Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Panini Effect

With the end of 2010 upon us, we have reached the conclusion of a very memorable decade in card collecting - with the arrival of Panini hockey cards beginning in the 2010/11 collecting season, hobbyists everywhere have huge reason to be excited about the future of our pass-time.

For the purpose of this post, my attention will be focused on Panini Certified, a parallel-laden set that hit the hobby like a bomb just in time for the Toronto Fall Expo in mid-November.

I am lucky enough to have collected cards since the very early nineties - cards were nothing more than pieces of cardboard with photos on them, and it was unusual that a "rare" item would surface (Pro-Set Stanley Cup Hologram notwithstanding). Everything changed, though, when parallel foil versions, autographs and memorabilia cards were introduced. My experience in the hobby throughout its evolution leads me to believe that since the 2005/6 season, collecting and competition became synonymous. It was the perfect storm - the best rookie class in recent memory and perhaps in league history and modern card technology and concepts combined to produce some of the most memorable sets, cards and bidding wars ever known.

I would venture to say the arrival of Upper Deck's "The Cup" during that collecting season changed the hobby, and many collectors along with it. With so many signed card featuring game-used memorabilia on the checklist and a base set that was limited to just 249, there was no reason to settle for anything less. Limited versions, coloured foil versions and most of the artistry that had comprised the cards of the past were gone in an instant.

With early offerings such as those shown below, the reasons why "The Cup" remains so popular are obvious:

1) 05/06 Upper Deck The Cup Signature Patch /75

2) 05/6 Upper Deck The Cup Limited Logos /50 - Note that almost every card in this set had the "faded ink" flaw - this was corrected in the 06/7 release

3) 05/6 Upper Deck The Cup Zach Parise Auto/Patch RC - The Cup single has become the "Crown Jewel" in any player collection

The hobby was abuzz, and our collective love for high-end singles was just beginning. Since the inaugural release of The Cup, it seems as if every set includes patches:


autographed patches:

autographed sticks:

...even autographed baseballs?!?!

The hobby had evolved to such a degree that the base sets, inserts, parallels - heck, even the basic game-used cards we collected in the past were irrelevant.

As with every great novel or film, there has to be a Pinnacle (ahem.) - a culminating point leading to a denouement, or a decline towards a conclusion.

In my opinion, the high-point for the hobby was 2006/07 Upper Deck The Cup. It was innovative, featured the best player selection to date, and of course perfected concepts that may have been in need of revision from the previous season's offering.Case and point being the 06/7 Limited Logos set - arguably the greatest achievement on the Upper Deck resume. A sample of the first edition was shown above - below are the "Big 4" from the 06/7 set:

.. what... you weren't expecting Gretzky and Crosby, were you?

And so this "hobby" of ours had become a "gun show". The joy of collecting simple cards featuring photos and stats replaced with wars over high-dollar singles - While I have been more involved in the high-end aspect of the hobby than most, and love adding a scarce item to my collection when the opportunity to do so arises, the excitement generated by the first two editions of the Cup has not been duplicated, and all of the 07/8, 08/9 and 09/10 editions have re-hashed and rarely re-invented old concepts.

I have been waiting several years for a set to come along and reignite the collecting fire that has been dormant for some time - and thankfully it has arrived thanks to Panini Certified.

Certified provided a fresh new look at all of the concepts we once loved (foil, parallels, serial numbering) - and of course many discovered that they have loved these attributes all along, but have simply been deprived of the ability to indulge. Also present, though, are all of the factors that make the cards of today so fun to chase - game-used memorabilia and autographs are prominent at every turn.

Consider the examples below:

Platinum Red /999

Mirror Blue /250

Mirror Gold Prime /25

6-Piece Fabric of the Game /25

There are lots of cards to collect with both platinum and mirror (Red, Blue, Gold, Emerald) versions of the base card - many of which also incorporate game-used memorabilia - one example being the Mirror Gold Prime /25 card above. Collectors are then spoiled by many other special memorabilia cards.

Of course the player on the front of the cards above is Ilya Kovalchuk, who recently changed teams (end of February, 2010). I don't care if he isn't performing. I don't care if my favourite team is in last place. I DO care about the fact that Panini has taken the initiative right out of the gate to show him in his new colours - they even go a step further, being the first to include Kovalchuk Devils game-used memorabilia on a licensed card.

There is so much to like about these cards, and the initiative and passion that Panini has displayed after just a few releases is a great omen for the hobby going forward!

Hey, who knew a trip to parallel hell could be just what the doctor ordered for the jaded high-end collector?!