Grading hockey cards can be a wise financial move but it depends on the cards being graded. An experienced hockey card collector, or even someone who found a box of old NHL cards in the basement, has to decide if the costs associated with grading will be worth it financially, aesthetically and for peace of mind.
The first thing a collector or card seller needs to do is to "grade" the card themselves. With a good eye, a magnifying glass or loupe, a ruler and an understanding of professional grading, you can get a good idea of the quality of the card and how a grading company may adjudicate it.
Use at least 10x magnification (preferably higher) to check for wear on the corners, creases, evidence of trimming, stray print dots or marks and for other possible blemishes. There are many tools for magnifying that you can purchase online.
Even if corners and edges look to your untrained eye to be “sharp”, magnification that graders will use may reveal a slight bit of wear. Even one or two corners showing wear will downgrade your cards.
Grading company grading standards can be found here:
KSA (Canadian company)
The card can also be compared to pictures of the same card that has already been graded. Be conservative…and be careful. Make sure any cards you think might be worth grading are handled carefully and stored in card holders.
After a possible grade has been estimated, a collector should take a look at final prices for similar cards. A collector can then decide if the cost to grade the card, plus shipping costs will make economic sense. The grading companies all have different levels of pricing in regards to speed of service and also the amount of cards being graded.
As part of a large group of cards being sent, the cost is likely going to be at least $7 per card but possibly as much as $17. For one card being graded with an express option, or one with a suggested high value, the price could be around $35. If the estimated value of the graded card is going to bring in an acceptable increase for the collector after the costs of grading are subtracted then the vintage card could be one that benefits by having a grade.
The rookie cards of the game's best players need to be graded, as do many of their other cards. Gretzky, Howe, Hull, Richard, Orr, Esposito, Cheevers, Mahovlich and Sawchuk and other greats can increase in value with a superior grade. It would make sense to get a Serge Savard rookie card graded (1969-70 O-Pee-Chee #4), but there wouldn't be any financial upside, most likely, in getting the next card in the set, J.C. Tremblay, graded, unless it is absolutely mint in every sense and well centered. While they are both famous Montreal Canadiens, Savard's first ever NHL card is the one with the greater price range from ungraded to the few graded with near mint designation. An ungraded Savard rookie can sell for $15, while a PSA 8 Savard might sell for many times that amount. A Savard rookie graded SGC 70 recently sold for $79 on eBay.
Collectors will pay for peace of mind, as the grading companies not only give their opinion on condition but will put their reputation behind the authenticity of the card. The price paid for grading can be small compared to the higher value others will put on the card, simply because they know it’s been authenticated.
A Gordie Howe rookie card with a low grade can sell for more than an ungraded card that may be in similar condition. On eBay, $1,250 was paid for a graded KSA 2 GOOD Howe rookie. An ungraded example of the 1951-52 Parkhurst #66 sold at $900. An ungraded Phil Esposito rookie sells on eBay for around $100, but the price for even a graded PSA 4 Esposito from 1965-66 Topps is generally around $200. It is too risky to buy an ungraded Wayne Gretzky rookie, just as those who collect baseball cards wouldn't buy a Mantle rookie ungraded as there are many counterfeits around. If someone finds a Gretzky rookie in a shoebox in a closet in an attic they need to get it graded whether selling it now or holding for the future. Even lower grade Gretzky rookies are desirable, especially the OPC version.
There are some collectors who decide they want to put together a full set of cards and have each one graded. Most will want to have all cards examined by the same grading company, while others will take that one step further and want all the cards to have the same grade, like PSA 6 which would be more affordable and easier to find than higher grades while still being much better to collect than lower grade cards with much more noticeable defects.
If you were one who simply took his cards from the packs 40 or more years ago and put them safely in a box that hasn’t been touched in years, chances are you’ve probably got some gradeable common cards as well as stars. If you’ve never had anything graded, it’s best to start with a few and see how good you are at ‘pre-grading’. That way if you don’t get high grades, you’re not out a lot of money and you now understand the process.
Most cards from the late 1980s and up likely aren’t worth grading—even the stars—although cards that come back as ‘10’ do sell for eye-popping numbers. Grading companies, however, throw 10s around like manhole covers, so don’t go in with high expectations.
Others who collect one specific player may also look to have a collection of only their graded cards, for several reasons, including a desire to display them in the tamper-proof card holders. Displaying and protecting vintage cards is a reason to get them graded, as the card holders can be displayed on a shelf plus the cards are protected from dust and, for some card holders, UV light as well.
It certainly is not an exact science, but by spending time researching a collector can figure out which are the vintage NHL hockey cards to get graded. The cards might be rookies of Hall of Famers, most of the 1950s cards of star players, plenty of cards from the 1960s of quality players, only a select group of 1970s cards, cards that are from condition-sensitive sets or are known to have many fake versions around, cards from sets that are reported to be short printed, anything that has newfound popularity among collectors and maybe also cards with in-person player autographs. The grading companies can authenticate the signature and possibly add a lot of value to the signed card.