The early 1960s were an era filled with excitement for young Canadian hockey fans who had plenty of opportunities to collect items featuring their on-ice heroes. Whether it was the extremely popular Shiriff coins, octagonal cards distributed by York Peanut Butter, or even the venerable photos produced by Beehive Corn Syrup, there were plenty of “oddball” issues to keep you busy but nothing compared to surpassed the popularity of the standard bubble gum cards. The 1961-62 Topps hockey set is a true classic and it has plenty of neat features that make it a must-have for vintage collectors today.
At the time, there were two manufacturers at war in that arena and both Parkhurst and Topps forced kids to either pick a product based on team loyalty or to collect them all. This head-to-head battle first took place in 1954-55, but after a two-year pause, they went back at it from 1957-58 to 1963-64.
As this clash headed into its final throes, Topps struck a major blow in 1961-62 in terms of innovation and visual appeal. While the companies evenly split the NHL’s Original Six clubs, Topps was loaded up with three American-based teams in the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers.
While the Hawks were the reigning Stanley Cup champions, Boston and New York were basement dwellers and Topps needed to resort to a bit of innovation when faced with the Parkhurst juggernaut that featured the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, and Toronto Maple Leafs. Topps lost Detroit after the 1959-60 set and had to improvise with an All-Time Greats subset the next year – the first time that the cards were packaged and printed by O-Pee-Chee in London, Ontario.
Topps Steps Up
What did Topps do in order to be a bit more competitive? They added an insert in each pack that mirrored what they’d done in baseball and football. The 1961-62 Topps hockey stamp insert is a popular set in itself.
Looking at the set of cards itself, though, Topps really brought its game. Parkhurst sets in this era were littered with reused photos (some for four or five years in a row!) and becoming a bit stale. Topps put together a 66-card collection for the fifth straight season and while it does have a few crazy flaws, it stands out over 55 years later.
Coaches and Cameos
Each NHL organization in the 1961-62 Topps set has at least 19 cards and two of them are dedicated to either coaches or team photos. The coaches are an interesting crew with Boston’s Phil Watson leading off the series. Chicago bench boss Rudy Pilous gets on a card for the first time and the last is future Hall of Famer Doug Harvey – who was a playing coach that joined the Rangers that year through a trade with Montreal. What makes this card especially cool is the fact that Harvey won the Norris Trophy that season – his seventh, and final, in eight seasons.
Team cards were a new innovation for mainstream hockey card sets with 1961-62 Topps as well. The Blackhawks (then called the Black Hawks) are shown with the Stanley Cup, yet the coolest of the trio is easily the Bruins. Why is that? Well, it features a cardboard cameo of Willie O’Ree, who spent the previous season in Beantown but never got a card of his own until the 1997-98 season – 40 years after he became the first African-Canadian player in NHL history.
Looking at the basic player cards, kids got a strong assortment of talent from each team with which Topps had an agreement. The Bruins had some decent names like Johnny Bucyk and Leo Boivin along with rookie cards from both Dallas Smith and Ted Green – key defenders that helped them to a pair of championships over the next decade. There’s also a rookie card for big Orland Kurtenbach, who went on to become a rock for the early Vancouver Canucks teams of the early 1970s.
The Blackhawks may have only had one basic rookie card in tough Reggie Fleming, but that merely becomes a side note when you look at how loaded their lineup was after winning the title. You have big names in Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, and Glenn Hall, but it is important not to also forget that Pierre Pilote and Ken Wharram were also big names in this era.
Moving on to the Rangers, it’s a bit less exciting. Yes, you’ve got scoring machine Andy Bathgate here and another Hall of Famer in blueliner Harry Howell, but the best standard player card is of quotable goalie Gump Worsley. The only horizontal basic card in the set, it manages to stand out – much like the man himself did in the net.
Here Come The Rookies
One of the biggest innovations in this set was something that Topps (and O-Pee-Chee) did not repeat in the classic era as there are several rookie subset cards for each team. Like prospecting today, there is a mix of sure-fire hits and long shots, but the end result is impressive and adds to the legacy of 1961-62 Topps.
First up for the Bruins was an interesting trio of Don Head, Pat Stapleton, and Cliff Pennington. Head was the freshman workhorse in net for Boston that year, getting into 38 games. However, he did not make it into another game after the 1961-62 campaign and settled into the old Western League. Pennington came to the Bruins along with Terry Gray from Montreal before the season began as part of a deal that involved the previously mentioned O’Ree and finished second in Calder Trophy voting after a 41-point effort.
The best of the Bruins rookie subset cards? Well, that belonged to Pat Stapleton. The man known as “Whitey” later went on to become an All-Star defender with Chicago and finished out his career in the World Hockey Association before becoming Wayne Gretzky’s first professional coach with the Indianapolis Racers in 1978-79. Another cool fact is that he claims to have the puck that Paul Henderson scored the winning goal with in the 1972 Summit Series!
As for the Blackhawks, it was tough for a youngster to crack their lineup and it showed with the three rookie subset cards here. The best of the bunch is of Denis DeJordy, who eventually took over the net from Hall later in the decade thanks to the NHL expanding. Wayne Hillman went on to have a decent career and got his name on the Stanley Cup thanks to a single playoff appearance the previous year. What may make some folks scratch their head is the inclusion of Rino Robazza. A promising defenseman, he never made it into an NHL game but put up an impressive amount of penalty minutes in the minors for this era.
Finally, we come to the Rangers and their recruits were the most impressive among the three clubs – and we are not talking about Al LeBrun here. Even though LeBrun looked strong in a four-game trial with the Broadway Blueshirts in 1960-61, it was the pairing of Rod Gilbert and Jean Ratelle which take the cake. Both players are Hall of Famers, of course, and each card remains desirable to this day. Gentleman Jean and Mod Rod eventually formed the GAG Line (Goal-a-Game, folks!) with Vic Hadfield not long after these cards were released and the trio struck fear into opposing goalies for years.
Gilbert’s card seems to have a little more demand due to the fact that he has been a mainstay with the Rangers organization for over 50 years and if you want him to sign a copy of his rookie card today, it will cost you in the form of a sizable donation to his charity of choice.
Check It Out
Saving the biggest innovation (at least for hockey card collectors) for last is the final card in the set – the checklist. We all know how tough it is to find unmarked vintage checklists and this card marks the first time one was ever included in a hockey card set. For decades afterward, Topps and O-Pee-Chee made sure to include them and even today, Upper Deck makes sure that they are a part of their annual O-Pee-Chee set.
All in all, the 1961-62 Topps set is a minor masterpiece in an era which had many classic efforts. While it lacks half of the Original Six teams, it makes the most of this handicap with bright colors and innovative concepts that moved a lot of cardboard and gum to Canadian youth. A small set, it is still a challenge to put together and has plenty of must-have cards for serious collectors.
You can check out 1961-62 Topps hockey cards on eBay by clicking here.