Shawn Chaulk can’t leave Wayne Gretzky alone. The semi-retired home builder, now fifty-four, has owned everything from the Great One’s used hockey gloves to his old car. Chaulk even inked an image of Gretzky, in his Oilers uniform, on his right arm and shoulder.
The obsession began more than forty years ago, after Chaulk’s family made a cross-country move from rural Newfoundland to Fort McMurray, Alberta. The young teenager, suddenly across the country and stuck in a strange place, was intrigued by nearby Edmonton’s hockey team. The Oilers, with their copper and blue jerseys, had joined the NHL just one year earlier. Chaulk had always been a Bruins fan, but he figured it was time for a change. “We were making a big shift in our lives as a family, and I thought, ‘Well, if we’re starting over, then I’m starting over,’” he says.
That Oilers team also had a star player like no other: Wayne Gretzky. At just nineteen, Gretzky was a small, agile player who could glide past anyone. Chaulk found himself glued to the television, watching games nearly every other day. And, with home ice only a few hours south, he had a chance to occasionally watch his new hero in person too.
Chaulk’s passion for sports memorabilia began a decade later, in the early 1990s, with autographs. He was amazed to discover that he could write an athlete a letter and they would send him back their signature. His first was from the king of golf, Arnold Palmer. He eventually piled up some 50,000 autographs.
The focus of his collecting soon shifted after a chance encounter in an Edmonton pawn shop. He noticed a bunch of old hockey sticks resting against a wall and, after speaking with the pawnbroker, learned they were game-used NHL gear. Chaulk handed over $25 and left with a stick belonging to Wayne Presley, then a player for Chicago. “I discovered that there was a whole market for game-used memorabilia,” Chalk says. As his disposable income grew, so did his collection. By 2005, he had decided to return to his roots: from then on, it was all Gretzky all the time.
Over the past sixteen years, Chaulk has amassed one of the largest Gretzky collections in the world, even bigger, he claims, than the Great One’s personal stockpile. At its peak, Chaulk’s memorabilia—equipment, old trophies and rings, even letters written to former coaches—could fill two trucks and two trailers. He even has Gretzky’s old grand piano in his home, where his kids occasionally play it. Chaulk estimates that he’s done millions of dollars’ worth of transactions. And, recently, he decided to go pro.
Since 2018, Chaulk has segued from collecting as a personal passion to running a modest side business of buying and selling memorabilia under Hockeyman Holdings, where he acts as a fixer for fans seeking collectibles. “I do all the negotiation and the romancing,” he explains. “I spend a lot of time romancing people.” With his calm demeanour and knack for storytelling, Chaulk is a natural fit for convincing collectors to part with cherished treasures. This year alone, he’s helped more than two dozen people grow their collections, flipping about 600 items.
As Chaulk explains, ever since the pandemic started, the memorabilia business has been booming. In recent years, the card market has outperformed the stock market: the PWCC 500, an index that tracks the top-selling trading cards, has had a better return on investment than the S&P 500. This market reflects an odd reality of the current moment. When arenas were mostly empty, sports teams were hemorrhaging money: the NBA’s estimated loss for the 2020 season was about $500 million (all figures US); the NFL, meanwhile, is expected to be out approximately $5.5 billion. But, at the same time, the sports memorabilia market—worth an estimated $15 billion—had never been hotter. Last December, a Gretzky rookie card hit the auction block and sold for $1.29 million—the first time a hockey card broke the $1 million mark. Five months later, that same card was flipped for more than $3.7 million.
Chaulk has his own theories about this sports frenzy. “It’s all been because of the availability of time,” he says. Stuck at home, people have discovered online forums and groups with like-minded people who all want to buy and sell memorabilia. “People are rediscovering their youth,” he says. When bars were still empty and arenas only just beginning to reopen, many fans were flush with cash. It has all led to a perfect storm, with thousands rushing to collect rare pieces of sports history at the exact same time.
The modern relationship between money and sports began in the 1980s, when a wave of professionalization swept across sports leagues, and games suddenly shifted from pastimes to big business. Cable television meant that games were no longer local affairs; viewers on the other side of the country—and the other side of the world—could tune in to their favourite teams, which led advertisers to start emptying their pockets in a bid to latch on to as many new customers as possible. Even the fields of play were redesigned, with hockey-rink boards and the sides of football pitches becoming prime real estate for sponsors and advertisers.
This shift in how sports are consumed is largely thanks to one man: Patrick Nally, a Brit who’s touted as the founding father of modern sports marketing. The pre- and post-game round table analysis chats? His idea. Having a Jumbotron broadcast live to audiences in the stadium? Also his idea (and originally brought to you by Mitsubishi).
