With World War II raging on, kids in Canada needed some form of escape from the awful realities of the world around them and O-Pee-Chee, who had been bringing cards of hockey heroes to the nation’s youth was ready to wrap up its original run. With the 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee collection, it was the continuation of a large 5″ x 7″ offering from the previous year and it was the last time Canadian youth would see hockey cards for over a decade.
The 1939-40 O-Pee-Chee set was a departure from more traditionally-sized cards as the company sat out the 1938-39 campaign after releasing five series of hockey gum cards between 1933-34 and 1937-38. The change to a black and white photo series may have been a move to save money as the cost of colored ink may have been prohibitive and allowed them to justify the increase in size. Essentially an update set with a mix of established stars and rookies, the cards took on a sepia tone for 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee. The reasons for this would be purely speculative at this time, but it is easy to tell the difference when putting examples from each set side-by-side.
Reported to have been sold without wrappers, an O-Pee-Chee box from this era surfaced in 2016 and was shown on an online message board. The premise for the box was simple. The cards were placed inside at the factory and once at the store, the lid would be lifted and a child (or a then-rare collecting adult) would hand over a penny in order to take a piece of gum and the top card on the pile. The text on the box was as follows:
“Turn over and tuck flap down into the box so that these pictures will be easy to take out – DO NOT LET the children go through them — make them take the top picture – it will save your time if you insist upon this.”
However, kids likely figured out a way to get their favorite players. The distribution method might remind some of the 1980 Topps Superstar Photos which were sold individually (but not with gum).
Cause for Debate
For many years, there has been debate as to whether or not the 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee cards were actually produced by the London, Ontario-based company. Since there was no indication whatsoever on these cards or the ones from the year before, the speculation was fuelled. However, the box that surfaced did also state:
“When re-ordering ask for O-Pee-Chee Hockey Stars with the Big Pictures”
With that speculation on their origin successfully squashed, collectors still debate as to whether or not the 1939-40 and 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee cards are actually cards or just photos. They are printed on cardboard, but the size drives some folks crazy and makes them less apt to add them to their collections. Granted, there were other releases from this era which are not considered cards like the Beehive Photos from the St. Lawrence Starch Company or the much larger Quaker Oats photos. There were also movie star cards produced around the same time by O-Pee-Chee, but they are not as desired as the hockey releases.
No matter which side of the debate you are on, it can be agreed that they are still historically significant. This is the last hockey card issue before the Original Six era began as all seven of the clubs from the time, including the New York Americans, are represented.
Plenty of Stars
The checklist kicks off with an appropriate choice in Hector “Toe” Blake, who was coming off a second straight appearance on the NHL’s Second All-Star Team despite playing on a last-place Montreal Canadiens squad. Strangely, he had not been included in the prior release. However, there are 25 other cards in the set of repeated players – some of which were even given a third card here due to heightened popularity. Toronto Maple Leafs Turk Broda, Nick Metz, and Syl Apps earned that honor. The last Broda card in the set is particularly impressive as it features a horizontal staged shot of him making a save. The photo of the Apps card is repeated on both of his 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee cards, which makes one wonder where the proofers were on that one!
Looking at the rest of the repeated players, some were probably meant to be upgraded photos compared to those used the year before. Lynn Patrick is shown in his New York Rangers jersey and Mud Bruneteau is in his Detroit Red Wings sweater instead of a blank generic ones and some of the Maple Leafs players from the previous set were shown in tuxedos since the photos were actually taken at the wedding of Apps! The get in-uniform shots here and they complement each other nicely.
In total, the 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee set delivers 24 debuts and a surprising amount of Hall of Fame rookie cards. While the Jack Adams here is not the one that coached the Detroit Red Wings at the time, we do get legends like Ken Reardon, “Black” Jack Stewart, Elmer Lach, Max Bentley, and Milt Schmidt! Granted, the Lach card will make you do a double-take due to the photo editor’s manipulation of the image that makes it look like an unflattering caricature, but these are names which were among the NHL’s best for the rest of the decade and into the 1950s. It should be noted that Bentley’s card actually depicts his brother, Doug, who went into the Hockey Hall of Fame as well.
The remainder of the rookie cards are of talents which are mostly forgotten to the mists of time. That does not mean that there is not some interesting stories about these players. John Quilty was the Calder Trophy winner for 1940-41 as Rookie of the Year and Johnny Mowers was a force to be reckoned with in the Red Wings net before winning both the Vezina Trophy and the Stanley Cup in 1942-43. There is also an infamous figure getting a card here in Tony Demers, who went to prison in 1949 for manslaughter following the death of a woman with whom he was having an affair along with other controversial behaviour.
Were There Two Series?
Collectors of 1940-41 O-Pee-Chee often find that cards 101 to 125 are easier to find than those comprising the rest of the 50-card set. An uncut proof sheet had been spotted at the Sportcard & Memorabilia Expo in Toronto in recent years which had 25 cards on each side. Could that be an indicator that there was a split in the print run? That is entirely possible, but a theory which is likely impossible to concretely prove unless a sealed box somehow surfaced and then opened to reveal the contents inside. The two repeated Apps photos do raise the idea that the second half of the set was issued either late in the season or possible even during the 1941-42 campaign, but there are also two Nick Metz cards in the second part, which is odd considering that there were two different shots used.
A Fine Swan Song
With sugar rationing in Canada being moved from volunteer action to mandatory, the sale of gum was impacted greatly and the fate of paper goods like trading cards was tied to it – especially when paper drives became popular in order to help the war effort. Undoubtedly, this resulted in the destruction of many vintage hockey cards and ensured their scarcity today.
What this also meant was the O-Pee-Chee had to change its business model in order to survive. The result? A lavender-flavored gum called Thrills which was not so thrilling. The purple pieces of gum did not have a grape taste – much to the chagrin of decades of young Canadians and frankly, tasted like soap. Even today, modern producers of the Thrills brand market it as “it still tastes like soap.”
After the War, O-Pee-Chee would distribute Topps baseball cards in Canada for a few seasons before Sy Berger was reluctantly convinced to try making hockey cards in 1954-55 – three years after Parkhurst brought them back north of the border.
You can see 1940-41 OPC hockey cards on eBay here.