SARASOTA, Fla.— Every collection has a beginning and an end.
For Ron Chawkins of Sarasota, Fla., his began with seeing Wayne Gretzky amaze Californians at the Great Western Forum and ends with a wife and two young girls that need attending to more than his hockey treasure.
Chawkins’s warehouse and office is a working man’s Hockey Hall of Fame, with artifacts and commemorations of hockey history and pop art celebrating greats like Mario Lemieux, Brett Hull and Dave Taylor. He operates Symphony Salvage, which buys clothes and goods from organizations like Goodwill Manasota in bulk that can’t be sold in stores locally and then sends them overseas to non-profit organizations.
His office would easily qualify as an eBay store. In one corner, stacks of jerseys—many autographed—are neatly folded looking for a home. A team-signed jersey is framed on the wall celebrating the inaugural Mighty Ducks of Anaheim while a cut-out Rangers-era Wayne Gretzky flashes a friendly smile.
That charming grin isn’t enough to keep his memorabilia thrill alive.
“At this stage of my life, the money—I know it’s there, but the time to go through all of this,” Chawkins said, trailing off. Maybe an appraiser is needed, he offered, just to process it all and get it out there.
Chawkins, 54, needs to start somewhere and just by looking up from his desk, the answer sits atop his filing cabinets where an array of goalie helmets are on display.
None exactly considered iconic, but several an example of when goalies started to get creative and personal in the 1990s and early 2000s, and making a name for artists.
The masks are predominately branded by Eddy on the interior shell and feature artists like Rod ‘N Van, Tony Jarrett, Brad Dinwoodie and others.
He’s unloading them via Craigslist, initially as a lot for $48,000, but he is willing to negotiate for individual masks. He’s since lowered his price.
“Sixteen masks at two grand a piece, which I didn’t pay less than that for any of them,” Chawkins said. “You can have them for $32,000, and you can buy the whole lot of them. What a great starting thing if somebody can afford that.”
Most are signed by the goalies, a few, like Byron Dafoe’s Bruins mask and Mike Vernon’s Panthers mask lack autographs and if they fit your head, are good to play in. (Though you might want to replace the padding and sweatbands.)
“Those are all original masks, most of them game-worn,” the native Brooklyn resident said.
Some masks have been photo matched by collectors, he said, including the Kevin Weekes’s 1999 Canucks, Mike Vernon (both Red Wings and Panthers), Manny Legace’s Red Wings and Byron Dafoe’s Bruins ones.
One of the nicest in his collection is a Rod ‘N Van Tampa Bay Lightning mask belonging to Nikolai Khabibulin. The white brick wall with Lightning logo is great, but there’s a mistake: the artist painted “Bulan Wall” instead of “Bulan Wall” on the chin and tried to fix it. So, the mask was relegated to practice.
The most underrated mask of his collection is Don Beaupre’s from his time with the Ottawa Senators, after getting traded from the Washington Capitals. The mask features the Ottawa clock tower, center stage that was once embraced as a secondary logo for the franchise. It’s an artistic gem that didn’t receive the attention it deserved thanks to a bad franchise and a goalie limping to the end of his career.
“I like the goalies, but I was buying them for the artwork,” Chawkins said, showing off mask after mask.
Trevor Kidd’s masks and pads were always a statement, but the most widely recognized would have to be the Mike Vernon Red Wing’s masks with the two wings coming out from the wheels and the Stephane Fiset “King Tut” mask from the Kings.
Here’s the overall list—corrected from the original Craigslist collection:
- Mike Vernon – Detroit Red Wings, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers
- Manny Legace – Detroit Red Wings
- Freddy Brathwaite – Calgary Flames
- Tyler Moss – Calgary Flames
- Vesa Toskala – San Jose Sharks
- Stephane Fiset – L.A. Kings
- Don Beaupre – Ottawa Senators
- Kevin Weekes – Vancouver Canucks
- Byron Dafoe – Boston Bruins
- Trevor Kidd – Carolina Hurricanes (2)
- Kevin Hodson – Detroit Red Wings
- Nikolai Khabibulin – Tampa Bay Lightning, Phoenix Coyotes
Chawkins knows that compared to other collections, his goalie mask set is small, saying there is a man in the Fort Lauderdale area who has one of the largest around.
