Down to eight teams heading into the 1977-78 season, the World Hockey Association was on its last legs, but that did not stop them from being involved in a trading card project for the fourth straight year. The 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee WHA set marked the end of an era, whether or not collectors cared much at the time.
Even now, it appears that O-Pee-Chee got a little overzealous with the production of this release as it is still not especially difficult to track down sealed packs or boxes today as compared to others from this era. Packs contained a dozen cards for just 15 cents and there were 48 of them inside boxes along with a piece of gum – meaning that a box with decent collation would contain eight 66-card sets!
A Tribute to Mr. Hockey
off the 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee WHA set was a uniquely-designed tribute to Gordie Howe’s 1,000th professional goal that was scored on December 8, 1977 against Birmingham Bulls netminder John Garrett. When considering the tight production times needed to produce a card during this era, one could conclude that it was probably a last-minute change to the set. The card itself had a well-written bio on the back, but the photo on the front is quite interesting as well. Shrewd WHA historians will recognize the clear boards that signify that this was taken during a Minnesota Fighting Saints game.
On top of that, the red on the jerseys meant that this photo was taken during the team’s last year in the WHA. The original version of the Fighting Saints had folded during the 1975-76 season, but they were brought back the next year as the Cleveland Crusaders relocated to Minnesota instead of their intended destination in Florida. The jerseys changed from blue to red, but that did not help them on the ice or the box office. They lasted just 42 games before going under, but Howe and the Houston Aeros visited just once that year – on January 7, 1977. The Fighting Saints lasted just three more home games and ceased to exist a week later.
It should also be noted that the front of the Howe card (along with those of his sons, Mark and Marty) mention their move to the New England Whalers as free agents.
Questionable Photo Selection and Horrible Cuts
Outside of a checklist, there were 64 more cards in the 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee WHA set to collect. All told, the set may be considered the least attractive of the company’s four-year run of rival league cards.
First off, some of the photo choices are a bit questionable. Granted, there are some solid posed shots and some slightly dark action shots that were taken at New England Whalers games by Steve Babineau, but some are down right scary.
For example, we get a much-maligned closeup of Winnipeg Jets star Anders Hedberg along with many that were quite out-of-date upon the release of this set. Part of the reason for that is that O-Pee-Chee likely could not get shots of some players with their new teams, but in some cases there was no excusing the laziness. A prime example is with Marc Tardif’s card that depicts him as a member of the Los Angeles Sharks that was four years old at that point. The two previous O-Pee-Chee WHA sets correctly depicted him with the Quebec Nordiques, so this lapse in judgement is puzzling. There are even players shown up close in NHL jerseys like Juha Widing and Norm Dube – the latter of whom is in a Kansas City Scouts jersey. The most obvious offender here, though, is Paulin Bordeleau. He is shown in a Vancouver Canucks jersey and O-Pee-Chee did not even bother to crop out the logo!
The 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee set is also notorious for a combination of bad centering and rough cuts. While scraggly edges were common for the company during this era due to the use of airplane wire to cut the cards from the sheets, it is incredibly difficult to find any cards with perfect centering. This can often be painfully evident when flipping the cards over.
Speaking of the backs, these cards do have great bios for the most part, but the stat lines reflect their combined NHL and WHA stats if the player skated in both leagues.
Limited Rookie Class
When it comes to rookie cards in the 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee WHA set, there is not much to be impressed with. There is a total of eight players debuting here and none of them are considered must-haves by collectors. The best of the bunch is Willy Lindstrom of the Winnipeg Jets as he followed the team into the NHL and eventually won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers.
An examination of the WHA players who could have had rookie cards here makes it look like this set had much more potential. For instance, the biggest miss of all was Houston Aeros up-and-comer John Tonelli, who later won four NHL championships with the New York Islanders. There are also a ton of tough guys who would have been fine inclusions such as Frank Beaton, Gilles Bilodeau, Bill Butters, Wally Weir, all-time WHA penalty minutes leader Kim Clackson, and Jack and Steve Carlson – who inspired the infamous Hanson Brothers of Slap Shot fame.
Some other WHA vets who got passed over when making this set were Greg Carroll, Brett Callighen, Tom Earl, Bob Fitchner, Al Hangsleben, Francois Lacombe, Tim Sheehy and Barry Legge. Another big miss here was 1976-77 WHA Rookie of the Year George Lyle. Some of these players would get cards later on if they made it to the NHL after the merger in 1979, but some are still waiting for a cardboard tribute over 40 years later.
The Rest of the Set
The 1977-78 O-Pee-Chee does offer an intriguing look at some of the league’s top stars as well. There is a card for the legendary Bobby Hull in his twilight years with Winnipeg and two more Hockey Hall of Fame members in Mark Howe and Frank Mahovlich. The Big M was also approaching retirement at this point and this card with Birmingham was his last as an active player. Another Bulls skater getting his last card was 1972 Summit Series hero Paul Henderson.
Also included on the checklist were plenty of WHA legends thanks to a condensed checklist that was half the size of the two previous releases. It is a great time capsule for a crazy time in hockey history, but the combination of over-production and poor quality control make for a set which has a difficult legacy. It is certainly affordable in comparison to other WHA sets, so it can be a great place to start for a collector looking for something different.
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