The first true set of hockey cards, 1910-11 C56 is iconic within the hobby as it dates back to a time before the National Hockey League was formed and the game’s early pioneers were playing for the highest bidder.
Issued is packs of cigarettes produced in Canada by Imperial Tobacco, the 1910-11 C56 collection came out as hockey stars were emerging as sporting heroes in an age where professional athleticism was still frowned upon by some. Focusing on a small loop of teams based in Ontario and Quebec, the National Hockey Association came together for the 1909-10 season. Some organizations had been around for a few years, like the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Wanderers and some teams that arose due to heavy spending in Northern Ontario mining towns like Cobalt and Haileybury. With mining baron Ambrose O’Brien throwing money around in Renfrew, Ontario, big stars were coming to play for the Creamery Kings and Montreal had two more entries – the Shamrocks and Les Canadiens.
With a design similar to the T206 baseball cards of the era, Canadian smokers could find a small (measurement) card inside a pack. While it is uncertain whether or not a few folks of youthful persuasion were grabbing some cigarettes in order to get a picture of a hockey hero, the excitement within Ontario and Quebec was most certainly high as two more sets were issued in the seasons that followed. The designation of C56 was bestowed upon it by Jefferson Burdick’s American Card Catalog many years after it was issued and the “C” comes from the fact that it was a Canadian release rather than being given a “T” for tobacco.
Loaded up with Hall of Fame talent, each card is obviously a rookie issue since there were no others on the market prior to the time of issue. Made up of 36 cards, it is not an easy challenge for most collectors – especially when there are key cards of the sport’s pioneers like Art Ross, Cyclone Taylor, Newsy Lalonde, and Lester Patrick. The card fronts are quite striking due to their rich color and the backs have a nice design which includes a listing of the teams the subject had played for at that point.
A printing stone had been discovered in recent years and written about in an article by Bobby Burrell, one of the hockey hobby’s leading vintage experts, and shed some light on vintage printing techniques.
Debatable Date of Issue
While it has been generally accepted that the 1910-11 season was the issue date for the C56 set, an examination of the card backs and other factors creates some debate. First, the presence of three teams that did not make it to the NHA’s sophomore year is a bit of a head-scratcher. By 1910-11, the NHA versions of the Montreal Shamrocks, Haileybury Hockey Club (otherwise known as the Comets), and the Cobalt Silver Kings may be an indication that it was actually issued in the 1909-10 campaign. There are also some discrepancies with players which also cast some doubt as well and will be discussed below. However, the 1910-11 date could also be realistic since it would have taken time to procure photos for production. The hobby will never likely know the true answer, but at least it creates some cause for healthy debate.
Challenging to find in high grade, it is a set that many tend to build slowly as well. Scarce when compared to baseball cards of the same era, it is interesting to note that Imperial Tobacco also issued lacrosse sets during the same era. Some of the players do cross over, so collectors can occasionally find some early members of the Hockey Hall of Fame at very reasonable prices since these cards are from a less popular pastime – at least by modern standards since lacrosse is generally accepted as Canada’s national sport.
A 37th Card?
Back in the early 1990s, reports surfaced in the Collector’s World supplement of The Hockey News regarding the discovery of a 1910-11 C56 Newsy Lalonde card which featured the number 37 on the front instead of 36. At the time, it was generally accepted that it was a salesman’s sample and that belief carries on to this day. The Hockey Hall of Fame has one copy in their archive (your humble author has seen it with his own eyes and respectfully held it while wearing white gloves!) and there are believed to be four others in existence – one of which is presently for sale on eBay.
Let’s take a look at the teams and players that make up the iconic 1910-11 C56 set.
Renfrew Creamery Kings
Otherwise known as the Millionaires, the Renfrew Creamery Kings were brought together because of mining money flowing like water. O’Brien spared no expense in getting the biggest stars – convincing Frank and Lester Patrick to come back east from the family’s budding logging empire in British Columbia and making Taylor the highest paid athlete on a per-game basis at the time. The cost to bring him in? A whopping $6,250 for 12 games! Half-way through the season, he picked up Lalonde from Les Canadiens and he would finish the 1909-10 season as the NHA’s first scoring champion.
When it came to cards, it is interesting to note that Lalonde’s appearance as a Creamery Kings player means that the earliest the cards could have been issued in that season would have been February 7, 1910 as that was his last game with Montreal that year. Frank Patrick’s card is the first one in the set, making it technically the first hockey card featuring a specific player from a chronological perspective.
