The Shirts Off Their Backs

The Rags To Riches Story Behind The Hobby Of Collecting Game Worn Jerseys

The list of game-worn jerseys in Raifie Bass’s collection reads like a roster for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Real Deal
Or A Rip Off?

There are four general categories to determine the “authenticity” factor in jersey collecting:

1. Seller Experience and Reputation. The experience and reputation of a seller or dealer is first and foremost in any situation, regardless if the jersey comes with a letter of authenticity. Therefore, it is always a good idea to buy from knowledgeable and reputable collectors and dealers, and to do your homework before buying. Every reputable seller has a return policy.
2. Team Set Stamp. A team set stamp often appears on the inside of the jersey, and specifies the part of a season in which the jersey was used. Keep in mind that team set stamps are never a case-closed indicator of authenticity. It is not uncommon for unworn, stamped jerseys to get in the hands of collectors. Such examples are called “team issued” whereby a team intended the jersey to be given to player for use, but the player was sent to the minors or traded.
3. Tagging. Tagging can be a good way of recognizing a misrepresented jersey. Throughout the years, teams have used different companies to manufacture their jerseys and in each instance, the tagging in the neck, in the side seam and patches on the hem have changed. Tagging in official jerseys will differ from their store-bought replicas.
4. Team Letter of Authenticity. A team letter of authenticity usually possesses an inked or facsimile signature of a team representative on team letterhead. Some teams will also include serial numbering or holograms to prevent forgeries of the certificates. This is never a foolproof method of authenticity since certificates can easily be attributed to other jerseys, faked or incorrectly written by the team.
You should never rely on just one category. All factors must be taken into consideration including any anomalies. As with any other collectible, “Buyer Beware.” Do your homework, and you'll stay clear of trouble.
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The treasure trove includes all 41 members of the National Hockey League’s 500-goal club, from the first (Maurice Richard) to the most recent (Keith Tkachuk). It also chronicles the hockey history of his adopted home state of Colorado.
Despite an array of jerseys that would make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, Bass can easily select the three stars of his collection: Jean Beliveau, Mario Lemieux and Saku Koivu.

As a man who has beaten Hodgkin’s disease, Bass relates to that dream line of cancer-surviving hockey players on a level that goes far beyond being a fan.
“I’m very proud to be in that club. It certainly beats the alternative,” said Bass, who enthusiastically proclaims himself cancer-free. “The really neat thing about this hobby is it’s completely personal. It’s not about checking some guy’s name off a list when you get his jersey. It’s about collecting a jersey that reflects what that player means to you.”
Bass’s friends encouraged Beliveau to call the collector on the eve of his first cancer treatment and offer encouraging words. Lemieux sent a personal letter that evoked emotion in Bass. And the Koivu jersey, emblazoned with a Hockey Fights Cancer patch, was a sentimental gift from Bass’s friends in the collecting community.
“I always looked at Jean Beliveau the way a lot of people looked at Mickey Mantle, and I was kind of awestruck,” Bass said.
“When I talked to him, the main thing he wanted to do was give me a message of hope. From that conversation, I had a whole new level of respect for him that goes beyond 500 goals and 10 Stanley Cups.”
The game-worn jersey hobby can be as diverse as the fans who seek a personal connection to the action on the ice. Some consider the jerseys an investment and keep them under lock-and-key, while others proudly wear their prizes to the local rink.
And each collector has a niche: a favorite team, a favorite player, Hall of Famers, goalies, fighters, fourth-liners . . . the list is endless. Some will spend thousands of dollars on a jersey, while others just want a certain jersey because it looks cool.

