Allegations of fraud and “dishonourable conduct” now being levelled against the Canadian Hockey League’s 2016 Memorial Cup champion London Knights raise new questions about the authenticity of high-priced sports memorabilia.
Scott Galbraith, an avid hockey jersey collector from London, Ont., is claiming, in a civil statement of claim, that he paid nearly $4,000 for a Knights jersey used in a game and was handed a fake.
The jersey was advertised to be have been worn last season by first-round Toronto Maple Leaf draftee and 2016 winner of the Ontario Hockey League’s most outstanding player award, Mitchell Marner.
“Within two seconds, I knew that it wasn’t real,” Galbraith said in an exclusive interview with the Star. “I’ve been collecting these things for a long time. This jersey was brand new.”
By “knowingly” passing off a “false letter of authenticity” as authentic and “fabricating a fake game-worn jersey,” the Knights committed “fraud, bad faith, high-handed, disreputable and dishonourable conduct,” reads the statement of claim filed in a London courthouse Tuesday and obtained by the Toronto Star.
The $100,000-claim includes $80,000 for aggravated and punitive damages, and, in addition to the London Knights, names the Canadian Hockey League, which hosted the online jersey auction, and the Hockey Hall of Fame, which received a donated jersey from the Knights that Galbraith believes is his.
The allegations have not been proven in court and no statements of defence have yet been filed.
Trevor Whiffen, governor of the London Knights, said the club honoured its commitment to Galbraith, insisting the sweater was, indeed, worn by Marner during the team’s regular season last year.
“We said we’d give him a game-worn sweater. He was given a game-worn sweater,” he said in an interview.
When Galbraith complained initially to the team, team officials offered him a refund, Whiffen said.
“We’ve tried to do everything we can to pacify a long-time Knights fan. We said if you’re not satisfied, we’ll refund your money. He didn’t want that.”
Gene Chiarello, Galbraith’s London lawyer — he was a Knights player, himself, in the 1990s — says the jersey provides compelling evidence to refute the club’s claim of authenticity.
According to the statement of claim, “the jersey issued to him was brand new and never worn in any games during the regular season, play-offs, or the Memorial Cup tournament, nor was it the jersey posted in photographs on the CHL auction website.”
Chiarello said in an interview, “My client is interested in the jersey, not the money. He paid money and he should get the jersey he paid for. He doesn’t have that.”
In response to a request for an interview, CHL president David Branch referred all questions on the matter to Whiffen.
The Hockey Hall of Fame is accused in the claim of “unlawfully retaining and using property to which it does not have title.”
The claim seeks a court order compelling its return to Galbraith.
Hockey Hall of Famed spokesperson Kelly Masse said, in an email response to the Star Monday, that the Marner game-worn jersey was “returned to the Knights earlier today per arrangements made last week.”
Whiffen said the club took steps to get the jersey back from the Hall of Fame and give it to Galbraith in exchange for a signed confidentiality release, but Galbraith refused to comply.
“They want to pursue the right to still sue,” he said.
Chiarello said his client should not have to sign a release to obtain an item that is rightfully his.
When Galbraith won an online auction for the jersey in May, the Knights had just won the Ontario Hockey League championship and earned entry into the Canadian Hockey League’s Memorial Cup championship series.
The CHL is a primary feeder system for the National Hockey League featuring players generally aged 16 to 20.
After returning victorious from the Memorial Cup championships in Alberta, the Knights were to provide winners of the jersey auctions with their purchases, the statement of claim reads.
When Galbraith contacted the team to collect his jersey, a team official told him the shirt had been loaned to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, the claim says.
After several weeks of unanswered requests, Galbraith received an email from a representative of the team on July 25, the statement claims.
That email to Galbraith, included in the statement of claim, said: “We have secured your jersey worn by Mitch Marner for the 2015/2016 season. The Marner jersey currently displayed at the Hockey Hall of Fame was worn only at the Memorial Cup. If you would like us to send the jersey to you, please provide your mailing address.”
