one of the very best tools and guides available to help those who are new to the hobby obtain information on what to collect and how to go about putting any type of collection together.
And just as you would with baseball, football or basketball cards, I think that you have to focus on something. Find out what you like as far as teams, players, positions, rookies or Hall of Famers. Pick a category you like, research it on the PSA Registry and then run with it.
As an example, let's use the Kings winning two championships as a starting point. You could start by getting the rookie cards of Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and AnÅ¾e Kopitar. They are big names in hockey and, as with anything you want to collect, the PSA Registry is your guide as to what is out there [and] who has what - just incredibly invaluable information.
Let's say someone was interested in collecting goalies; you can go on the registry and see what is available from every goalie that has ever played in the NHL. So the registry is really a great starting point.
SMR: What about sets? Can you share any advice on starting out for set collectors?
JG: The 1911 C55 set is considered to be the classic pre-war hockey set. It's hockey's [version of the] T206 set. Then, for post-war, the 1951 Parkhurst cards are a huge set. It was the first widely-issued set in 11 years and has so many important rookies, which makes it a great set to build.
SMR: You equated the 1911 C55 set to baseball's T206. So this begs the question: is there a Honus Wagner in the world of hockey cards?
JG: Kind of yes - and kind of no. Back in 1923, they created a set that had a shortprint of card number 25 from the 40-card, 1923-24 William Patterson V145-1 set that features Toronto St. Patrick's defenseman Bert Corbeau.
Ironically, Corbeau is really more famous for that card's rarity than he is for his play. Honus Wagner was a great player and a Hall of Famer, whose card happens to be rare. So while Corbeau's card is also rare, he was not a legendary player and not a Hall of Famer.
Every card collector knows that when it comes to the Wagner card you're talking the perfect storm - first, it's baseball-related, it's part of a hugely popular set, he was a very popular player and there's a great story behind the card and why it is so rare.
You can't compare that to the Bert Corbeau card, which is simply very difficult to find for those who are trying to complete that set. But that Corbeau card is probably the closest hockey gets to having a holy grail card.
SMR: You have referenced the PSA Registry a few times. What are your thoughts on what it has brought to the hobby?
JG: First, it's a quantifiable way to measure everything out there, from a single card to entire sets and collections. It is also a venue for people who enjoy it for the pure prestige of it. There's nothing wrong with that.
As collectors we all love to know who has the biggest, the best, the highest grades - all of it. The registry holds everyone to weights and standards, so you no longer have someone just claiming to have the best of something.
I think the most important thing about the registry, for people who really love cards, is that you get the chance to see cards you have never seen and, in some cases, cards you would never get the chance to see. You can see the most iconic and rare cards in the hobby all in one place. They're all lined up and beautifully displayed for you to see - like going to a museum.
It's also fun to see your percentages and ratings and share what you have with other collectors. I have gotten to meet and know great people through the registry who all share a common interest with me.
What I see on the registry are people who are competitive, but who are also supportive and helpful when they see someone trying to build or complete a set. You want to be of help and then to say "hats off to you" and "great job" when they have accomplished a goal.
SMR: Let's talk about grading. How important is it to you?
JG: I want the best I can get, but I don't freak out over seeing someone else having a better card. Now, if I see there may be 30 cards better than mine, then it would become a goal to upgrade my card as much as possible.
So, just like any collector, I want to build sets with the best grades possible. And again, without the registry there would be no way for me to know where I stand or if that could even be done.
I've also built a list of contacts and friends through the registry. We help each other. I know what other people are looking for, and so, if I come across a card they need, I help them get it. There is a great spirt of competition within the registry, but there is also a great spirit of cooperation.
While I almost always buy graded cards, when it comes to cards that were issued from 1993 to 2004, I have found a lot of them were never graded; so to complete my sets, I do buy raw cards and then get them graded by PSA.
It seems like from 2005 on it has become the new modern age for hockey cards. It's like it was the beginning of a new era that saw a resurgence in grading hockey cards again.
SMR: It's an age-old question, but readers are always interested in knowing if you have a favorite card or set in your collection?
JG: Well, of course the Gretzky cards are all special to me. Beyond those cards, I really like the Hall of Fame run I have put together. I also love when I can get a string of rookies in PSA [GEM-MT] 10 from a [specific] year. That is what I really enjoy - getting a full run of the highest grades possible.
SMR: Where do you typically go to find cards?
JG: Through personal contacts, on-line, eBay, the Toronto Expo and the National.
SMR: Tell us about pricing when it comes to hockey cards.
JG: Much more so than baseball, football or basketball cards, hockey cards are obtainable from a price standpoint. Very high-end cards can sell for quite a bit of money, but even the best of the best would be a fraction compared to what one would pay for high-end baseball cards. Sure, a Gretzky rookie in PSA 10 is going to be a very expensive card; a C55 set will sell for six figures; but in hockey there is no million dollar card. So, for the most part, hockey cards are affordable.
SMR: You are both a diehard history buff and a financial investment expert. How do those two things mesh when it comes to card collecting?
JG: While collecting, like history, is a passion of mine, the investment element is always in the back of mind. It is great security knowing that these cards are commanding top dollar. I know if, for whatever reason, I ever had to sell them, they would get top prices.
I never go into the purchase of anything thinking about the returns, but it is comforting to know that they will retain and increase in value. I've been involved with auctions where I have desperately wanted a card, but the price had just gone too high and I've had to walk away from it.
For those who are more inclined towards the investment side of the hobby, you can never go wrong with buying a Gretzky rookie, a Mario Lemieux rookie or a Patrick Roy rookie. In the world of hockey collecting, those cards are great investments.
SMR: You say it is really a passion that fuels your love for hockey cards. Have you ever sat back and analyzed that passion?
JG: I think we all love whatever it was we first collected as a kid. I love getting rookie cards from 1980 because they are the players I remember watching growing up. I think it is your childhood memories of a player or a team that is always the spark.
You may have tried to build a set as a kid, but when you get older, you can do it with the financial wherewithal, a far more sophisticated eye towards condition and all the other information and knowledge you have available to you because of the PSA Registry.
For me, the bottom line is that collecting hockey cards is tapping into something I loved from an early age and my desire to make a connection with a player, a moment in time or a team. Cards are a great way to do that. There's a lot of work, time, patience and resources that goes into building a quality collection, but there's also a lot of love and passion.
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