Ab McDonald played 762 NHL games and another 147 in the WHA. (David Bier/THN Archives)
By Geoff Kirbyson
It’s not surprising that, with four Stanley Cup rings, Ab McDonald gets about 10 autograph requests a week – until you realize he hasn’t scored a goal in nearly 40 years.
Virtually every day when he brings in the mail, there’s a letter or package from somewhere in Canada – sometimes they come from as far away as Sweden, Russia and Slovakia – containing pictures or hockey cards. They’re accompanied by letters from fans telling him they admired his 15-year NHL career – during which he played for the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Black Hawks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues, plus another two years with the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets – and asking for his autograph.
They remind him of his time on the ‘Scooter Line’ in Chicago with Stan Mikita and Ken Wharram, winning a Stanley Cup in each of his first four years in the league (three with the Habs, one with the Hawks), the 182 goals he scored and playing with Hall of Famers Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe.
But not only did most of the people in search of his signature never see him play, many were born after he retired.
McDonald is part of a dying breed of approximately 300 players who suited up in the NHL during its Original Six era. That number shrinks seemingly every few weeks when another member of the fraternity passes away. And immediately after their obituaries appear, the supply of memorabilia bearing their signatures explodes on eBay and other online auction sites – along with jacked-up prices, of course. “I’m not just the run-of-the-mill player – I won four Stanley Cups,” McDonald says. “I sign it and I send it back.”
McDonald, 76, receives some pictures from the latter part of his career with the Blues or the Jets, but most are from his days with four of the Original Six teams.
The memorabilia market has come a long way in the past 20 years or so. For previous generations, the act of getting an autograph was a means for a fan – usually a child – to meet a larger-than-life hero. Today, the lineups for autographs still include a few of those kids, but there are many “entrepreneurial” adults looking to profit from signatures of former NHLers.
And some kids look innocent enough until you discover they’re only acting as mules for a memorabilia hunter.
If you want to see the ugly side of the business in action, visit online retail sites after an Original Six player dies. Within two hours of the news that Montreal Canadiens legend Butch Bouchard passed away in April, more than 100 new items bearing his signature suddenly appeared on eBay.
It’s unreasonable to expect to eliminate this kind of unsavory activity, but Mark Napier, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, and his team do their best to make sure hockey’s greatest ambassadors aren’t taken advantage of.
Sometimes, he’ll recommend players only sign posters or programs available at the event they’re attending. Personalizing an autograph is another strategy to discourage the hounds, since “Dear Alex, best wishes,” doesn’t command the same price on the secondary market as a straight autograph.
Ultimately, however, it’s up to the players to decide whether they should take the cap off their Sharpie. “When a player asks who the signature is for and the person says, ‘No, no, just sign the card,’ that’s when our player has to make a decision,” Napier says. “Unfortunately, our guys are too nice and they usually sign it.”
For McDonald, he still finds it flattering when somebody comes asking for his autograph. When he signs, he makes a point of asking everyone if they play hockey themselves and what position they play. “When they stop coming around,” he says, “they’ve forgotten about you.”
For more great analysis, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.