Thursday, December 7, 2000
Collectibles market prepared for a Super season
By Darren Rovell
Mario Lemieux called Pen Station, the Penguins official store inside Mellon Arena, on Tuesday and ordered three authentic jerseys bearing his name and number.
"It wasn't unusual because Mario calls every once in a while and orders some jerseys for gifts or charities," said store manager Karen Ford.
But Lemieux didn't tell Ford that he might be thinking about using one of them for himself in the near future. If he had, Ford would have had a jump start on the hysteria that welcomed her when she walked into the store Thursday morning.
"We've had 20 people call (in the last hour)," Ford said early this afternoon. "They've been calling from all over the country -- from Arizona to California to New Jersey."
If Lemieux is indeed back on the ice sometime soon, the hockey collectibles industry will be ready to catch on fire again. Since Lemieux's retirement in 1997, it hasn't been the same.
"If you look at the hobby in last few years, sure there's been (Jaromir) Jagr, (Joe) Sakic and (Steve) Yzerman, but no one really transcended the game like Lemieux did," said Al Muir, senior editor of Beckett Hockey Collector. "He had this Jordanesque quality about him and the way he played encouraged people to buy cards and collectibles. So I wouldn't be surprised if he is back among the top two or three in the hobby after a couple days of getting back on the ice."
Chuck Thomas, who runs an online Pittsburgh sports collectibles store (www.chuckthomas.com), felt the drop in sales when Lemieux took off his skates and put on his suit.
"When Lemieux was active, sales made up 30 to 40 percent of my business, but when he retired it fell to about 10 percent."
After news of Lemieux's possible return, Thomas spent his afternoon contemplating how this would change his business. He said he would raise prices on some of his autographed items because he thinks Lemieux will be a more difficult autograph to get if he is back on the ice so the demand will go up.
One Lemieux fan who called Thomas on Thursday morning actually got a good deal when he ordered one of the last Lemieux signed authentic jerseys for $399. Thomas hadn't heard the news when he made the sale.
"I'm over it," Thomas said, knowing that his next customer will have to pay $450 for a signed Lemieux jersey.
Dan Warner, owner of The Puck Stops Here -- a hockey collectibles store located five minutes from the arena -- said his prices on Lemieux items won't change.
"This is big news for us, but the prices don't change," Warner said. "Lemieux is just like (Roberto) Clemente was in this town. He already is a legend and now he's just coming back to add that legend."
Among Warner's big-ticket items is a game-used stick from Lemieux's rookie season. The stick, which has a $5,000 price tag, was obtained from a Calgary police officer who escorted the team back and forth from the hotel for a game against the Flames in 1985.
Warner said that Jagr picked up some of the business when Mario retired but "he still couldn't even shine Mario's skates."
Action on Lemieux merchandise wasn't anything out of the ordinary on auction sites like eBay on Thursday. Approximately 20 items were added to the 1000-plus Mario memorabilia list through mid-afternoon but there was relatively little movement on the high-priced items. One exception was Lemieux's '85-86 O-Pee-Chee rookie card, with a 7.5 grade, which started the day at $88.71 and closed at $127.50 an increase of better than 40 percent.
Muir said that if a formal announcement comes regarding a Lemieux return, the cheap deals might be hard to come by.
"Mario's rookie card, in a high grade, is a bargain right now at $250," Muir said of the card that cost $400 before Lemieux retired. "There's a lot of upside to it and as word becomes official that's he's coming back, it can easily rise quickly."
Comparatively, Patrick Roy's '86-87 O-Pee-Chee rookie card also sells at around $250 but that card is easier to find because production was up from the previous year, according to Muir.
Thomas is quick to note, however, that not all items will be jumping up in price.
He has a ticket from what was thought to be Lemieux's last game for $69 and rare Lemieux silver retirement coins for $699 each.
"I guess we'll just have to put those on sale, won't we?" Thomas said.
Darren Rovell is a staff writer for espn.com.