“For me, the biggest thrill is not in the having, it’s in the getting,” said Detroit-area collector Larry Pelliccioni, whose collection of more than 3,000 items includes rare wool jerseys from the 1920s.
“I was never really a jock, but I was always interested in sports and I enjoyed the getting part of it. It became a challenge, and I really enjoyed that challenge.”
For other collectors, the challenge lies in the authentication process. Each jersey has unique characteristics, such as tags, alterations and wear-and-tear only found in NHL arenas.
Some identifying marks can be matched to photos or videos, while others have been discretely hidden.
“I’ve always enjoyed the detective work that goes along with it,” Colorado collector Eddie Olson said. “You have to do quite a bit of homework, and you really have to scrutinize each item, especially if you’re going to invest a lot of money in it. In the end, you have to trust your instincts.”
Milt Byron, long considered the pioneer in the game-worn jersey industry, trusted his instincts as a police officer when he started a small business in the early 1980s. After seeing a buddy with a game-used stick, he began to wonder what happened to the discarded jerseys of his favorite team, the Philadelphia Flyers.
So, he connected with the team’s trainer and offered to purchase the old, worn-out jerseys. He soon began working relationships with other teams around the league.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto brought some of its most precious jersey to the 2008 MeiGray Game Worn Jersey Expo in New Jersey.The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto brought some of its most precious jersey to the 2008 MeiGray Game Worn Jersey Expo in New Jersey.

“I tried to educate the trainers on what they had and what they could do with it,” Byron said. “I told them what I was planning to do with it. But, at that time, the trainers didn’t make a whole lot of money and it was a way to pick up a little extra cash. Plus, they were getting rid of something they didn’t have a use for.”

Byron also offers an authentication service at his New Jersey business.
“I used that knowledge from investigating crime scenes and applied it to the jerseys,” Byron said. “A skid mark at a crime scene is really no different than a board burn on a jersey.”
Rich Ellis, a Minnesota collector who launched his Spirit of the Game business in 2004, will never forget the first time he held a game-worn jersey in his hands. A wide-eyed 12-year-old in 1976, he paid $50 for a Cleveland Crusaders sweater while at a memorabilia show in Minnesota.
“I was an avid card collector, and I thought having every player’s card was a pretty cool thing,” Ellis said. “But it was nothing like actually holding a piece of the game in my hands. I guess I just always thought those jerseys ended up in the Hall of Fame. It absolutely blew me away that a jersey was something I could actually own. I was hooked from that point on.”
In 1997, New Jersey collectors Barry Meisel and Bob Gray took the hobby to the next level with the creation of the MeiGray Group.
They entered into agreements with several professional teams and developed a system for tracking and protecting the integrity of game-worn jerseys. 
Each jersey contains a special mark, like a bar code, that ensures authenticity and protects the consumer.
“As a collector myself, I wanted to be absolutely 100 percent sure that the jersey I had in my hands was actually worn by [New Jersey Devils goaltender] Martin Brodeur or whoever,” said Meisel, a former New York sportswriter.
“There’s no gray area. And the collectors have been delighted that they don’t have to worry about how their item got into the marketplace. They have lifetime money-back guarantees that what they purchase from us is real.
“Even though the economy hasn’t been that great, the hobby is as healthy as it’s ever been. Fans will always want to have that personal connection to their favorite players.”


One Team’s  Trash Is Some Fans’ Treasures

To Wayne Gretzky, it was the kind of garage sale anyone would want to have before moving into a new home. But for hundreds of hockey fans, the estate sale in October 2007 had the significance of a major archeological dig.

Gretzky sold items ranging from old equipment to furniture to clothing to a jukebox when relocating from suburban Los Angeles to the Phoenix area, where he coaches the Coyotes. The sale raised more than $200,000 for two southern California schools.

“People started lining up at 5:30 a.m., and when the doors opened at 7, there were
hundreds of people waiting to get in,” Tom  Konjoyan, vice-president of development at Oaks Christian School, where the sale was held, told local media outlets. “There were hockey sticks signed by Wayne that were gone within the first two minutes.”

Gretzky’s desire to discard his family’s unwanted items is not
unlike what many equipment managers face at the end of each season. So, many pieces of equipment end up in team-sponsored garage sales, team stores or the trash bin.

The demand isn’t nearly as great as game-worn jerseys, but memorabilia dealers have discovered a market for those skates, gloves, helmets, pants and pads discarded at the end of a season. Some fans collect it, while others enjoy feeling like a pro and using it in pick-up leagues.

