There were so many sports card sets produced in 1997-98 that you could probably have a 25th anniversary celebration of any given release on any given day this year.
However, for me, there is one that is special to my heart.
When I arrived at Pinnacle as their NHL hockey brand manager in March, 1997, we were in the planning stages for the 1997-98 season. There was one set that I pushed hard for and I thought was a perfect fit for the company.
The product was Bee Hive Hockey.
As much as I thought the idea to bring back the Bee Hive brand and concept to the hockey collectibles market, the idea was met with a sea of blank stares.
In the years that I served as editor of Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine, I went to a lot of shows and shops, and I kept my finger on the pulse of the hobby. As we were in Canada, hockey drove the market. That didn’t mean that there wasn’t a good market for baseball, football or basketball. Baseball has always been solid in Canada, especially in that window when the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series and the Montreal Expos were primed to win the 1994 series. The football card market in Canada was growing with the Buffalo Bills, who more or less owned Toronto’s football market, winning four straight AFC championships. Basketball was taking off with expansion into Canada, and Michael Jordan at his prime.
Once the baseball strike happened in 1994, hockey became that much more important. And when hockey had a work stoppage in the mid-1990s, the focus in the hobby shifted to vintage items. And there were no vintage items more popular than Bee Hive photos. Veteran collectors had sworn off of the early-to-mid 1990s product which would soon be referred to as junk wax. But Bee Hive photos were always among the most collected and talk about items on the floor at the big shows like Toronto’s semi-annual Sport Card and Memorabilia Expo.
What Are Bee Hive Photos?
While the idea that Pinnacle would produce a series of Bee Hive photos that could serve as a continuation to the legendary brand and hockey collectibles, it was not an easy sell internally. I had to put together a presentation for a room full of suits and our sales people. The suits, by the way, were expensive and they came with really nice shoes. My suit? Not so much.
It didn’t occur to me that the people who called the shots at Pinnacle had never even heard of Bee Hive photos. However, Pinnacle did like things that were different. This was about as out-of-the-box as an idea as they had seen, and that’s the kind of product they wanted.
Bee Hive photos were produced by the St. Lawrence Starch Company of Port Credit, Ontario, which is a town along Lake Ontario west of Toronto. It is part of the City of Mississauga, which is part of what is known as the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
St. Lawrence Starch introduced the program in 1933-34 to help boost sales for Bee Hive Corn Syrup. The golden corn syrup – there is also white corn syrup – was much more than a baking ingredient in Canada. Bee Hive was more or less a staple condiment for me, my parents, and my grandparents. We put it on hot cereals and porridge in the morning. We put it on ice cream. We put it on corn bread. We didn’t put it on pancakes because we had maple syrup for that, but we sure seemed to go through a lot of it.
The first year Bee Hive had the photos, they produced 12 pictures of Toronto Maple Leafs players.
The photos were 4 ¼ by 6 ¾ inches. They were glued along the top to a colored piece of cardboard. They were not high end photos and the production quality was poor. The cardboard was what we used to refer to as construction paper back in my elementary school days.
But from the time the promotion started until the 1950s, Bee Hive photos were more or less the only hockey collectibles out there. After the program began, St. Lawrence saw its sales of Bee Hive quadruple. The syrup was sold in cans then. The collar from the lid of a two-pound can could be sent in for one photo. The collar from the larger five pound can was worth two photos. At the peak of the promotion, more than 2,500 photos were mailed out daily.
There were three series of Bee Hive photos produced. The first was from 1933-45. The promotion was mothballed for two years during the war. It returned with what is known as Series II from 1947-64. The final series of Bee Hives are known as Series III or “Woodgrains.” The photos were not glued onto paper. Rather, they were produced as black and white photos with a woodgrain border.
The redemption program ended in the fall of 1967 when the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams.
There were 604 players featured in the promotion, with 1,025 known photos.
Part of the beauty of the program is that the biggest stars of the era are usually the least valuable photos. When you sent your labels in to get photos, you would request the player you wanted. Everyone wanted Gordie Howe and Maurice Richard and other superstars of the day. But the rare and expensive Bee Hive photos are the fringe players that were often the last players requested.
Pinnacle Resurrects Bee Hive
Tom Farrell, who works at Upper Deck Authenticated now, led our product development team at the time and loved the concept of resurrecting Bee Hive in some way. We worked relentlessly on the concept and the cost of the product, and what bells and whistles we could put in it. My thinking was that it had to be the past meets the present meets the future.
The set would be a 75-card set of 5”x7” cards. I wanted the photos to be posed or portrait style photos consistent with Bee Hive photos were. That was a bit of a struggle. We had the photography, but there was some pushback because much of that photography was shot specifically for Donruss Studio, another oversized photo-driven product. Pinnacle owned Donruss and even though the belief was that they operated as a separate company with separate staff in a separate building, the Donruss team was about a 37-second walk around the elevator bank on the same floor of the downtown Dallas Pinnacle building.
The first thing I had to do was contact St. Lawrence Starch. I talked to them about the project we were doing and they gave us their full blessing to use the Bee Hive name for the photo card set.
Around that time, I had discovered that there had never been an NHL hockey card made of Willie O’Ree. The only real collectible he had out there was a Bee Hive photo. What a great opportunity to produce the rookie card of the first Black player in NHL history! At that time, Willie O’Ree was a parking lot attendant in San Diego. I got to talk to him several times and he was elated that he was finally going to have a hockey card made.
When we produced that card, very few people knew about Willie O’Ree and his story. Now, he is a household name and a Hall of Famer. He was all over TV during Black History Month.
In a story for SC Daily last year, I detailed the story of how the first Willie O’Ree hockey card came to be.
