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Cardboard Magic

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In the 1970s, hockey cards were voodoo to me, every bit as powerful as the Six Million Dollar Man...

I believe hockey cards have supernatural powers.

This is why, in the winter of 1975, I starting arranging my Los Angeles Kings cards like players on a hockey rink on the top of my mammoth hand-me-down stereo console. And then challenged the NHL All Stars—or at least the cards I was able to collect—to a game of pickup hockey on top of the console. My “rink” was oblong and the perfect length for a fantasy game. There were even miniature nets I cobbled together from old metal tubing and bakery string from the pink boxes from the store around the corner.

This was my pre-game ritual before road games and it made the post-homework, pre-parent evening arrivals go faster. Just before the games would face-off usually on the radio (there were few televised road games back in the mid-70s), I would set the the cards out. Starters on the hardwood ice and reserves side-by-side in a makeshift bench constructed out of old quart-sized milk cartons. Then I would walk behind the bench and shift out the players as Bob Miller and Rich Marotta let me know who was on the ice and on the bench.

The cards were voodoo to me, every bit as powerful as the Six Million Dollar Man and on par with the Millennium Falcon’s holographic chess players. I knew, laid out on the stereo, with their energy unbridled, and with my calm benchside manner utilizing my Carrie-like telekinetic powers, that all of this would make a difference, make all the difference, in the outcome of the game.

I used to put hexes on Bobby Orr. I (wrongfully) took credit for his bad knees when I read about them in The Hockey News (sorry Bob). I tore up my extra Gerry Cheevers card and tossed it in the freezer before the game six of the 1976 quarter finals went into overtime. Sure enough, Butch Goring solved Cheevers late in overtime forcing a game seven. Maybe if I had a second Cheevers card for game seven things might have turned out different that year.

These days, hockey cards aren’t distributed like they used to be. You could get them at any convenience store or supermarket. You could even buy them at the Fabulous Forum souvenir stands. The full-sized hockey sticks were $7, pucks were $1, and a wax pack of Topps hockey cards were $1.25. Now, the only place I can find them are on eBay or enclosed in authenticated plastic and up for auction.*

When I was first collecting, hockey cards were about memories. You held Gilbert Perreault’s card in your hand and you pictured his smooth, effortless skating and the flight of his laser-infused puck spinning towards the back of the net. You saw in the close-up shot of Bobby Clarke the steely eyes you’d gotten a glimpse of on TV weeks before, peeking out from under his shaggy locs as he racked up another 12 minutes in penalties and two more goals. The 1976-77 cards featured cartoons with fun facts. I mean how would I every know that Rogie Vachon was very superstitious and Guy LaFleur’s last name meant “flower.”

Many cards featured bad haircuts and goofy smiles. These players could be your favorite uncle who came to visit only at Thanksgiving. These guys might get you that slice of pie or extra piece of white meat. Those feelings never leave you. It’s about the way a card, for whatever reason, lingers with you, loiters in the imagination, as does some kind of magic.

I was an only child, and my parents were divorced. My dad was an old baseball guy, so the hockey fascination wasn’t something he understood too much. My hockey card addiction wasn’t inherited, nor was it influenced by dad or other family members. The great thing about dad is that he married well. His second wife worked in the Fabulous Forum’s ticket office, so we would get tickets to any Kings game that wasn’t a sellout (meaning lots of home games). When I was eight, I regularly went to games by myself (don’t worry, in 1976 this was good parenting). At the games, I knew every usher, ever concessions person, and every ticket seller. I traded cards with some of them. I got a perspective of the adult world that served me well.

I’ll know former Kings winger Bob Nevin’s stats until I die. Nevin scored 64 goals, had 113 assists, and amassed 45 penalty minutes in 235 games in a Kings’ uniform. Why the obsession with a run-of-the-mill winger on his fourth NHL team? Seems he was dating a friend of dad’s second wife whom I had a crush on. It seemed like every pack of cards I opened after that discovery had his face in it. He was clean cut with a perfect jaw and wore the expression of an engineer launching spaceships into outer space. I analyzed those numbers to death wondering how Bob Nevin could land someone like her. Back then, though, all my eight-year-old self knew was that he was a somebody, and I seemed to have a shoe box stuffed to the gills with his nobody cards.

Over time, as we get older, the cards—the collecting, the sorting, the trading, the hours spent in their company and in the company of friends and family who let me think they felt their magic, too—became memories themselves.

So this year where my father passed away at 70, it wasn’t the stories at his funeral, the old photographs or the memories from his friends and colleagues that made it possible to wrap my mind around him being gone. It was a card. Back at dad’s place after the services, I stood in his spare bedroom and looked at the frames and the books on his shelves, and then I saw it, the Gerry Cheevers torn card, fused back together with that cheap, yellowed tape, perched on the shelf in front of his cigar boxes, sitting there like some sacred object on an altar. Like Dad, Cheevers looked like he was the cat who ate the canary, like he was having a last laugh, like he was giving me the business and up to something.

I took the card down off the shelf and carved up a milk carton and placed him on the bench this time. And then I paced around the bedroom listening to the Kings game in somewhat of a trance. Missing dad. Feeling good and bad at once. Knowing everything was different. Feeling somehow, just for a moment, as if it were all the same.

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I want to hear from you!

Send me your card memories—a short (no more than 200 words), smart, funny, touching reminiscence of your favorite hockey card. I’ll work it into a future mailbag or column.

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* - Here are some beauties up for auction this month. Email me and I’ll tell you where to bid, but please, don’t bid against me!