Before the age of online statistics databases for sports, there was a great deal of mystery surrounding the origins of the photos that appear on some of the hobby’s greatest cards. Researchers are starting to scrutinize vintage cards more and more these days and the discovery of the exact date of a shot reveals an exciting story. In the case of Cam Neely’s rookie card from the 1984-85 O-Pee-Chee set, the tale can now be revealed.
Looking at this classic card which hit store shelves 35 years ago come early January, there is one big clue which locks down the date legendary hockey photographer Bruce Bennett took his shot. Before we get to that, however, it is important to look at what led up to this moment.
Selected eighth overall in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, Neely was set to join a team he grew up watching in British Columbia – the Vancouver Canucks. After starring for the Ridge Meadows Lightning, he graduated to the WHL’s Portland Winter Hawks and delivered an incredible 120-point season as a rookie in 1982-83. Placing third on the team in points, scouts were already raving about his play. He was strong during the team’s playoff run, but the club fell short in the championship round to the Lethbridge Broncos.
However, there was still some hockey to be played as Portland was hosting the annual Memorial Cup tournament. The roster was absolutely loaded and included plenty of future NHL players such as Ray Ferraro, Derek Laxdal, Richard Kromm, and Alfie Turcotte along with tough customers like John Kordic and Brian Curran.
When it came to the team’s goalie for the tournament, however, the Winter Hawks capitalized on a rule which allowed them to pluck a player off another team’s roster. With the chance to take Calgary Wranglers goalie Mike Vernon, who was the league’s top goaltender for the past two seasons, Portland was determined to win it all despite grumbling from Lethbridge, who was without starter Ken Wregget and seething after Vernon turned them down.
Portland dominated the round-robin portion of the Memorial Cup and earned a pass into the final. They defeated the OHL’s Oshawa Generals 8-3 and became the first American-based team to win the championship.
Fast-forward to the start of the 1983-84 season and Neely made the roster for the opener against the Calgary Flames on October 5.
“I was nervous as hell, that’s for sure,” said Neely when asked about his NHL debut during an interview at the 2017 National Sports Collectors Convention. “I was an 18-year-old kid playing against men now. It was kind of an eye-opener and I was very nervous.”
He stayed with the club for a total of five games to start the year and scored his first NHL goal against Toronto’s Rick St. Croix during a home victory four days later. Sent back down to Portland for a brief 19-game conditioning stint, Neely was back in the NHL on December 10, 1983 to face Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers for the first time. Now in the big time permanently, the 18-year-old was getting on-the-job experience with a defensively questionable club.
The Canucks during this era were two years removed from a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Final, but their offensive and defensive numbers were in the middle of the back and on the road to declining further. They had some strong producers like Patrik Sundstrom, Thomas Gradin and Tony Tanti to go along with plenty of grit from Tiger Williams and Stan Smyl. The defense corps featured Rick Lanz, Harold Snepsts, Doug Halward, and Kevin McCarthy. However, Snepsts was soon off to Minnesota and McCarthy was dealt to Pittsburgh mid-way through that season. In net, they weren’t getting any younger as Richard Brodeur and John Garrett were essentially on the downward slide of their respective careers.
Meeting the Champs
As the season hit the 48-game mark on January 18, 1984, Vancouver’s record was a dismal 17-26-5 thanks to a 7-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. Hall of Fame coach Roger Neilson was dismissed and Harry Neale took over the reins. The next 10 games weren’t much better with only four wins, but they won two in a row over the Quebec Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens before coming into Long Island to face the defending Stanley Cup champs, the New York Islanders on February 11, 1984.
The Islanders were gunning for a fifth straight title in 1983-84 and were loaded up with a plethora of Hall of Fame talent and many great role players. It was a cohesive unit which could destroy opponents with ease – from the Trio Grande of Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, and Clark Gillies to a back end which had blueliners Denis Potvin and Ken Morrow. Throw in goaltenders like Billy Smith and Rollie Melanson and you have an intimidating club that was tough to beat – especially on home ice.