Suspicious, Galbraith, who has purchased and sold more than 250 collector hockey jerseys, reviewed high-resolution game photographs of Marner’s jerseys and examined details such as loose threads, stitching and puck markings.
He concluded Marner, “wore the same black jersey in the Ontario Hockey League playoffs as he did in the Memorial Cup,” the statement of claim reads. “This was contrary to (the team representative’s)representation that the Marner jersey worn in competition at the Memorial Cup was ‘worn only at the Memorial Cup’ and not before,” the statement reads.
In an interview, Galbraith said he was also suspicious because of the long delay from the club in responding to his request for the jersey.
“They found the jersey when I said was going to contact a lawyer, which was another red flag,” Galbraith said in an interview.
The Knights’ Whiffen says the delay happened because the team was in the process of firing its merchandise manager at that time.
“We had someone overseeing that and it wasn’t working out. We terminated his employment.”
Despite his suspicions, Galbraith showed up at the Knights’ merchandise store to collect the jersey offered.
The civil claim details a series of alleged inconsistencies between that jersey and those worn by Marner on the ice.
Among them: there was a “price-tag style” sticker “perfectly intact” inside the jersey Galbraith was given by the Knights. The statement of claim alleges such stickers are “quickly smudged off” of legitimate game-worn jerseys, “from the friction of wear and laundering.”
A crest on the left side of the chest denoting Marner’s role as alternate captain of the team was “not in a consistent location on the jersey presented to Galbraith when compared to photographs of the jersey worn by Marner in game action or photos posted of the jersey on the auction website.”
A stray thread that appears in high-resolution photos of the jersey Marner was wearing in both the playoffs and the Memorial Cup was missing on the jersey Galbraith was given by the Knights.
And the “fighting strap” — used to prevent the jersey from being removed during a fight — on the rear interior of the jersey Galbraith was given had apparently never been used.
The only signs of wear on the jersey Galbraith received, the statement reads, were “black streaks on the white crested numbers on the jersey’s back and shoulders.”
The claim alleges those streaks “appear to be purposely created with the edge of a black rubber hockey puck as they do not appear consistent with typical puck marks resulting from game action.”
In addition, the statement claims, “there is no odour to the jersey of either having been worn in a game or having been laundered.”
The Knights’ Whiffen dismissed those allegations, saying team jerseys are not laundered after every game, a single player can wear many jerseys over the course of a season or playoffs and efforts to match jerseys to photos is not a reliable method of proving authenticity.
“It is not a foolproof or precise process, because you would literally have to watch every shift played during the course of the season to know if every mark corresponded. It’s a tool, but hardly a science.”
Asked if there could have been a simple error resulting in Galbraith being given a new jersey, rather than a game-worn shirt, Whiffen said it was “unlikely.”
“Game-worn sweaters are overseen by our training staff,” he said. “Can I tell you how many games it was worn? No. We don’t track it.”
Chiarello, who is going up against his old team by representing Galbraith, calls this his way of representing the same fans who supported him as a player.
“I feel a loyalty to a guy like Scott who paid $20 to watch me play back in the 1990s. When he came to me with this issue, I was disappointed that a team that my name is linked with could potentially be doing this to fans who are responsible for putting the team on the pedestal it’s on.”
While the financial returns of CHL teams are not public, the London Knights are widely considered to be one of the most valuable and lucrative clubs in the Canadian Hockey League.
Marner, whose agent did not respond to interview requests for this story, logged the most points in the Ontario Hockey League in the 2015-16 season, with 116 points in 57 games. He was honoured with the Ontario Hockey League’s Red Tilson Trophy as the most outstanding player of the year, as well as the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy, as the MVP of the Memorial Cup Tournament.
“I really like the way he played,” said Galbraith, a fan of the team since childhood, who has been keeping his eye on Marner’s jersey all season with the intention of purchasing it.
“I knew I was going to go after this. I was taking pictures of it. I took screen shots of the jersey on TV and looked up photos online.”
It’s a habit that consumes much of his life, he says.
“If you ask my wife, she hates this.”