With the NHL and WHA in the final stages of their seven-year battle, hockey card collectors were surprised to see that there would only be cards from one of the leagues and welcomed the 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee set with open arms.
For the fifth straight season, O-Pee-Chee’s set was made up of 396 cards. The set is a major source of frustration for those wanting to put a high-grade collection as it has some of the harshest centering problems the company had experienced outside of the 1968-69 release. Add in those notorious rough cuts and finding high-grade cards with great eye appeal is a major challenge. This was also a set that was over-produced compared to some of those released before or after as sealed boxes were quite plentiful even in the early part of the boom years.
The design for most of the cards in 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee mimic those found in packs of 1978-79 Topps, which would have been released slightly earlier in the United States. The fronts have a large photo along with the team name, logo, and player position in the upper left corner. There are some subtle differences on the fronts of some cards as the All-Star notation was removed from the O-Pee-Chee cards and left a strange gap and Ron Greschner’s card was corrected to a New York Rangers logo after he had been listed as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins on the Topps cards.
Flipping over to the backs, the primarily brown backs are loaded up with statistical info and a basic bio. At the bottom, there is a rarity in vintage hockey card sets with a facsimile autograph at the bottom. Some players were not on file once O-Pee-Chee made its additional 132 cards, so that spot was left blank on occasion.
Orr’s Last Card
The 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee is absolutely loaded with star talent. Naturally, you have Montreal Canadiens mega-stars like Guy Lafleur and Ken Dryden, but there are over 30 different Hall of Fame talents to be found on the checklist (not counting subset cards). Some of them were the final ones from a player’s active career, too, like Bernie Parent and Yvan Cournoyer.
However, the most important card featuring a Hall of Fame member Bobby Orr. Forced into retirement just a few games into the season do to continous knee problems, O-Pee-Chee decided it was a good time to celebrate his incredible career with a Special Collectors’ Card that had a unique design. Shown in a national team jersey during his last great moments at the 1976 Canada Cup, the photo is believed to have been taken in Ottawa by Steve Babineau during the tournament-opening game against Finland in Ottawa on September 2, 1976. Spotted in the background is Denis Potvin, who was regarded as Orr’s heir apparent at the time. You can find a respectable copy on eBay for under $50.
Bossy Leads Rookie Crop
By far, the best rookie card in the set belongs to Bossy. Coming off a record 53-goal season where he was the first freshman to reach that lofty total and easily walked away with the Calder Trophy. This card has long been a collector favorite due to his amazing on-ice accomplishments which include three Lady Byng Trophy wins and four Stanley Cup victories with the Islanders. He was also the second player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games. Prices for Bossy rookies are all over the board based on condition.
St. Louis Blues legend Bernie Federko is another Hall of Fame member whose rookie card shows up in this set, but there may one day be a third in the form of Chicago Blackhawks defender Doug Wilson, who won the Norris Trophy in 1981-82 and has been a key executive for the San Jose Sharks in retirement. In the past, we have also discussed two other important and underrated rookie cards: Dave Taylor, who scored over 1,000 points in his career with the Los Angeles Kings and future coach Bruce Boudreau debuted in 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee. Both can still be had for bargain prices.
On top of that, we also get Randy Carlyle’s rookie card. He would win a Norris Trophy with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1980-81 and had a lengthy career, but he also made an excellent transition into coaching. We also get Ron Duguay’s first card and instead of his customary curly locks, he was shown with barely any hair at all after being hazed by his teammates. Thankfully, NHL players are a bit more civilized today with freshman initiations and have rookie dinners instead.
There are also a few names that are by no means hobby stars, but had decent NHL careers found in the 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee set. Pierre Mondou won a couple of Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, but the underrated Stefan Persson won four in a row with the New York Islanders. The top two picks in the 1977 NHL Amateur Draft, Dale McCourt of the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Rockies blueliner Barry Beck make their on-card debuts.
Another highly underrated rookie card belongs to Detroit’s Reed Larson, who was the highest-scoring American-born defenseman at one pount. There are also some tough guys with imposing Canucks bruiser Jack McIlhargey, and two of Don Cherry’s favorites in the wild John Wensink and Ron Delorme – who he had coached in Boston and Colorado, respectively.
A Galaxy of North Stars
Anyone collecting the 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee set will notice that there are a lot of Minnesota North Stars cards – or at least a lot of them airbrushed to their colors. The reason for this is easy enough to determine as many of these players were skating for the ill-fated Cleveland Barons in 1977-78 and were shuffled over to Minnesota once the two club merged over the summer months.
This is particularly noticeable with some particularly hideous attempts at a North Stars logo on goalies Gilles Meloche and Gary Edwards and the others tend to be bust shots. The Meloche card is especially interesting as you can see Bob Stewart in the background in his Barons uniform. In the O-Pee-Chee exclusive section, some players can still be seen in a Barons jersey like Greg Smith, Dave Gardner, John Baby, and Al MacAdam and trade notations are added instead. Rick Hampton, Stewart, and Dennis Maruk’s cards were airbrushed into North Stars jerseys and they have trade notations as well.
One of the most subtle changes between the 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets is between the Vancouver Canucks cards appearing in both sets. If you look in the top left corner of the same player while putting an O-Pee-Chee and Topps version side-by-side, you will notice that Topps has the original Canucks logo while the O-Pee-Chee cards have the then-new logo that fans either love or hate.
O-Pee-Chee did not update the player photos at all for this set and they are all shown in the uniform worn in 1977-78. Fans of this design eventually saw it make a comeback and the colors still remain on the team’s uniform today.
While 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee does not really step outside the box when it came to subset cards, there are still some intriguing ones to collect. The set starts with five Highlights cards which include supertstars like Lafleur, Bossy, and Phil Esposito. Further down the checklist, there are eight Season Leaders that show off some of 1977-78’s best performers.
With the Barons gone, only 17 team checklists were included in the set, and each one has a checklist on the back – so it is important to look at the back when buying them. For the second straight year, there were just three cards covering the last three rounds of the playoffs and exclusive to the O-Pee-Chee set were a dozen All-Star cards which could be flipped over and made into a puzzle. This was the last time this feature would be included into the classic O-Pee-Chee sets. Lastly, there are three checklists which can be a challenge to be find mint and unmarked.
Some packs of 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee contained a special offer card which also served to promote Super Bazooka gum in the Canadian market. These full-color cards were dual-sided with an offer in English on one side and French on the other. The stalwart O-Pee-Chee card locker and transistor radio got double-sided offers while the touque (or beanie, if you are outside of Canada) and NHL logo puck shared cards which saw the languages switch accordingly. Finally, we’ve got the awesome poster featuring all 12 fronts which appeared on the All-Star Game subset cards. This is a tough item to find today.
You can see singles, sets, lots and packs of 1978-79 O-Pee-Chee hockey on eBay here.