LEWISTON — One night in 1991, someone broke into Steve and Kay Theberge’s home on Old Webster Road while no one was home.

“They kicked in the front door and broke open a little strong box that I kept,” Steve Theberge said. “They probably thought they were going to get a big wad of cash.”

Instead, the thief got nine hockey cards, featuring legendary players such as Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Gerry Cheeves and Jacques Plante. Each card was mounted in a thick plastic frame, some bearing the player’s signature, the rest accompanied by a scrap of paper with the player’s autograph.

After the break-in, Theberge searched local pawn shops, sports memorabilia dealers and card shows, hoping to find the stolen cards. He didn’t, and it seemed like the cards were simply gone forever.

Theberge was “devastated,” he said. “They’re all childhood heroes of mine.”

Then, by pure coincidence, they were discovered and returned to Theberge last week.

“This is a thrill, let me tell you,” Theberge said Tuesday evening. “It’s something that never should have happened.”

Theberge, who works at F.W. Webb Co. in Lewiston, a plumbing supply dealer, has a customer to thank for the unexpected return of the cards.

Theberge and Jeff Maxim, a heating and plumbing contractor, often talk hockey when the two do business together. A few weeks back, Theberge said, he told Maxim about the prized collection that was stolen, caught up in boyhood memories as he described them in detail.

Maxim was in the process of selling a house and buying another through a local Realtor, Scott Robert. Maxim mentioned that he would use one of the rooms in the new house as a “hockey room” to show off his memorabilia collection, Robert said, so he mentioned that he had a few old hockey cards in a safe.

Robert’s father, Marcel Robert, also a Realtor, had found the cards about 10 years ago among some left-behind belongings at a property on Broad Street in Auburn, and put them in a safe. His father kept the cards at his home on Old Webster Road, about a mile from Theberge’s, then gave the cards to his son about five years ago, Robert said.

Robert wasn’t very interested in hockey, so he, too, put the cards into a safe and forgot about them.

But the cards piqued Maxim’s interest, and he offered to look into their value, he said.

The day Robert brought the cards, Maxim stopped by Theberge’s office, thinking he would be interested in the cards as well, Maxim said.

He pulled the first card, the Gerry Cheever, out of the bag, and showed it to Theberge.

“He goes, ‘That’s my card!’ and I dropped it,” Maxim said, laughing.

After that, Theberge “named them card by card, without me even showing the rest of them,” Maxim said. “He described the cards to a T.”

After Maxim explained the situation to Robert, who had planned to give Maxim the cards as a gift when they closed on the two properties, Robert decided to return the cards to Theberge. That evening, Robert and Maxim visited Theberge’s house to officially return the long-lost cards.

The autographed cards aren’t worth a tremendous amount of money — about $20 each, Robert said — but they have a great deal of sentimental value to Theberge, he said. He met each of the players in person, getting their autographs and sometimes having short conversations with them.

“I’m a hockey player and I’m passionate about hockey,” he said. “It’s all about childhood memories.”

“Back then,” in the days before cable TV, when he would listen to hockey games on the radio, “seeing the guy in person was a real treat.” he said.

“I got ripped off, and you always wonder where they are, where’d they go? Did they end up in a landfill? Did they get burned up?” Theberge said. “Thank god there are two guys out there who saw fit to give them back to me, because they didn’t have to.”

As for Maxim and Robert, they say they did what they hope others would do for them in a similar situation.

“I’m glad he got his cards back,” Maxim said.

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