At 401 Games, shelves are stacked with board games like the popular Catan series and collectibles from Star Wars and Marvel comic book figurines hang on the walls.
At the counter of the downtown Toronto store, there's a palpable buzz about fantasy card games. At the far end of the store, where sports cards are on display, it's much quieter. John Park, who's owned the shop for 23 years, says sports cards have accounted for a diminishing proportion of his sales over the past decade; roughly 6 per cent, down from a peak of 40 per cent in the nineties.
It's a reflection of an industry implosion a couple decades ago that vanquished brands and forced owners like Mr. Park to stock products from other genres. In recent years, fantasy card games like Magic have supplanted the popularity of sports cards, and more poignantly, hockey cards in Canada, amongst younger generations.
This trend isn't likely to shift any time soon. Yet there's considerable optimism that a messiah-like emergence of one player next season, Connor McDavid, will generate the kind of excitement that will lure fringe collectors back to the hobby.
"He's going to spark a lot of interest in the collectability of hockey cards," Mr. Park said. "But it can never go back to the old days."
If history is an example, Sidney Crosby is a textbook precedent of what Mr. McDavid's arrival potentially brings to the pastime. When Mr. Crosby began his career in 2005, there was a pent up urge to rip open packs of hockey cards, exacerbated by the prior year's lockout that caused a double cohort of rookies – the most coveted type of card of a player with a long and illustrious career.
The Crosby effect happens when what many in the industry call a "generational player" surfaces. It's rare, but the hype can cause a temporary spike in sales at a time when prices are much more modest than the past and highly sensitive to performance on the ice.
Still, the trading card industry has stabilized since the mid-1990s or the so-called Dark Ages, when companies toppled over one another to capitalize on the hobby's popularity and inadvertently drove down card valuations.
"The great myth in that era is that everybody was going to put their kids through college with trading cards," said Jason Masherah, president of Upper Deck, now the NHL's and its player association's exclusive licensee to produce hockey cards.
Now with Mr. McDavid, a new, unpredictable cycle is about to begin.
David Moore, owner of Cardboard Memories in Brampton, Ont., predicts he'll get a barrage of requests for 12-box cases of Upper Deck's flagship series a month ahead of its release in November. While Mr. McDavid has already made an appearance in another brand in his junior team uniform, his de facto rookie card will come out in the fall as part of Upper Deck's Young Guns series (unless he fails to lace up, which would prohibit Upper Deck from releasing a card, according to its NHLPA agreement).
This year, Mr. Moore is looking to quadruple the couple dozen or so cases he usually orders. "People will come out of the woods," he hopes.
If supply falls short of demand, Mr. McDavid's rookie card will instantly be worth $150 and, depending on his performance, could double in a short time, forecasts Mr. Moore, who's owned his shop for more than 25 years.
Mr. Masherah is coy about how big Upper Deck's production run will be and said the company will only produce what the market demands.
"Just because we have, potentially, a generational player, we can't change that formula," said Mr. Masherah, while careful not to ignore McDavid's marketability. "[He] represents the rare opportunity for us to grow the hobby and introduce it to people who are not collecting today."
Just a block away from Mr. McDavid's home in Newmarket, Ont., Don Preston is prepared to double orders from last year after what was, statistically at least, an uninspiring season.
"It's nice to see a guy like McDavid coming along that can give [the industry] that shot in the arm it needs again," said Mr. Preston, who started off only selling hockey cards at All Star Cards and Comics a quarter century ago. "As far as it being sustainable, only time will tell."
Twice a month, a distinct breed of collectors gathers at a hockey card show in Toronto, alternating between a local brewery and the banquet room of an arena. There are cards on display dating back to the 1930s and memorabilia ranging from a California Seals paperweight to a signed Bobby Orr photograph.
For the most part, the people here scoff at McDavid-mania. The only acknowledgement is an Oilers jersey with his name, prematurely, on the back; the vendor has 10 on order.
Show regular Chris Pavnovski, 38, who estimates his collection has a book value of $500,000 (and, indicative of the industry, an approximate sticker value a fifth of that), has a warning for speculators.
"I've seen it before. [McDavid] is not the first guy who's come in and all the hype has been around him," said Mr. Pavnovski, who got most of his collection in 2002 when a card shop in Chicago liquidated its inventory. "A lot of guys will play it like a stock market, but right now they're going to be buying high and eventually it will die down and they'll be selling low."
He's more likely to show off one of his Bobby Orr rookie cards – even though he says it doesn't resonate with most young people – and mull over offers like a recent one for $400 cash and $1,000 back in trade. It's a proposition he can sit on, because the value of vintage cards doesn't fluctuate like they do for modern day prints.
"The newer stuff goes up and down according to how good they are," said Mr. Pavnovski's partner Chad Dobbin, reinforcing his point while he flips through a Beckett magazine, the definitive guide for appraising hockey cards (although e-commerce sites like eBay are a better gauge of what people actually pay).
Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, a strong contender to be this year's NHL rookie of the year, is listed at $62.50 in mint condition, more than $15 higher than Brett Hull, who ranks third on the NHL's all-time goals list. But, if Mr. Gaudreau suffers through a sophomore jinx, there's a good chance his value will adjust in kind.
If Mr. McDavid lives up to his potential, speculators, bandwagon collectors and hardcore hobbyists could cash in for years to come, says Wayne Wagner, the proprietor of Wayne's Sports Cards and Collectibles in Edmonton, where Mr. McDavid is destined to land after the Oilers won the lottery to pick first in the NHL draft later this month.
"Providing he performs the way he's expected to play, we'll have a residual effect for the next five or 10 years."