The hockey world changed forever on August 9, 1988 as the Edmonton Oilers shockingly traded Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings and the move also had an immediate impact on the 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee set – which was in the process of being designed by the folks at Topps.
While the Topps set was traditionally released around the start of the season, O-Pee-Chee had a little bit of time to make sure that they could give Canadian kids (and a steadily growing amount of adult collectors) a shot of The Great One in his stylish new black, white, and silver uniform. The Topps card featured a shot of Gretzky holding up his new jersey during a press conference and it is likely to have been taken by Art Foxall, who was on assignment from Bruce Bennett Studios.
Boxes of 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee showed what collectors initially expected to be that year’s Gretzky card on it side panel, but the London, Ontario-based company were able to quickly procure a shot of Gretzky in full gear. This posed photo likely was provided by the Kings and created a neat variation between the O-Pee-Chee and Topps issues.
Within two years, the impact Gretzky’s move to Los Angeles allowed the NHL to experience growth in popularity and sparked the hobby boom of the early 1990s.
1988-89 OPC Hockey Basics
The 1988-89 OPC set was made up of 264 cards for the fourth straight season and packs did not include the team logo and All-Star stickers found in packs of Topps. Packs were once again 35 cents and contained seven cards with 48 packs per box. Factory sets were produced and rack packs were also available for sale, but are somewhat scarce.
The 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee set did not contain any subset cards, marking the second straight year where the focus was almost entirely on the players. Thanks to 66 more cards than the Topps collection, there are more players from Canadian teams to capitalize on local loyalties wherever the cards were distributed – a common trend with the company’s releases dating back to 1979-80.
The Golden Brett Arrives
One card that was on the edge of becoming popular in the months following the release of 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee was the rookie card of budding St. Louis Blues sniper Brett Hull. Acquired in a late-season deal with the Calgary Flames, photographers were not able to get a shot of the young star in his Blues uniform in time for Topps to put the card together. As a result it was heavily cropped and airbrushed – but that did not seem to bother most collectors once he was scoring 70 or more goals in a season!
At the 2017 National Sports Collectors Convention, Hull revealed his thoughts upon seeing his hockey card for the first time.
“I thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “You grow up thinking that it’ll never happen and to my surprise, because of the trade, it was kind of a hot commodity… It was neat!”
The Rest of the Rookies
While the London, Ontario-based company missed out on getting late 1987-88 debut Brian Leetch into this set, there are several strong rookie cards. The two biggest outside of Hull are Hall of Famers Brendan Shanahan and then-reigning Calder Trophy winner Joe Nieuwendyk.
From there, there are some strong supporting freshman issues that can be found on the 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee checklist. Pierre Turgeon, the top pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft gets his first card here and he went on to score over 500 career goals and 1,300 points. While he is essentially a “Hall of Very Good” player, he does have a very strong following still among modern collectors. Sean Burke, the young goalie who went from playing for Canada at the 1988 Winter Olympics to backstopping the Devils to the Wales Conference Final is also seen at the dawn of his lengthy career which included 324 wins – which presently ranks 27th all-time among goalies. Bob Probert, who many regard as the best tough guy of his era, finally gets a card in this set as well.
From there, there is a bit of a drop-off in collector interest in rookie cards found in packs of 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee. There are names which had respectable careers like Glen Wesley, Scott Mellanby, Ray Sheppard, Doug Brown, Bob Sweeney, Dave Gagner, Uwe Krupp, Luke Richardson, Steve Smith, or Steve Duchesne in addition to celebrated broadcaster Darren Pang. We also get Rob Brown, who had great numbers playing in Pittsburgh alongside Lemieux, but saw his production drop after being traded away.
A “Roy”-al Variation
Patrick Roy, who was on the cusp of winning his first Vezina Trophy when 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee was released, has a card here with a variation that most collectors don’t seem to have discoverd. On the bottom left border, Roy’s blocker can be spotted with a large red splotch on it or in its proper state of being in blue. You can find both on eBay but the variation is rarely mentioned.
Due to the card’s placement on the uncut sheet next to Roy, the Mario Lemieux card can also exhibit some ink loss on the bottom right border – creating another variation that has not been catalogued as of yet. This is a little tougher to spot than the Roy variant.
How did this occur? Well, it is quite similar to what happened with 1990 Topps Baseball where the sheet featuring the Frank Thomas rookie card had some excess ink getting on to the printing plate during production. This would have been a much smaller ink splotch, but the availability of both variations for each card seems to be somewhat equal and the plate was likely cleaned mid-run.
The cards appearing under them on the sheet are Dan Quinn of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dave Poulin of the Philadelphia Flyers, but samples examined online did not indicate that the ink variation spread to the top of those cards.
On top of the Roy and Lemieux variations, there are two versions of each of the checklists in the 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee set. The error versions list cards 1-99 and 100-198 on the front, but were corrected to reflect the proper split of the set (1-132 and 133-264). The pre-production sheet came into the hobby in recent years and the proofer did note the error – but it is unknown where in the print run that it was actually corrected.
Look Out For Counterfeits
In 1990-91, the mania for the 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee Brett Hull rookie card was at its absolute zenith and an unscrupulous individual from London, Ontario named Frank Johnson and at least two of his shady associates decided to make counterfeit versions of it along with the cards of Turgeon, Nieuwendyk, Gretzky, and Lemieux. Johnson was arrested by police in Suffolk County, New York after an attempted sale of $24,000 in counterfeit cards to a dealer named Robert Rubenstein in Commack, New York.
While Rubenstein believed that he was buying legitimate cards in an earlier transaction with assurances that they were real, the report in the December 7, 1990 issue of the Chicago Tribune stated that he called in police when making a second bulk purchase from Johnson. O-Pee-Chee confirmed that the cards were fake in quick fashion and claimed that the Hull card was a “very good fake”. Having examined a counterfeit in recent years, your humble author disagrees as placing a real card beside it would lead an experienced collector to instantly pick out the fake.
So, how do you spot counterfeit copies of these cards? Legitimate copies of the Hull cards will have a yellow dot on the push-pin along with fuzziness under the plate where Hull’s name appears. On the back, the type looks a bit off and ragged while the capital “A” near the NHL logo is filled in.
Johnson was charged with grand larceny, attempted grand larceny, and possession of forged instruments. Recent online searches have yielded no further information on the outcome of the case.
Check the Bottom of the Box
Following the trend of the previous three releases, 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee boxes were sold with one of four different four-card panels on the bottom. Collectors at the time normally cut them out, but the 16-card collection was focused on scoring leaders from teams that made the playoffs in 1987-88 and had grey borders that look sharp.
Since the boxes were designed earlier than the cards found inside, the card of Gretzky featured him in an Edmonton Oilers uniform and was not updated to reflect the trade to Los Angeles. This was likely a cost-cutting measure – but it would have been a perfect place to put the press conference photo so Canadian collectors would have been able to enjoy it at the time.
Set prices depend on the condition of the Hull and other rookies as well as Gretzky but can usually be found on eBay for $40-$70 with factory sets higher. Mint, graded Hull rookie cards typically bring $50-$80.