You might want to untie your skates and sit down for this one.
A 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card made headlines in May when it fetched US$3.75 million at auction, the highest price ever paid for a hockey trading card.
"There are just a handful of cards out there to reach such stratospheric heights, and… it’s only fitting that the greatest hockey player of all time… join their estimable ranks," a person associated with the transaction said a few days later.
Closer to home, retired Winnipegger Calvin Swerid doesn’t dwell over what might have been, in regards to an O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card he picked up for a lousy buck at a downtown comic store, 41 years ago.
Swerid, you see, collects anything and everything associated with table-top hockey games, the sort that require combatants to move toy skaters back and forth via a series of rods and slots. Back in the day, Swerid enjoyed outfitting his teams to make them look as authentic as possible… even if that meant rendering a future, million-dollar collectible practically worthless.
"You have to remember, hockey cards’ value didn’t really take off until the early ‘90s, so no, I never thought twice about cutting up my cards, to glue the faces and crests onto my toy players, instead, including my Gretzky rookie card," he says, holding up the Great One’s card-in-question, sans No. 99’s mug.
"I promise you this, though," he adds, chuckling, "there isn’t another Gretzky rookie card on the planet quite like mine."
Not too many people can remember what they received for Christmas in 1967, let alone utter, "Give me a sec, and I’ll show it to you."
A moment after slipping out of the room, Swerid returns carrying a Munro table-top hockey game, the precise specimen he and his younger brother Marcel found waiting for them under the tree, 54 years ago. They played the Canadian-made device practically to death, he says, running a finger along its weathered surface; so much so that they asked Santa for a replacement model the following December.
Yes, Virginia, he still has that one, too, along with dozens more that, through the years, he’s scooped up at garage sales, second-hand stores and flea markets.
"I collect a lot of the stuff from my childhood — diecast cars, racing sets, board games — but table-top hockey has always been my No. 1," says the 63-year-old father of two grown daughters.
It’s fitting Swerid received his initial game as a Christmas gift, given Canadian inventor Donald H. Munro built what is largely considered to have been the first table-top hockey game as a Yule-time present for his own children 88 years ago.
The way the story goes, Munro, who lived in Toronto, used scraps of wood and metal to fashion together a game that had more in common with pinball, than shinny. Players at opposite ends of the four-foot-long "rink" used flippers to project a marble-as-puck back and forth, toward what stood as their opponent’s net.
A person associated with Eaton’s eventually got wind of Munro’s design. Faster than you can say, "He shoots, he scores…" the game was being sold on consignment, at the department store’s Queen Street location. The first table-top hockey game to boast petite players was introduced by Montreal-based Eagle Toy Company in 1954. Various models have come along since then, including a Gretzky-endorsed unit in 1990. That one sold for the tidy sum of $120, and featured three-dimensional players, including replicas of the Winnipeg Jets 1.0.
(Incidentally, after we let a Free Press editor in on the subject of today’s story, he opined, "I’d love to get my hands on one of those sets. I wanted to get one for my nine-year-old nephew last year, but I honestly wonder if a kid would enjoy horse-and-buggy-era entertainment when he or his buddies would likely have a PS5 hooked up to a 65-inch screen to play NHL 2022.")
Swerid laughs again, saying it was probably a good thing he grew up rooting for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while his brother pulled for the Montreal Canadiens. For the longest time, those were the only two teams available to table-top hockey enthusiasts. That is no longer a problem, not that it ever was for Swerid. One of his hobbies is repainting metal and plastic players — he has hundreds of what he refers to as "extras" that he stores in clear, sealed bags — to perfectly match both yesteryear and modern-day teams.
For instance, the second the NHL’s newest franchise, the Seattle Kraken, revealed their jersey design in July, he got busy, using model paint to painstakingly emulate the look of the Pacific Division squad’s home and away jerseys. The league’s penchant for so-called alternative jerseys also keeps him hopping; no sooner had he put the finishing touches on a set of players decked out in the Jets’ aviator-blue jerseys a couple years ago, than he went to work recreating the Heritage Blue ones, too.
Swerid collects table-top hockey games, sure, but he is also the president of the long-running Winnipeg Table Hockey League (not to be confused with a like-named organization formed by a Winnipeg school teacher in the late 1980s), which he founded in 1971 at age 13. Initially, he and a group of school chums would go from house to house in their Windsor Park neighbourhood, to challenge one another on their respective game as "everybody had one, back then," he says.
In time, a basement space in Swerid’s current home became the league’s headquarters, where a trio of games he had custom-built in Quebec to emulate the Jets’ downtown digs, right down to the ads on the boards, currently serve as official playing surfaces. If it hadn’t been for COVID, he would have happily hosted a 50th anniversary tournament during the holiday season, he says.
"I have played and beaten all the best table-hockey players in and around Winnipeg, and a few other guys passing through, from out of province," he continues, replying "definitely," when a scribe who likes to think he knows his way around a table-top hockey game — once fittingly described as "chess at 700 miles per hour" — mentions they’ll have to face off against one another, one day down the road.
And yes, like most collectibles, vintage sets, still in their original packaging with all the bits and bobs intact, can fetch a pretty penny on the secondary market; especially those equipped with images of defunct or relocated teams such as the Oakland Seals, Minnesota North Stars or Quebec Nordiques.
For Swerid, though, it’s always been more about nostalgia than net worth.
"I don’t collect them as an investment, not at all," he says, mentioning his two grandsons, ages 11 and 13, have started to take an interest in his "stuff," as well.
"The games are more a reminder of my childhood, and simpler times. I’m very happy to have grown up playing (table-top hockey) instead of video games, that’s for sure."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.