From sticks to pucks, Mt. Pleasant collector wields power of the Pens
Organized neither alphabetically nor by era, and instead by shape and how well they fit together to conserve space, more than 900 game-used hockey sticks line the walls of Mt. Pleasant resident Jeff Miller's basement.
Of 660 men who have worn a Penguins sweater, Miller, a 41-year-old self-described super collector, owns 451 of their sticks.
But the sticks are only a small part of the amount of memorabilia Miller has accumulated, a haul so big it's spilling into a third room.
There are more than 600,000 hockey cards, thousands of them autographed. Miller estimated he has 90 percent of “Ice Time” — the Penguins game program — editions printed. There are pucks stuffed in corners, hats hanging from ceilings and grocery items such as Darius Kasparitis' own brand of pickles organized in a separate, grocery store-like section.
“You name it,” Miller said proudly, wearing a plain black Penguins sweatshirt and a hat paying tribute to franchise legend Bob Johnson, “it's here.”
Although he admitted there's a missing VHS tape — “One from the Heart: The Story of the 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins” — pretty much every other knick-knack and collectible ever produced is accounted for.
“If I had everything, the search would be over,” Miller said plainly.
The stick collection is the centerpiece. He has 451 from the Penguins but even more when the Wheeling Nailers, Johnston Chiefs and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins are considered.
Miller began collecting sticks while attending Penguins practices at Southpointe during the mid-1990s. Back then, Miller said, it wasn't uncommon to find sticks left behind after practice or have players such as Aleksey Morozov, Jiri Slegr or Robert Lang give him old sticks in exchange for batches of trading cards.
It's more difficult now, said Miller, who was a season-ticket holder in the late 1990s but now watches games on a tube TV in the room occupying all of his sticks.
“I dearly miss the days when we weren't doing so well,” Miller said. “The players were a lot more personable then. Now you can't get anywhere near them at Southpointe or anywhere.”
Miller's methods for procuring sticks are multifold. He rarely attends practices anymore and has never been to a game at Consol Energy Center — it's too expensive, he said.
Instead, he has stick-dealers in every city, ads posted on Craigslist, eBay and Facebook, and frequently visits thrift shops and garage sales. He will trade sticks but also buy.
“Look at this,” Miller said while reaching for a beat-up, old hat.
The hat came from a Red, White & Blue thrift store. It cost $3.95.
It's signed by Mario Lemieux.
“These people clearly didn't know it was signed,” Miller said. “I couldn't get the money out of my wallet fast enough.”
Miller has every Lemieux O-Pee-Chee trading card — autographed. He has a shrine to his favorite player, Ken Wregget, on the back wall of the second room. But, still, the sticks are his favorite.
When the Penguins traded for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, Miller contacted his dealer in Nashville, Tenn., and had a game-used Hornqvist stick before the regular season started. It took him just days after they acquired Daniel Winnik to do the same.
Some are tougher. Miller won't bite on Ian Cole or Maxim Lapierre sticks from his St. Louis source — prices are too high. Same for why he still doesn't own a Sidney Crosby-used stick.
“I'm not one to pay in upwards of $800, $900, $1,000 or $1,200 for a hockey stick,” Miller said. “I believe that, as time goes on, eventually I will find one for the right price, or I will trade somebody for one.”
There is a financial investment for Miller, who has a daughter and works as a custodian at Mt. Pleasant High School, but he generates his own capital. By going to garage sales and thrift stores, Miller is essentially like someone who flips houses: He takes collectibles, some autographed and some he might already have, and sells them for profit.
“Sometimes it's easy. Sometimes it's hard,” Miller said. “I try not to put more than $100 into it a month.”
The bounty astounds some local collectors.
“It's the largest collection I've ever seen,” said John Balawejder, 35, of Cranberry. Balawejder runs Double Deke Hockey, which is one of the leading game-used stick authentication companies in the country.
Yet instead of believing in the process of authentication — “a certificate of authenticity is only as good as the paper it's printed on,” Miller said — he has his own method.
He has photo-matched every stick in his collection, comparing its curve, handle and tape job to archived photos he finds online.
“You have to do your homework,” Miller said, proudly explaining that he once debunked a phony Milan Kraft stick. “I never trust it unless I photo-match something.”
Mark Proie, 46, of Spring Hill met Miller about eight years ago while they were standing around waiting for autographs. Proie also has a stick collection, of the 1991-92 Penguins team. He needs five to complete that.
“I've heard of people who have jerseys from certain players,” Proie said. “Certainly not sticks from every player who has played for a certain team.
“He's very into his sticks,” Proie added. “As much as my stick collection means a lot to me, Jeff's collection … he got a lot. He's got quite a lot.”