Next up is Taylor’s debut card and it is regarded as the key to the set. At the time, he was already a legend for allegedly scoring a goal by skating backwards and earning the nickname of “Cyclone”. Lester Patrick’s card, who along with that of his brother, are not to be ignored as they were responsible for establishing or changing many of the game’s rules in addition to starting their own hockey league in British Columbia soon after – helping hockey go from seven players a side to six by eliminating the rover position. He also was instrumental in the early success of the New York Rangers – even stepping into goal during the 1928 Stanley Cup Final. Closing out the set is Lalonde, who was immensely popular among French Canadian fans and brought crowds to their feat with his play.
The Creamery Kings lasted just two seasons before the money dried up, but their cardboard legacy is certainly impressive. They finished 1909-10 with an 8-3-1 record – good enough for only third place and lost the Patricks and Lalonde soon after, which left Taylor with a new group of teammates the next year.
The early Ottawa professional hockey club known as the Senators has roots that can be traced back to their days as the Silver Seven. A franchise which dominated the competition and little trouble winning and defending the Stanley Cup, they rebranded as the Senators and entered the NHA under that banner.
Having lost Cyclone Taylor to Ottawa Valley rivals the Renfrew Creamery Kings, the 1909-10 Ottawa Senators were still a force to be reckoned with. Five of their players were selected for the 1910-11 C56 set, including a few eventual Hall of Famers. The roster is led by goaltender Percy LeSueur, who allegedly carve Latin phrases into his stick. He was joined on cardboard by fellow immortals Gordon Roberts and Bruce Stuart, but collectors should not discount the cards of Fred Lake or Bruce Ridpath – the latter of which is considered by some historians to be seriously overlooked for induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Strangely, scoring star Marty Walsh was overlooked by the creator of this set as he scored a team-leading 19 goals for the Senators.
The season saw Ottawa finish second in the NHA and go on to capture the Stanley Cup. Roberts did not return for 1910-11. Instead, he moved on to the Montreal Wanderers since he was attending McGill University. This is one of the instances which brings the date of issue into question, leaving one to wonder why they would make a card of a player who had already moved on to another club – especially one so notable.
The NHA’s top squad in 1909-10 with a near-perfect 11-1 record, the Wanderers had previously won Stanley Cup championships in the formative years of the pro game and they were loaded up with top talent. The 1910-11 C56 set features six of their regulars and five of them eventually made it to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Pud Glass is the exception here, but he managed to score 15 times that year.
As for the rest of the elite talent? It starts with high-octane Ernie Russell, who was tops in the NHA with 32 goals and he was joined by Harry Hyland (20 goals in 10 games) along with defender Moose Johnson and Jack Marshall – the first player to ever skate for six Stanley Cup-winning squads (with a total of four different clubs). Goaltender Riley Hern is also included here and he was the first pro goalie to lay claim to the Stanley Cup – winning it with the Wanderers four times. As a bit of neat trivia, his grandson is actor Allan F. Nicholls, who appeared in the iconic hockey movie Slap Shotas Charlestown Chiefs player Johnny Upton. One of the best of his generation, he is largely forgotten by modern fans.
Notable by his absence in the set is Hall of Fame member Jimmy Gardner, who was actually one of the NHA’s founders and the person who also came up with the name Les Canadiens for the local rival club. The Moose Johnson card lists him as “Johnston” on the front and back and is an uncorrected error.
The next Montreal-based team being covered here are the Shamrocks, who were early Stanley Cup champions when the silver bowl was handed out to only amateur clubs at the turn of the century. The 1909-10 was their only one in the NHA and there are three players featured in the 1910-11 C56 set. The key card here is of Tommy Dunderdale, who was the first Australian-born hockey star who came to Canada as a child and tied for the team lead with 14 goals. However, there is a second card of Jack Marshall, which is strange as he did not suit up for the team in 1909-10 or 1910-11 as he was a member of the Wanderers.
The third card may not feature a Hall of Famer, but there is something to be said about big defender Barney Holden. He scored the first-ever professional hockey goal during a game at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne Gardens back in 1904.
With a poor finish and unable to lure top pro talent, the Shamrocks were a one-and-done club at the NHA level. However, their name stuck around with local clubs for a few more years at lower levels.
Cobalt Silver Kings
The tiny town of Cobalt, Ontario exploded due to silver mining and by 1910, it was the fourth-largest producer of it in the world. With a population of over 10,000 souls, there was a demand for pro hockey and the Silver Kings had been formed a few years earlier as part of the Timiskaming Professional League. In 1908-09, the team won the O’Brien Cup as league champions. Welcomed to the NHA, the team struggled to reach a 4-8 record – but only four of the six players that were actually part of the 1910-11 C56 played there in 1909-10.
