For hockey card collectors, the 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee release was the end of the innocence as it marked the end of a 25-year stranglehold on the market. Less than a year later, there would be three more manufacturers entering the fray and the hobby boomed to a level previously unheard of.
After four straight years of sets consisting of 264 cards, O-Pee-Chee decided to balloon slightly to 330 and brought back several subsets that had been absent for a while. For the first time in a decade, colored borders were back with blue at the top and bottom along with silvery grey ice-like sides. Hitting store shelves in January, 1990, it came out a couple of months after the Topps version was released stateside and has more than a few reasons to be considered the superior release of the two.
Essentially, the first 198 cards in each set are the same outside of some subtle differences like text changes on the first two checklists, a trade notice for Tom Kurvers (who went to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a regrettable deal for a first round pick that turned out to be Scott Niedermayer), or the announcement of Lanny McDonald’s retirement. This year, it seemed like the airbrush was flowing freely for the designers and there are more than a few ugly cards in both sets as a result.
Sakic and Leetch Lead Rookie Class
Naturally, all of the big names of this era can be found in the set and it all starts with a very appropriate card #1 with Mario Lemieux taking the leadoff spot for the second straight year. Where the 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee set stands out is in terms of rookie cards.
It shares a couple of Hall of Fame debuts in Joe Sakic and Brian Leetch, but there are numerous players that made an impact in the game over the next decade or so like Kirk McLean, Trevor Linden, Geoff Courtnall, Jon Casey, John Cullen, Tony Granato, and Craig Janney in common with the American set. Exclusive to O-Pee-Chee are rookie cards of stars and fan favorites like Daren Puppa, Gary Roberts, Scott Young, Theoren Fleury, Ken Daneyko, Shayne Corson, Ron Tugnutt, and Brian Bradley.
With 66 cards added to the set compared to previous years, 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee saw the long-awaited comeback of important subsets. In addition to 21 team action cards, collectors could get their hands on six Trophy Winners, four Highlights, and a Stanley Cup card reflecting on the memorable win by the Calgary Flames over the Montreal Canadiens.
While the Topps set had the All-Star and Team Logo stickers inserted in every pack, O-Pee-Chee decided to pass for the fourth straight year – likely to keep production costs low. The complete 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee collection was available as a factory set and vending cases were also available in addition to wax boxes.
Speaking of wax boxes, each one contained 48 packs of seven cards along with a pink hunk of gum. There were once again offers for various premiums as well, including the venerable hockey card locker owned by thousands upon thousands of Canadian kids. Box bottoms once again had four cards printed on them featuring some big names. Four different panels were issued and can be found with grey or whiter backs as a bit of an odd variant.
What the Heck is Tembec?
Speaking on variations, there is an incredible one for 132 of the cards in the 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee set. Known as Tembec variants, one sheet was given a secret test run on the type of stock the company ended up using for its subsequent release. There is a great deal of rumor and innuendo surrounding the Tembec cards as it is believed that only five vending cases were produced and somehow made it out to the secondary market. Tembec was a paper company in Canada and O-Pee-Chee reportedly requested a look at what their cards would look like on this brighter stock as they were looking for a new paper supplier.
With a vending case consisting of 20 boxes of 500 cards, a rough estimate for production of the Tembec variations to around 379 copies for each card on the sheet. Claims of just 100 sets being produced are speculation at best. As to how many survived and made it into the hands of collectors, that is unknown, but they are certainly highly desired by both player collectors and O-Pee-Chee completists. Among the cards on that sheet were the Sakic and Leetch rookies along with Lemieux, Patrick Roy, and Steve Yzerman. You can usually find a few dozen of the cards on eBay.
A Difficult Legacy
Sensing greater consumer demand for its cards, O-Pee-Chee truly let the presses run this season and the set itself is much easier to find than its Topps counterpart. As a result, some value the 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee slightly less by comparison, but it has Topps beat when you consider that the company conducted a small experiment which created one of the scarcest variants of the era along with the fact that hockey card collectors tend to appreciate O-Pee-Chee a bit more in general when it comes to vintage cards.
It was a fine end to a magical era and there is little doubt that this set is a must-have due to its combination of low price, comprehensiveness, and historical significance. Collectors at the time had little clue of how the hobby was about to change in a matter of months and this set truly was the end of the innocence for hockey cards.
You can see 1989-90 OPC hockey cases, boxes, sets, singles, sheets and more on eBay by clicking here.