He’s more than willing to show off his collection, especially to someone who’d like to buy, and can be reached via his Craigslist ad.
Hockey fan for life
How Chawkins arrived at this collection starts decades ago.
The masks certainly weren’t worn by Chawkins tending goal.
Chawkins skated out when he was younger growing up in Brooklyn as he watched both the New York Islanders and New York Rangers games where he found the love for the game watching Mike Bossey and the boys.
He later moved out to Los Angeles and would watch the Los Angeles Kings play loaded with good players—Luc Robitaille, Bernie Nicholls, Dave Taylor and Steve Duchesne. Then The Trade happened.
“That man drew me to hockey,” Chawkins said, pointing to that Gretzky cutout in his Rangers gear. “Gentleman of gentlemen.”
But Chawkins realized he’d never be a Gretzky. In his mid-30s, Chawkins decided to quit playing in beer leagues after finding some guys at Brandon Ice Sports Forum took the game too seriously for their age. Surprise, right? Now Chawkins straps on some rollerblades and his up to Longboat Key from his St. Armands home for a little street hockey.
Hooked on hockey, he had a treasure waiting for him taking the basketball court in Chicago.
From His Airness to The Great One
Of all things, his hockey collection is in part thanks to Michael Jordan. An avid card collector, Chawkins knew the odds of what cards would be in a box or a case. He decided to invest in Fleer basketball cards during a heyday what would become a valuable period for rookie years—Hakeen Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing.
“The box itself was $24.99, and there was a subset of 10 cards,” Chawkins said. “Of course, the Jordan rookie became very, very expensive and at that time you wanted to put the set together. I think 99 cards was the set. There were 10 stickers that were hard to get.”
After buying a couple more boxes without any luck, Chawkins decided to increase his odds and bought about 10 cases of trading cards through a friend at California Sport Card for a few hundred dollars, opening a couple of the boxes initially to see what he could find. Ideally, he would stumble on a Mint 10 card. These cards today go for thousands of dollars. A 1986 Fleer Mint 10 Jordan rookie card is listed for $17,500 on eBay.
“I put the boxes away what was left over. Five or six years after that they started to become worth a lot of money,” Chawkins said. “In each box, you were almost guaranteed five to seven Jordan rookies, roughly.”
The packs alone went for $250-$350, so he sold boxes back to California Sport Card at $500 to $600 a box and kept some cases.
“That’s when my $24.99 investment became hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it was just sitting around,” Chawkins said. “I sold one or two boxes back for a crazy amount of money in the mid ’90s, and I put the rest away.”
After card companies changed the formula for how precious cards were distributed in packs, he moved on to buying vintage trading cards to make full sets then went into sports memorabilia.
“After you do that, now what?” Chawkins said. “I go to here.”
He shoots, he scores
Chawkins’ trading card obsession led to pro authentic jerseys, some game worn, others autographed. The jerseys in turn led to sticks and art and more. A 1994 Vancouver Canucks Wheaties box sets atop a back of collectable Corona beer.
He flashes the great 1990s Starter jerseys made out of then, essentially a gym shorts material. There’s Chris Chelios and his Blackhawks No. 7 and Patrick Roy’s Size 46 Colorado Avalanche jersey on his chair.
“From Gretzky to Lemieux to Roy,” he said.
Out in Los Angeles, he’d get them to sign while at Kings or Ducks games and then here in St. Petersburg and Tampa. He doesn’t consider himself an autograph hound—he actually detests these folks.
Sure, he’ll research to see where the team hotel is and where the post-game hangouts are, but he just wants to have a regular conversation with the boys. Even if one of the boys is The Great One.