O’Ree’s card is one of the reasons that the 1997-98 Pinnacle Bee Hive set is so relevant. At the time, it did nothing for our sales, as nobody knew about O’Ree or the significance or him or this card. But making this card did something special. It created a conversation, especially as we were in the middle of the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League Baseball Color Barrier.
Not only was Willie O’Ree going to be in the set, but he would be autographing cards as well.
We also had to have vintage autographs in the set. I wanted to have one player from each of the Original 6 teams. All of the six players we wanted to sign cards and be in the set were excited about the program. I had met most of the players at shows and had interviewed them before, so I already had a connection with them. We were able to land Maurice Richard of the Canadiens, who would also be on the packaging.
Goalie Johnny Bower was our Toronto Maple Leaf. Gordie Howe had a deal with Upper Deck but at the time nobody had done autographs of his linemate Terrible Ted Lindsay. He was our Red Wing. Andy Bathgate was our New York Ranger. We chose Stan Mikita to be our Chicago Blackhawk. There were a lot of Bobby Hull cards and autographs out there, and Mikita was also riding a wave of popularity from his cameo in the Wayne’s World movie in the 1990s. Although we already had O’Ree in the set, we added a second Bruin and signed Johnny Bucyk, a 500-goal scorer who was the leader of the team on and off the ice and beloved in Boston.
We also got a licensing deal with the Canadian Hockey League to put junior stars in the set. Upper Deck had an exclusive with Team Canada’s junior team from the World Junior Championships, so we had our choice of any CHL junior players not on Team Canada. I worked with the CHL and had many calls and conversations with scouts. I gave Al Muir from Beckett Hockey a few phone calls asking what his thoughts were. I thought we had a rock solid group of junior studs that were destined to be future superstars.
Of all my failures at Pinnacle, this player list might have been the most spectacular. The 12 players were Stefan Cherneski, Craig Hillier, Daniel Tkaczuk, Josh Holden, Marian Cisar, JP Dumont, Roberto Luongo, Aren Miller, Mathieu Garon, Charlie Stephens, Sergei Varlamov and Pierre Dagenais.
Okay, so Roberto Luongo was a fantastic pick and his autographed Pinnacle Bee Hive RC is a must have for a Luongo collector, but as for the other 11? Charlie Stephens was the player we all thought would be an NHL superstar. He played eight NHL games. Sergei Varlamov was another projected superstar. He scored eight goals in an NHL career that lasted 63 games. He only played more than seven games in an NHL season once. The Ukrainian winger tore apart the Western Hockey League with 119 points in 72 games with the Swift Current Broncos in 1997-98. He spent most of his career in the KHL, where he never scored more than 19 goals in a season. He is among the biggest busts in NHL Draft history.
For someone as buried in the hockey draft and prospect lists as I was, how could I have been so far off? JP Dumont and Pierre Dagenais were okay picks, but I would love to go back and have that one all over again.
Brendan Morrison’s First Rookie Card
While we were putting the product together, I read a USA Today piece by Kevin Allen, who wrote many of our card backs. His story on Hobey Baker Trophy winner Brendan Morrison sparked an idea. Morrison played for the Michigan Wolverines and was very well know in that state, which was a huge market for us. He is also well-known in Canada as he is from Vancouver. And this was a chance to get a big name rookie who had never had a card.
I had several long talks with his agent, Kurt Overhardt. Brendan became a big part of our Bee Hive product and our marketing plans. The packaging would feature images of Maurice Richard and Brendan Morrison. The past meets the future. It was perfect. Brendan came to visit us in Dallas and spent a lot of time with us talking about the set and looking at how hockey cards were made. I was able to work with Brendan on some other projects over the years. Kurt also became a valuable ally for us and in my time working in the hockey card industry, my relationship with him is among the ones I cherish the most. I respect Kurt more than any agent I have ever worked with, including my own when I was a wannabe football player.
Our plans had the autographs dropping about one in every three or four boxes. One day before its release, I got a call from our CEO Michael Cleary. I was at home so I am guessing that it was on a weekend. I loved working for him, even though there were some layers of management between us. If I have a regret at Pinnacle, it’s that I did not spend enough time with him because every time I was with him I always learned so much.
The question he asked me was blunt and to the point.
“We need to do something for Bee Hive,” he said. “What if we put an autograph in every box?”
I remember that an autograph in every box did not really work as far as our production costs were concerned, but if Michael Cleary is saying we can do an autograph in every box, I am all the way in.
“That would be amazing,” I said. “It will really help sales.”
“Okay, thanks. We’re going to do it,” he said.
And that was it.
When the Pinnacle Bee Hive set was produced, there was something really cool that our team did. I think it was Michael Cleary’s idea. It could have been Director of Marketing Greg Bochicchio’s idea. I am guessing they both had a hand in it.
I arrived to work one day and there was a box of Pinnacle Bee Hive with a Post It Note indicating that it was the first box that came off the line. This box was to be sent to Brendan Morrison as a thank you for his passion, interest and involvement in the set.
I sent a nice letter to Brendan Morrison with the first box of cards off the line. There he was, as a rookie with the New Jersey Devils on a package with Maurice Richard.
I don’t know if he still has that box. If I ever cross paths with him again, I will have to ask him if he kept the box, or if he ripped it open looking for his first hockey card.
I think about that and it is a question I have often asked collectors when talking about the product over the years. If you were Brendan Morrison, would you save and cherish the unopened box as a pristine keepsake? Or would the thrill of seeing your first NHL card make you open the box and start ripping open packs to find your first card?
Hopefully, Kurt told him to keep it in mint condition.