Sunday, November 14, 2010

Nooks and Canooks

The story of trading cards in the late ‘80s in early ‘90s is populated like Churchill Downs on Derby Day with cheaters. You wouldn’t call them cheaters, really, but I would. They were the finest assortment of undercapitalized entrepreneurs, tinhorn bandwagon-chasers, and misanthropic small-businesspeople this side of the 112th Congress.

The only upside to this was that these cheaters were quite entertaining to talk with. They generally had a grandiose idea which tended to work best with someone else’s money, a past that was more littered with potholes than Chicago streets in March, a line of patter that made Professor Harold Hill sound like Shane McGowan, and the idea that the trading-card and sports-memorabilia business was going to divert its course like Mark Twain’s Mississippi and run right through their idea, even if their idea was Dream Team chew toys or Legends of Sea World trading cards. They were a collection of Terry Molloys; they coulda been contenders if they’d only had more money, or the breaks, or the license -- usually the license.

Because they did not have the money or the breaks they couldn’t get the license, and because they couldn’t get the license they had to cheat. Cheating generally took the form of creating an unlicensed product.

There were a couple of routes nascent cardmakers could take to make unlicensed sets. They could just throw the cards out there, usually at shows, and dare the leagues and lawyers to do something about it. That was the Broder approach. They could go the Star Company route and contract with individual players, bypassing the players’ association. They could contract with individual teams or non-major leagues, though by the time the Handful O’Landfill era had rolled around everything this side of the Australian Baseball League was spoken for. Or they could swoop in and sign players while they were in that unique portal between life and the afterlife, otherwise known as the amateur and professional realms.

These projects usually took the form of draft-pick sets, and while many of them were very nicely done (cf. Star Pics), you can’t say there was ever a need for them. Topps and Upper Deck (the Official Upper Deck, not the Forbidden Upper Deck) would get to these guys shortly, assuming they were worthy, and those companies’ cards would be recognized as the valuable ones anyway, no matter how cool the draft-pick-cards’ backs were or how many autographed Chuck Taylors they threw into the mix.

There was a distinct hierarchy to these sets. Football was on top because people actually follow the football draft, and the path from the draft to the bigs rarely detours through Ankara, Gotebörg, or Moose Jaw. Basketball was next, for the same reasons, followed by baseball, and finally hockey.

Understanding the NHL draft is like understanding how Cam Newton wound up at Auburn for free if people were willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for him to play at places very similar to Auburn, save for a few entrees in the lunch line. Both phenomena involve money seen and unseen, levels of play with “junior” in their name, the promise of professional glory, and repeated blows to the head. But eventually they diverge.

Unless your name is Sidney Crosby, a first-round NHL draft pick can vanish for several years before suddenly appearing in the NHL, usually with a team five places removed from the team that drafted him. No one knows what goes on in between; many meals of french fries and gravy, several thousand Molsons, and extensive bridgework are the best guesses.

Because the NHL draft is as connected to the NHL as Taylor Swift is connected to Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers, naturally hockey-draft-pick sets proliferated like women-on-women talk shows, with about as much worthwhile content.

The production qualities on these sets range from unnecessarily glitzy (Ultimate Hockey) to Home Shopping Network Lite (Classic) to third-world crude, which is where this week’s Handful O’Landfill at last makes an appearance.

The genesis of the “Russian Stars In NHL/National Team of the USSR” has been sucked up in the great Zamboni of time, though it probably wasn’t altogether clear to start with. My guess is that this product of Leningrad’s Ivan Fiodorov Press comes in somewhere between the Joe Smith Indianapolis Racers one-card Wayne Gretzky set profiled in the first installment of Handful O’Landfill and a fundraiser for the Russian Mafia.

Just the name of this set suggests the confusion that still surrounds it. Is it a set of Russian stars in the NHL, the Russian national team, or a national team made up of stars of the NHL? If the set answers these questions it does so in Russian, because the English sure doesn’t get ‘er done.

With that said, this set has its moments, especially at the end of the English portion of the Igor Larionov’s card, which reads, “In 1989-90 he began playing for the Vancouver Canooks.” This falls in perfectly with the Doront Mupplekhleef, Bostabroons and Mondrool Canadeens of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. Alexei Gusarov’s titular team, the Quebec Nordics, can’t compete with that.

The set also has a card of Vladislav Tretiak, the best goalie ever, and cards of that guy aren’t exactly spilling over the gunwales.

From the nesting-doll motif on the card backs to the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time photography on the front, there’s a gritty Trabantesque feel to this set, which is just about right. Like the Trabant, the Russian Stars In NHL set is a socialist approximation of a capitalist fad. And like the Trabant, this set didn’t go anywhere, either.

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