Inside Wayne Gretzky’s Toronto restaurant, he saddled up along Gretzky, Darryl Sydor and Marty McSorely following a game.
“I don’t want your jersey, I don’t want your signature, I don’t want your card,” he recalled. He just wanted to know how his burger was.
“After that, they’re just people, and you start to talking to them,” Chawkins continued. “He’s a good human being and good to talk to when you’re not pounding them for their autograph.”
One of the nicest sweaters in his collection is from the 1994-95 Lockout when Wayne Gretzky formed the Ninety-Nine All Stars. It’s a sweater that looks like a mix between a Campbell Soup label and a classic Canadian junior hockey league sweater: it’s a beaut.
Chawkins pulls it from a pile and that clean white is blinding with that classic embroidered Ninety-Nine on the front, and Gretzky’s name, 99 and signature on the back.
As a season ticket holder at the Great Western Forum, Chawkins would gain access to players thanks to charitable donations and being around the team. He’s certainly a super fan, the type that would go to every NHL arena and for a period of time go to each All Star Game with his “Original Six” crew that included his wife Lonnie, his brother Neil, and friends Bob Hart, who owned Monk’s Steamer Bar in Sarasota’s Gulf Gate neighborhood; Johnny Rockwell, who owned PaddyWagon Irish Pub here, and Bob Askew, a dive instructor.
It was trips like the one at the 2004 All Star Game in St. Paul, Minn., where they chat up an attractive blonde in her forties talking hockey along with the likes of Jaromir Jagr. She had to excuse herself to find her husband, Barry Melrose.
“We were awestruck,” Chawkins said, fortunately before Melrose would coach the Lightning for 16 games in 2008. They maintained in contact and still exchange Christmas cards, he said, despite his poor coaching record. You have to hand it to Melrose, though, he’s an entertaining, engaging hockey personality that seems like the type of guy you want to have a beer with.
“What great people,” he said. “Barry Melrose is a nice person, and so is his wife. They are very, very cool people. They’re like family.”
Tempered in Tampa
In Tampa, home of the Lightning, he has a love-hate relationship with the team and organization. And it starts way before that dreadful 2008 season.
Chawkins moved to Tampa Bay in 1994-95 after he lost his house from a devastating earthquake in California. His hockey life maintained watching the Lightning at the Thunderdome—now Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. After a couple of seasons, it was a struggle to watch, he admitted.
“Because I had all these jerseys, I became the opposition fan,” Chawkins said. The concept isn’t much of a stretch today for snowbird fans who fill the Tampa Bay Times Forum, but the fanbase has matured and grown enough where 18,000 Lightning faithful is more regular occurrence than not.
Flashing back during those infancy years of the Bolts, Chawkins had enough and called into a radio show with Steve “Big Dog” Duemig and then-general manager Phil Esposito (or as I call Espo, Frank Reynolds.)
“He and I had it out over the radio, and he hung up on me,” he said, with a gleaming smile. “I came back the next day and all the people—the parking lot attendants, my ticket guy and the ushers were like, ‘Way to go Ron!’ They were too afraid to tell Phil he was a jerk.”
He’d still root for the Lightning when he could and was there, too, for the Stanley Cup Final.
“When the Lightning were in the playoffs playing for the Cup, I wanted them to win,” Chawkins said. “Prior to that, I could care less who won. I just wanted to watch a good hockey game.”
As sports championships do, the demand and quality of the product jumped in price for tickets. It didn’t help that following the championship, a lockout wiped out the 2004 season and many teams continued to increase ticket prices.
His marriage to hockey season tickets ended to devote more time to his real marriage and his young family.
And now, it’s time to let go of the collection: The Anaheim Ducks inaugural ticket set, the collection of Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens cards and photos, the endless hockey sweaters folded in the corner and the stacks of Looney Toons-themed art depicting Lemieux and the greats.
“I said I’ve had enough, and I’m starting to weed out and getting rid of some stuff,” Chawkins said, resigning himself to the fate of his tangible memories.