A look at the biggest sports collectors convention in the world.

When I was younger, so much younger than today, card shows were a weekly occurrence.

Every weekend, whether it was at a mall or a hotel conference room or the local VFW post there would be long tables set up with rows and rows of cards to sort through. Some of those dealers would occasionally have some random memorabilia, but for the most part it was just endless pieces of cardboard. Those days are long gone.

Now, maybe, if you live in a large metropolitan area, there may be a show once every few months or so. It’s the same dealers, displaying mostly the same stuff with just enough new product to force you to spend a half hour going through it. With the industry thinning out and embracing an online model, things just aren’t the same. Except for one show.

The National.

Every year a surprisingly large number of people descend upon a convention center somewhere in the United States to pour through overpriced pieces of cardboard and haggle over scribbled signatures of famous people from the world of sport and entertainment.

The official name is The National Sports Collectors Convention and it annually draws 30-40,000 collectors over a four-and-a-half-day period. This year’s convention was conveniently in Chicago so I set off on a mission to find some new memorabilia to put into our too-small-to-display-anything apartment and hopefully chat with some fellow Lightning fans.

The National is the biggest convention of it’s type and has been going strong for 38 years. In addition to the 650 vendors selling everything from custom works of art to Aaron Hernandez’s jailhouse letters the weekend is jammed full of prominent athletes signing autographs. If there is something you need that has your favorite team’s logo splashed across it, chances are you will find it at the National.

With the vast array of vendors of all types I figured there would be some cool Lightning stuff that I could pick up. I was wrong. Not only did I see nothing with the familiar lightning bolt logo prominently displayed, even after digging through stacks of brochures and programs and bobbleheads, there was nothing to find.

I wandered around the mammoth show on two separate days — Wednesday night, which is preview night, and Saturday morning, normally the busiest day of the entire show. In that entire time I saw one person wearing a Tampa Bay Bucs jersey (Ronde Barber) and a lady that might have been wearing a Lightning t-shirt. Sadly by the time I had made it to the spot where I had first saw her, she had vanished.

To be honest, hockey was not the most popular sport featured at The National. It was, perhaps, a strong third after baseball (far and away the most popular) and football. It was nice to see more hockey memorabilia than basketball, but I think part of that was due to the popularity of the Blackhawks. Even though it is a show that appeals to the entire sports collection nation, there is a definite bias towards local teams. So the majority of the non-trading card items had a Blackhawks theme.

Even if there wasn’t much Lightning swag on display, there was some impressive hockey items that could be had if your bank account was large enough. Sal Berry over at Puck Junk has a nice recap of some of the pricier items that a collector could have walked away. As all of those items were just a bit out of my price range I had to settle for some slightly less impressive items.

Pins:

One lady had an entire table dedicated to pins. She had them sorted by sport and team and I was surprised to see that she had a collection of Lightning pins. At 3 for $10 it was almost a bargain as well.


Huge fan of the old All Star logo. This season’s, ehhh…

Cards:

Yup. When there are no Lightning jerseys or pucks (seriously, one dealer had two long tables of nothing but NHL pucks and not a single Tampa Bay puck. I was offended. When I asked if he had any stored away he just shook his head and mumbled something about them not being very popular) for sale I had to resort to increasing my Lightning card collection.

In this case the Lightning’s lack of national popularity worked in my advantage as there were quite a few nice cards in the quarter and dime boxes at various tables throughout the show. Here is a small sample of what I picked up after rifling through a couple of thousand cards.

Die-Cut inserts. Not a bad trio of cards to pick up. The scan does no justice to the absolute pure shininess that is the Stamkos card.


Artistic Cards: I may or may not have the Stamkos Portfolio card in my collection already. That doesn’t matter. For a dime, I was more than happy to get another copy.


The Young Kids: I almost, repeat almost, felt bad getting these two cards for $.50 each. Yes they don’t have Lightning logos or uniforms, but anytime you can pick up autographed cards of two fairly decent prospects for less than the price of a newspaper, you gotta do it!

Mitchell Stephens Brett Howden Auto Cards
JustinG. Personal Collection

Another reason I was there on Wednesday was to have a chance to talk to a couple of former players that were signing autographs. While the only person signing that had a direct connection with the Lightning was Phil Esposito (work conflict prevented me from even trying to chat with him), I did want to talk to Ron Duguay about his brief tenure in the organization.

He was scheduled to appear on Wednesday with a couple of other athletes at a special VIP session and the organizer had sent out an email asking the invited media if they wanted to interview any of the players. I promptly replied back that I would like five minutes with the former Ranger superstar. Then I waited for a response confirming either a time or flat out denying the request. I received neither.

The day of the show arrived and I showed up at the show with Sal who, after some searching, found the promoter. He then told us that we might be able to catch Duguay between signing sessions. So we waited in a very crowded conference room. No luck.

He had another signing session that lasted about an hour. The promoter for that session said that if we hung out we could catch him when he was done. So we hung out. Well, maybe I wandered off to look at some more stuff I couldn’t afford, but I made it back before Duguay was done signing.


Seriously, I’m not spending $100 for a bad Steven Stamkos signature.

We were taken behind the curtain and told that he was running late for a flight but if wanted to ask him questions we could while he finished up signing a few last autographs. That led to me asking questions while he was focused on signing for a few stragglers. I’m not sure he was entirely focused on what I was asking as his answers were short.

So that wasn’t as successful as I had hoped. Granted it was better than what Sal got as he was forced to walk and interview Duguay as he headed out the back door to his waiting ride. Kind of a bummer way to start out the convention, but I quickly put it out of mind as I wandered around the show floor.

The greatest thing about The National is walking around and seeing actual sports history.

A Muhammad Ali fight robe. How sweet would that be to hang in your closet?

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How about Babe Ruth’s bat?

Even famous sports writers/podcasters/producers get a little impressed over the stuff they see:

Already regret not buying this. Autographed!

A post shared by Bill Simmons (@sptguy33) on

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The unframed version of that photo was $75.00. I, much like Bill Simmons, regret not buying it.

Regrets only have to last a year. See you in Cleveland next year!


Article first appeared on www.draysbay.com