Nally’s background was in advertising. But, in 1969, the then twenty-three-year-old teamed up with former BBC commentator Peter West and started the PR and sports-marketing firm West Nally. The duo soon discovered that offering individual rights to each element associated with an event could be big business, allowing teams and sporting bodies to monetize everything from clothes and equipment down to the food that was allowed to be served in the stadium. For the 1978 FIFA World Cup, Nally negotiated with Argentina’s military junta to get Coca-Cola to sponsor the event, and to this day, Coca-Cola is still a big sponsor of many international soccer tournaments and the Olympic Games.
Organizations saw a good thing and eventually expanded the fan experience beyond the stadium. FIFA Fan Fests are now standard gathering zones at FIFA World Cups, where fans can sip their beer from collectible cups. Olympic pop-up stores, where fans can buy everything from hats to shirts to stuffed mascots, are now part of every Games. With each development came the possibility to collect. Everything sport touched, from branded cups to limited-edition shirts, became highly desired products. And, with the passage of time, the products become historic memorabilia.
In 1980, the first sports collectors show, several days of auctions for baseball cards, was held in Los Angeles. By the 1990s, memorabilia shops had started to pop up in shopping malls the world over. Then, the internet came along: the market was suddenly borderless and seemingly endless.
For decades, sporting memorabilia was defined by its physicality. People wanted items they could hold or showcase in their homes: sticks, ticket stubs, jerseys. But, in recent years, what’s considered a “collectible” has undergone another revolution, with a new class of product being created out of thin air: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. These digital files are the equivalents of trading cards, with a few key differences. Like trading cards, they depict the best plays or sporting moments—though, rather than being static, they are video highlights with a few added features. Sometimes there is music, sometimes the athlete offers commentary on the play. And, unlike physical trading cards, which are valuable because of their scarcity (only so many are printed), NFTs exist online where anyone to view them. What someone buys when they purchase an NFT is the right—and digital proof—to say they are the owner.
The Vancouver-based cryptocurrency company Dapper Labs is currently the largest player in the sports-NFT space. It’s the maker of NBA Top Shot, which offers unique basketball highlights via NFTs. In less than a year, NBA Top Shot has surpassed 1 million users and has had more than $700 million (US) in sales. They are looking to expand into the UFC market next.
Teams themselves have also started to get into the NFT game. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors launched a collection on OpenSea, an NFT marketplace, allowing fans to bid on digital versions of the team’s championship ring from 2018, which featured white diamonds on one side and blue sapphires on the other (at one point, these NFTs were going for more than $20,000 US—not a single real diamond or sapphire included).
Sheetal Jaitly is a digital entrepreneur and an avid NFT buyer. He was obsessed with hockey cards as a child growing up in the 1980s, and he says the NFT market is the same form of collecting, only digital. “Anyone who grew up loving sports cards, I think they’ll really start to get it,” he says. To date, he has spent thousands on his digital collectibles, and at one point, his NFT portfolio had increased in value by 1,400 percent (that said, the NFT market is infamously volatile, and today, Jaitly’s portfolio has decreased significantly).
In some ways, the NFT market isn’t so different from the ever-shifting value of a game ball caught in the bleachers or a rookie trading card. Even though these items have been selling for huge sums in the past pandemic months, the market can be fickle. Some experts have said that the NFT bubble, which turned into a frenzy in early 2021, has already popped. Who knows if the physical collectible market will soon follow?
For old-school collectors like Chaulk, the NFT space isn’t appealing. It’s too risky, plus he doesn’t see the appeal of owning a digital asset. “I got to be honest with you—I just don’t get it,” Chaulk says. “I get the economics. I just don’t get the attraction.”
For Chaulk, his memorabilia collection represents more than just items to buy and sell: it’s a lifestyle. By amassing such a large Gretzky collection, he has become a mini celebrity himself, and it has brought him into the world of other high-profile fans. Filmmaker Kevin Smith—a massive Oilers fan despite being from New Jersey—flew Chaulk down to the Sundance Film Festival in 2011 on a private jet just so Smith could borrow the stick that Gretzky used in the 1988 Stanley Cup game.
Through his collection, Chaulk has also developed a relationship with the Great One himself. Chaulk even got to skate with Gretzky in Phoenix once, back when Gretzky was part owner and coach of the Coyotes. Experiences like this, Chaulk explains, are priceless. “I always tell people you can’t sell your memories. As long as I have my mind, I’m holding the most valuable collection ever,” Chaulk says. “I lived everything, and you can’t take that.”