Longtime hockey card collectors will remember the 1990-91 season as the year that the hobby boomed as three new manufacturers became licensed by the NHL and NHLPA. The arrival of Pro Set, Score, and Upper Deck was a watershed moment and produced an incredible rookie card class which is loaded up with Hall of Famers, memorable stars, infamous fighters, and more.
Whether you were growing up at the time, an adult collector, or one of the countless speculators looking to make a buck, the rookie hype era finally arrived for hockey cards in 1990-91. While purists shuddered, the hobby grew by leaps and bounds all over the world and in time, managed to implode in a relatively short fashion once folks realized how much of this stuff was out there.
Regardless, it is also an era which has become somewhat nostalgic for those who went through it and those returning to collecting hockey cards are trying to recapture those feelings with each pack or box they rip open today.
Here’s a look at what each set had to offer that year and what set them apart from their competitors:
1990-91 Pro Set
The inaugural effort from Pro Set is much-maligned today thanks to rampant overproduction and a massive amount of errors, but it was the first to hit the market for the 1990-91 campaign, arriving in August of 1990. It was the first hockey set to feature color photos on the front and back and the first series marked the cardboard arrival of Hall of Famers Sergei Makarov, Mike Modano, Slava Fetisov, Mark Recchi, and Igor Larionov. There were also some big names debuting like Alexander Mogilny, Jeremy Roenick, Adam Graves, Kevin Stevens, and Rod Brind’Amour.
There were also a couple of cards for the first two selections in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft who had yet to make their on-ice arrival in Owen Nolan and Petr Nedved.
With a second series coming out mid-season, Pro Set ultimatey managed to pack nearly 250 rookies cards into a 705-card set. Since Series 1 had a greater focus on stars, the follow-up instead allowed a lot of role players and bench warmers to get a piece of cardboard immortality. Pro Set also made sure to put in a more than 60-card subset exclusively focusing on 1990-91 freshmen.
This subset is where the key rookie cards for that series comes from and four are now Hall of Famers in Ed Belfour, Sergei Fedorov, Rob Blake, and Mats Sundin. There are also a few players that should get consideration in coming years like Curtis Joseph, Jaromir Jagr, and Mike Richter.
Goal-scoring machine Peter Bondra also gets a card, but there are also some cool rookie cards featuring both coaches and referees – something that hasn’t been part of an NHL-licensed set to such an extent since. The coach subset has a pair of Hall of Fame debuts with Pat Burns and Roger Neilson. Sadly, both of them would be inducted posthumously. As for the men in stripes, you have rookie cards for Hall of Famers Bill McCreary, Ray Scapinello, and Andy Van Hellemond.
1990-91 O-Pee-Chee and Topps
After ruling the market for some many years, Topps and O-Pee-Chee made larger sets in the face of added competition. Both offerings had the same cards for cards 1 to 396, but O-Pee-Chee added another 132 to top out at 528.
Common to both sets are names like Roenick, Fetisov, Mogilny, Makarov, Joseph, Recchi, Richter, Brind’Amour, Modano, and Larionov. Exclusive to O-Pee-Chee over Topps were several players from the Moscow Dynamo and Dynamo Riga teams that played exhibition games against NHL clubs in 1989-90, but the one who made the biggest impact by far was Arturs Irbe.
O-Pee-Chee also added Graves, Eric Desjardins, and Tim Cheveldae in addition to same fan favorites and tough guys to offset a mess of now-obscure names.
What did Score do to set themselves apart from the other manufacturers for their first NHL effort? Well, they rocked the hobby by signing an exclusive deal with then-potential first overall pick for the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, Eric Lindros.
Score made both Canadian and American versions of this set and there are a few differences, most notably the company’s logo being either Red or Blue on the front in addition to English or Bilingual text on the backs. They did not miss most of the big rookies carrying over from 1989-90 and even did some deep digging with over 40 prospects. Some of these cards really skirted the bounds of licensing at the time (which was still in its infancy by today’s standards with junior, collegiate, or minor league action photography. This is the set where collectors saw Sundin for the first time in addition to Kris Draper and Olaf Kolzig. Rounding out the collection, though, was an expansive subset dedicated to first round picks from the recent draft. While Nolan and Nedved were naturally here, there were a pair of big ones in Jaromir Jagr and Martin Brodeur. In fact, this is the only set that would include Brodeur that year!
Later in the season, Score also issued a Rookie & Traded set which included Fedorov, Belfour, and Bondra. However, these are considered to be XRCs in some circles.
1990-91 Upper Deck
The buzz around Upper Deck’s first hockey card release built at a feverish pace following the release of its promo cards and collectors knew that they were in for a treat. The low number series of 400 cards has lots of rookie issues within. The Star Rookie subset was a carryover from baseball that worked well in theory, but very few of the names made a major impact outside of Belfour, Blake, and Joseph. The rest of the set had lots of impact rookies, though, and there was also a subset of the top 10 draft picks – including Jagr.
While that was not a bad start, the real beauty comes with the High Series. This is where the Young Guns concept debuted and changed the hobby forever. This is where the hottest rookies came in and Fedorov was joined by Ken Hodge Jr., and some kid from the Soviet Union named Pavel Bure. This was a major coup for Upper Deck and it was the only rookie card for the then-future Hall of Famer. On top of that, there was a large subset of players from Canada’s junior squad that won the gold medal at the 1991 IIHF World Junior Championship.
While they could not get Lindros on an individual card thanks to his deal with Score, they were able to sneak him on to a Canada’s Captains card with Draper and Steven Rice. The rest of the Canadians range from obscure to legendary with the best featuring Felix Potvin and eventual Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer. These are the only rookie cards for both players, too.
For those wanting to be completionists, all of these cards have English and French variations, the latter being an insanely hot product at the time.
By most accounts the least popular hockey release of 1990-91, Bowman was an effort by Topps which managed to misfire thanks to poor printing quality and a litany of other reasons. The less said about it the better, but it did at least manage to get a card of Belfour out there earlier than everyone else. Other than that, collectors are better suited getting any of the rookie cards they want in its glossy Tiffany version as Topps made one here along with its regular set.
1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier
While Bowman was a dud, O-Pee-Chee managed to score in a legendary fashion with its first Premier release. Issued around the All-Star break with a great look and loaded checklist, it set the hockey card world on fire and its impact is still felt today. It’s a small set, but it has Jagr and Fedorov along with Blake, Bondra, Tie Domi, Joseph, Modano, Mogilny, Roenick, and Sundin. It had a limited run for the era and is considered an essential set for any serious hockey card collector.
Overproduction? No Problem!
While there is little demand from today’s collectors for most of these cards, they are at least affordable for those willing to find a bargain. Hall of Fame collectors will want to chase high-grade examples as they remain incredibly affordable and there are a few hidden gems as well.