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the splurge

This continues our series called The Splurge, where we take a look at how entrepreneurs have spent their money on indulgences -- purchases that may be interesting, fun, satisfying or enjoyable, but not necessary!

Ken LeBlanc had been in the real estate business for just a few months when he scraped together his pennies and splurged on a trip to Toronto from his Moncton home.

The purpose: to attend the last hockey game between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens played at the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens, on Dec. 26, 1998. Inc., the Moncton-based company that Mr. LeBlanc co-founded and now reigns over as chief executive officer, has since grown into the largest private-sale real estate firm in North America.

Mr. LeBlanc's passion for hockey, and collection of sports memorabilia, has grown with it.

Mr. LeBlanc now owns between 15,000 and 20,000 pieces of sports memorabilia, worth more than $75,000.

The lion's share -- about 85 per cent -- is devoted to hockey.

The collection focuses on his favourite team, the Leafs, and two of his favourite players, former Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers all-star Wayne Gretzky and current Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

The collection's centrepiece is the vinyl stadium seat from the same section that Mr. LeBlanc sat in during that Maple Leaf Gardens game.

"My world revolves around so it's kind of how I escape the business world," Mr. LeBlanc says of his collection, which is carefully displayed in a sports memorabilia room in his Moncton home.

Mr. LeBlanc, 42, says his passion for Canada's national sport and the Leafs was bred at an early age. As a child, he would don a Leafs sweater for the Saturday night ritual of watching Hockey Night in Canada with his father, Gerry.

Mr. LeBlanc played hockey through high school and, in his early twenties, ran a sports card shop in downtown Moncton.

The business folded after the NHL lockout in 1994-1995 and, four years later, Mr. LeBlanc turned his entrepreneurial energy toward setting up

The hockey memorabilia business has exploded since Mr. LeBlanc collected five-cent bubble gum hockey cards as a child.

Mr. LeBlanc's collection includes every Wayne Gretzky hockey card made, replica Gretzky jerseys from every team Mr. Gretzky has played on, several eight-by-10 photos of "The Great One" and hockey gloves that Mr. Gretzky wore during his 1992-1993 season with the LA Kings.

It also includes pucks autographed by the 41 players who have scored more than 500 goals in their career, and a Sidney Crosby rookie card with a piece of Mr. Crosby's jersey sewn into it.

Mr. LeBlanc says his most prized possessions are two of those with which he has a personal connection.

One is a hockey puck signed by Mr. Crosby.

He says he has admired Mr. Crosby since he met him as a player with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Rimouski Oceanic team in 2004.

Mr. LeBlanc bought a $13 puck at a Rimouski Oceanic practice in Moncton, and asked Mr. Crosby, then 16, to sign it. He says the hockey player was so gracious and friendly that he became a lifetime fan and will likely never bring himself to part with that puck.

Nor will he ever give up the Gardens stadium seat no. 15 from section 95, row M that he bought for $1,400 at an auction of Gardens memorabilia in 2000. It's not the exact seat but is from the same section where he sat during that game in 1998.

It came mounted on a wooden base, complete with a plaque showing the seat number and old chewing gum still stuck to the bottom.

One of the biggest challenges of being a collector, Mr. LeBlanc says, is verifying that autographed items are authentic.

Although thousands of pieces are available on the Internet and at sports memorabilia shows, only a handful of companies can guarantee their objects are genuine. Representatives from those companies have usually witnessed a player signing a limited number of pieces and photographed the event. They also do historical analyses of items to prove their authenticity.

It took several months before one of Mr. LeBlanc's first purchases became available – an official Detroit Red Wings puck signed by "Mr. Hockey," Gordie Howe, which cost "well over $500.

" It came with a certificate of authenticity from The Upper Deck Co., one of the most reputable sports collectibles firms, and is engraved with a hologram tracking number. now has 123 franchise locations across Canada and recently signed a partnership with Toronto-based brokerage group RealtySellers Real Estate Inc. Mr. LeBlanc can now afford to fly to Toronto several times a year to attend Leafs games.

But the business was just getting off the ground in 1998 when Mr. Leblanc and his wife had to scrimp to get to that game.

It was their first NHL game and they paid a scalper $300 a ticket (regular price: $24) to sit in the cheap seats, he recalls.

Mr. LeBlanc says he was so awestruck by the fact that he was actually at Maple Leaf Gardens that he does not even remember the game.

"For me, it is the memory of being there,' says Mr. LeBlanc, who is launching a website with a friend to display and resell some of his hockey and other memorabilia.

"It keeps me connected to my team and it's part of history and something I'll be able to tell my grandchildren."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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