“There are a million baseball or hockey cards out there, and tons of autographed photos,” said Milt Byron, who pioneered hockey memorabilia sales in the early 1980s. “But, when it comes to anything game-worn, there’s only X amount of it available. Because it’s considered rare within the public, people are going to want it.

“Nothing compares to the popularity of the jerseys, but there are people out there who will collect, for instance, nothing but helmets and sticks.  Personally, I’ve always really liked gloves and helmets. I just think they’re really cool looking.”


General Collecting Guidelines

Some things to look for when collecting game worn jerseys.

Game Wear. Black scuff marks are the result of contact with stick tape, and crushing checks into the boards will often result in the actual “melting” of the fabric (board burns). The wear on jerseys will vary depending on a player’s style of play and how many games the jersey is worn.

Sizing, Repairs and Customization. Every player wears various jersey sizes and sometimes requests alterations to be made to accommodate their playing style and comfort level. Custom modifications are often an excellent “signature” of a particular player. Also look for team repairs, which many collectors feel add character and value to jerseys.

Fight Wear and Enforcer Alterations. Those who collect jerseys of the league’s enforcers look for different types of wear and alterations. For example, many fighters will request that sleeves be shortened, cuffs expanded and extra padding be added. Jerseys showing heavy fight wear will often bear blood stains and material pulling that will cause distress at the seams and leave signs of filth from sweaty, dirty hands clutching the material.

Patches. Patches not only look good, but often serve as an immediate indicator as to when the jerseys were used.

Manufacturer and Material. There have been various jersey
materials and brands over the years. NHL jerseys will be of knit, mesh, airknit, or similar construction. Manufacturers you might encounter include Reebok, CCM, Bauer, Cosby’s, Eastside, Sandow SK, Stall & Dean, Maska, HSI, Goodmans and others.

Autographs. Most serious collectors of game-worn jerseys prefer to preserve the “in the game”
appearance of jerseys by not having them signed. However, collecting is a personal experience. If getting your favorite players to emblazon their signatures on their jerseys makes you happy, go for it. Just keep in mind that a player’s signature doesn’t necessarily mean that he is certifying the jersey as being authentic game-used.

Teams. Certain teams make their players’ jerseys more readily available than others. Expect to pay a premium for “tougher” team jerseys.

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Wells Considers ‘Miracle’ Jersey All Part Of A Day’s Work

Mark Wells experienced the sports memorabilia craze for the first time when he returned home from the 1980 Olympics with a gold medal around his neck.
Wells obliged fans’ requests then, and he still does by putting his autograph on anything remotely connected to the Miracle on Ice. The more he signs, the more requests he seems to receive.
And that just blows Wells away.
“I thought it was hysterical that people actually wanted stuff like my shoes and my sport coat after I got back from the Olympics,” said the native of St. Clair Shores, Mich. “That was just really weird to me.

After seeing how people reacted, I had a pretty good idea of what The Beatles had to go through. I never thought I’d be in a position like that, and I’m amazed at how powerful it still is.”

Still, Wells never did get caught up in the hype.

“Other than a photo on my bedroom wall of me scoring a goal in the Olympics, I have no memorabilia whatsoever from my playing career,” he said.
Wells said he placed his gold medal in a secure location but gave pretty much everything else away. That includes the jerseys he wore in Lake Placid.
His home and away 1980 Olympic jerseys are believed to be the only ones in the hands of collectors. The other members of the team either display their jerseys in dens or lent them for display in museums or Halls of Fame.
“I remember seeing Mark Spitz winning his gold medals, and I always thought that would be the ultimate symbol of winning,” Wells said. “All my hockey career, I was a winner. That was the most important thing for me.
“I didn’t need any memorabilia to remind me of that. The real reward I took from the Olympics was not just winning but how we mastered the team concept. We weren’t the most talented team there, but we were the best team.”
New Jersey collector Stuart Oxenhorn acquired one of the Wells jerseys, which some in the hobby consider to be the holy grail of game-worn jerseys.
“The Miracle on Ice was such a powerful moment,” Oxenhorn said. “As a collector, having a jersey from that team has always meant a lot to me.
“But Mark was more about winning, and that jersey just happened to be what he wore to do it. To him, it was more like a work shirt is to us.”



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