Herb Clarke, a 20-goal man and son of a prominent Canadian psychiatrist, along with Harold McNamara and Hall of Famer Angus Campbell were part of the NHA club. Campbell played just two games, though. Chad Toms, who was a part of the pre-NHA Silver Kings, strangely gets a card here but it is believed that he had stepped away from the game at this point. The Clarke card is also an uncorrected error since he is listed as “Clark” on it.
One of the most mysterious players to appear as a member of the Silver Kings in the 1910-11 C56 set is Joseph Henry “Chief” Jones – or J. Jones as note on his card. A goaltender who came up from the original International League, he was marketed as a “full-blooded Indian from Michigan” when he was actually born in Renfrew. He came to Cobalt in 1908-09 and remained with the club for its first season in the NHA. He won four contests over the course of the season and his goals-against average was a gaudy 8.62. In the playoffs, he was a little more composed and earned a victory and a tie while giving up a total of six goals over two games.
Being a bit too small of a town to support pro hockey, the Silver Kings franchise was moved to Quebec City where they were informally dubbed the Bulldogs without the players listed here being retained.
Another refugee from the Timiskaming pro loop that joined the NHA for its first season, the Haileybury Comets were another small mining town team which sprung up due to local prosperity in the early 20th century. Also owned by Ambrose O’Brien, the locals spent a lot of money laying bets on games and O’Brien’s pockets were filled due to packed houses – resulting in the ability to attract top talent.
The 1910-11 C56 set had four different Comets players on five cards and the best of them was Art Ross. Already one of the game’s greatest pros by this point, had two cards (numbered 8 and 12) which showed him in a formal team cardigan or with the Comets sweater. The backs for both are the same, but there is an interesting notation under his name which recognized his off-ice job as a sporting goods merchant. Ever the innovator, he developed a net which the NHL later adopted and used until the 1980s on top of making alterations to the puck which helped it bounce less thanks to using synthetic rubber and beveling the edges. There is also a card of Nick Bawlf that is rather interesting as it shows him with Haileybury, but is listed with Ottawa on the back.
While the cards of Edgar Dey and team scoring leader Horace Gaul are considered commons, the last Comets player collectors need to have the team set is goaltender Paddy Moran. A fierce defender of his crease, he wielded his stick efficiently to intimidate opposing skaters and was not afraid to spit tobacco at them, either! He started 1909-10 in the rival and ill-fated Canadian Hockey Association with All-Montreal before being lured to Haileybury. He appeared in 11 of 12 games and wound up with a 3-8 record – leaving Billy Nicholson to get the win in the only other decision.
The Original Montreal Canadiens
Where the the Comets end up going? Well, would you believe that they became the Montreal Canadiens?
As strange as it seems, the original Les Canadiens were meant to be a club made up of only Francophone players and meant to be sold to Francophone owners. The team was suggested to O’Brien by Gardner to attract French-speaking local fans.
The team’s initial season was a tough one as they finished last with a 2-10 record – beating only Haileybury and the cross-town Shamrocks to close the season in overtime no less. While they started the season with Lalonde in the lineup, his 16 goals proved to lead the team even though he only played six games with them that year.
There are a few of Hall of Fame members found on the checklist from that first Canadiens squad, including dynamo Didier “Pit” Pitre, coach and defenseman Jack Laviolette, and goalie Joseph Cattarinich. Laviolette was born in Belleville, Ontario but grew up in Quebec and served as the club’s general manager in addition to coaching and playing. Cattarinich only played four games with Les Canadiens and was replaced the next year by incoming Georges Vezina. In 1921, he became part of the team’s ownership group as essentially a silent partner and also had much success operating racetracks throughout North America. His card features uncorrected errors as his surname is listed as “Cattarinigh”.
Rounding up the players from Les Canadiens in 1910-11 C56 are Skinner Poulin, 13-goal man Art Bernier, and Ed Decarie, whose card has his last name incorrectly spelled as “Decary” on both sides.
Summing It Up
For most vintage hockey card collectors, collecting the 1910-11 C56 is the stuff of dreams. While it is not impossible to put one together, there is a high demand for singles – especially those grading PSA 4 or higher. Many are content to piece it together card by card, but it takes a great deal of patience and a willingness to spend. For some, even owning a single card from the set is a badge of honor. With a little perseverance, it is a goal that can be attained – but it is important to know that the set was reprinted nearly 30 years ago (sometimes referred to as a Lancaster reprint).
Check out original C56 cards on eBay here.