Published in Saturday Night

Used to be, back when they still came with those stiff pink planks of gum that tasted like drywall, that hockey cards were for kids. The gum they chewed, too much at a time; the cards they hoarded in shoe boxes, retrieving them for vivid games of “farthies” and “topsies” with friends in the schoolyard, or to trade – “Got ’im, got ’im, need ’im” – a muddied Gilles Gilbert and a Bobby Schmautz, corners warped, for Rogie Vachon in the mask with the grin on it. Nowadays hockey cards are adult-oriented commodities, with four major American companies vying for the attention of big-spending collectors who study trends in card-pricing as earnestly as if they were stock portfolios.

Competitive upmanship may begin to explain some of the unlikely images that card companies have introduced into the market lately. Novelty acts of recent vintage include cards with quarter-inch squares of a favored few players’ game jerseys set into them and cards depicting players away from the rink (Dallas winger Pat Verbeek feeding pigs on the family farm) or undressed (a sauna-moistened Pavel Bure of Vancouver in nothing but a towel).

But oddest of the odd may be a 20-card sub-set released in January by the Donruss company of Grand Prairie, Texas. “What we’ve done,” says Donruss hobby manager Eric Tijerina, “is we’ve brought the five o’clock shadow to trading cards.” Yes, that’s right, the Leaf Limited “Stubble” series gets up close and scruffy with the NHL’s unshaven best, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Paul Kariya, and Wendel Clark among them. “It actually plays on the superstitions of players who choose not to shave before a game – they want to have that game-face on as they take the ice.”

The cards don’t carry statistics on just how many days a given player avoided the razor, but thanks to something called “flocking technology,” there’s an abrasive side to each of the cards’ surfaces, to suggest what it might be like to rub cheeks with a hockey hero. “It’s different,” says Tijerina, “but our collectors like different.” No word yet on when to expect Stubble’s logical successors, Sweat, Bruise, and Separated Shoulder.