Inside Upper Deck’s gamble on high-priced hockey coins

NEW YORK – Jason Masherah was never a coin collector.

“I didn’t really care about the Wheat Penny,” said the president of The Upper Deck Company, the collectables juggernaut that’s been churning out high-end products since its landmark 1989 baseball card set.

Masherah was into comic books and, of course, sports cards as a kid growing up in Michigan. That obsession included hockey cards. “As a kid I saved up and the rookie card I bought was a Mario Lemieux O-Pee-Chee. Unfortunately, one of my ‘quote-unquote’ best friends stole it. He’s dead to me,” he said.

“But that card, I remember, because it was valuable and expensive and I invested a lot of money in it.”

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Upper Deck’s latest concept, the 20-player Grandeur Hockey Coin Collection that debuted this week, is valuable and expensive and perhaps above all else an investment. Blind bags with one coin inside cost $100; a collector box with four coins inside costs $499.

(But, in all honesty, it is a lovely box.)

It’s also a gamble, not only for the company but for the consumer. There are three different finishes of their silver coins, of increasing value; the lowest valued ones, which do feature a gorgeous color scheme, and are found in three out of every four bags. But then there are 24-karat gold-minted coins, numbered at just 100 per player, whose value far exceeds the $100 investment in a blind bag.

If you find one.

The most common coins are the ones that are colored, and number 5,000 per player. The “high-relief” silver ones are 1,000 per player and the silver frosted ones, more valuable, are at 500 per player. The one quarter-ounce 99.99-percent 24-karat gold-minted coins, 100 per player, are the most valuable. The coins have a hologram and are numbered.

“The value here is that for $100, you not only get a chance at a base silver coin, but you can get a high-relief, a frosted or a gold coin. That’s an equation that has never existed in the coin market: For $100, you can get something that’s worth $2,000,” Masherah said.

“It’s a gamble, but you’re still getting a silver coin you would have paid $100 for anyway.”

Which brings us to a basic question about these Upper Deck coins:

Who is “you” when it comes to this product?

Masherah believes the coins crossover into a few different markets. There are those who collect trading cards and other memorabilia for sports, who already have shown a willingness to spend upwards of $400 on a blind pack of high-end cards.

Then there are those who have been conditioned to spend a lot on something blindly, and part of the experience is being surprised by the result.

“If you look at what’s going on in general culture right now, everyone’s moving to blind-pack delivery. People are paying $500 for a bundle of clothes and they have no idea what’s in the box. Things like a ‘wine of the month’ club,” he said.

But the primary new market for Upper Deck here is the coin collectors, and this was uncharted territory for Masherah. He and the company learned a lot, including the fact that you can’t just create a coin for it to be coveted – you have to create your own version of a coin that already exists.

“There’s a section of collectors in the coin world that only collect currency. If it’s a trinket, they won’t touch it. So it was very important to us to make sure it was a currency from someplace, somewhere,” he said.

The U.S., for example, doesn’t allow its coins to be licensed. So after shopping around, Upper Deck cut a deal with the Cook Islands, located in the South Pacific.

Flip over one of the hockey coins and you’ll find it’s actual currency. As in, you could walk into a store in the Cook Islands and drop a Connor McDavid down to buy a sandwich.

“You honestly could,” said Masherah. “If you wanted to spend $100 U.S. to spend $20 in the Cook Islands, you’re more than welcome to.”

But more likely, you’re going to want to hang onto those coins to try and complete the sets, or hang onto one because it features your favorite player.

And these Upper Deck coins are all about the players.

Upper Deck has been making hockey cards for 27 years. Their set in 1990-91 did what their first baseball set did: Changed the hockey card game, as far as production values and quality of product. But the draw was always the players, going back to that first set when Upper Deck cut deals to have Russian stars not yet in the NHL in their index, including Pavel Bure.

Who you’ll find when you open a pack of these Grandeur coins:

Patrice Bergeron, Boston Bruins; Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets; Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins; Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres; Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers; Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks; Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings; Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers; Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators; Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers; Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames; William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs; Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals; Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens; Daniel Sedin, Vancouver Canucks; Vladimir Tarasenko, St. Louis Blues; John Tavares, New York Islanders, Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks.

Oh, and two legends: Patrick Roy of the Montreal Canadiens and Wayne Gretzky, identified here as an Edmonton Oiler.

(Conspicuous in their absences: Auston Matthews and any California teams.)

So let’s say you’re a Buffalo Sabres fan. You want that Eichel coin. You get William Nylander instead. What do you do?

Well, you can’t buy specific coins directly from Upper Deck. So in the tradition of card collecting, it’s off to the secondary markets, like eBay and, of course, Upper Deck’s “E-Pack” trading post, where there’s already activity on the coins just days after their release. In fact, some coin collectors are leveraging them in trades for rare cards.

What you won’t find when you open a pack of these coins: Any NHL logos or team names.

This is an NHLPA deal with Upper Deck.

“There wasn’t a need, or room,” said Masherah said of the NHL logos.

The coins are designed with a player head shot and a landmark associated with their current or best-known NHL city. “The logos would have been forced at this point. We’re experimented with some designs, and we’re talking with the NHL,” he said.

He wouldn’t go into details on Upper Deck’s deal with the NHLPA, except to say the arrangement was in line with their previous deals.

But he did say that hockey coins presented a unique problem in working with the most humble athletes in professional sports (or so their reputation goes).

“A lot of the high-profile guys didn’t want to be on coins. Because they didn’t feel it was right if they didn’t achieve Hall of Fame status,” said Masherah.

Fair point. But it’s still probably, in the end, not as awkward as someone in the Cook Islands trying to figure out who Sean Monahan is and why he’s on their money.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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