The Canucks came out hard that night as Snepsts opened the scoring at 1:47 of the first period, but the Isles scored four unanwered goals from Anders Kallur, Bob Nystrom, Brent Sutter, and Gillies over the next 12 minutes. Sundstrom scored at 18:44, leaving the score at 4-2 after 20 minutes.
The second period saw Neely strut his stuff during his debut against the Islanders. The Canucks had visited the Nassau Colisseum earlier in the year, but he was down in Portland at the time. This game is where the photo for his rookie card was taken as you can see the arm of an unidentified Islanders player in the foreground.
He scored on the power play at 3:24 and then tied it up at the 7:06 mark. Smith was then pulled from the crease in favor of Melanson. They were the seventh and eighth goals of his budding career and both tallies were assisted by Peter McNab, with Gradin getting a secondary helper on the first one. At 10:34 of the second, Sutter scored to make it 5-4 and John Tonelli added another at 10:55 of the third to put the game out of reach.
At the time, Bruce Bennett was already well into his career as a hockey photographer and occasionally sold shots to Topps and O-Pee-Chee for use in their hockey card and sticker releases. When asked about the photo on the card today, he was brutally honest about it.
“Yes, probably mine judging by the background and the early-generation, pretty bad strobe lighting. A tad crooked shot of a guy who played like a big (expletive deleted, but saying it with a smile). Overall, not my best effort, and not sure why anyone would write about this card unless it’s a really slow day in the hockey card industry,” he joked.
Today, the photo is part of the O-Pee-Chee Collection archived at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Signed prints occasionally surface for sale as well. The card itself is generally inexpensive with most selling for under $20 on eBay.
Cam on Cards
Neely, on the other hand, has fond memories of the card and recalled seeing it for the first time.
“It was kind of a bizzarre feeling, you know when you’re a kid, you collect these cards and play with the cards and trade the cards and one day, you find yourself on your own card. It was pretty cool!”
He expounded further on collecting in his youth and revealed which players he loved to collect.
“Yeah, pretty much everyone did back then. Eventually, they ended up on your bicycle,” he laughed. “When we lived in Saskatchewan, I was a fan of the Maple Leafs, so getting my favorite Maple Leaf players was always exciting. When my Dad got transferred back to British Columbia when I was 11, I became a Canuck fan. Any player from those teams.”
A Hall of Fame Collectible
When asked if he had managed to hang on to any memorabilia from his playing days, he spoke of some interesting treasures – one of which had a connection to a fellow Hall of Fame member.
“I wish I had more of it,” he lamented. “It really wasn’t as big a deal when I started in the early 80s. I wish I had hung on to more stuff, but I’ve got a few things. I’ve got the sticks and pucks from my 50-goal seasons. I have a jersey that I wore playing for the Portland Winter Hawks where I wore 21, and that was Stan Mikita’s number. It was an old Blackhawks jersey from 1971, so I believe Stan Mikita wore it and then I wore it playing junior.”
While Neely only lasted three seasons with Vancouver before being sent to Boston in a disastrous trade involving Barry Pederson, he quickly emerged as one of the game’s best power forwards. He was a part of two runs to the Stanley Cup Final with the Bruins and racked up a trio of 50-goal seasons. One of them came in just 49 games, but the league does not consider it to be a true 50/50 effort as it did not come in consecutive contests. Regardless, knee woes cut his career short and he retired after the 1995-96 season. He was enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005 and remains close to the game as an executive with the Bruins.
Neely was also bitten by the acting bug and appeared in the hit comedy Dumb and Dumber as Seabass, a trucker who had an ax to grind with the lead characters. He also spoke about this experience.
“Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, they were such great guys. They knew I wasn’t an actor and they were very kind and gracious and just helped me out when I needed it. It was a lot of fun to be on the set.”
Card companies have included Neely since his playing days drew to a close and he had high praise for modern cards.
“They’re pretty cool. Some of the jersey sets, the stick sets – there’s some pretty cool ones. If they put you on with a with another player, I find those to be great as well.”