Today, the heads of collectors would explode if a trading card maker decided to release a product without any form of insert. However, earlier generations of hockey card enthusiasts had plenty of premium items inserted into packs at equal odds which are just as desired today as they were when they were being pulled from wax packs.
In the post-War era, it took more than a decade for manufacturers to realize that they had to one-up the competition in order to win the hearts of Canadian youth. It all started when O-Pee-Chee, under sub-license from Topps, decided to put together a collection of stamps for its 1961-62 release.
Issued in panels with two stamps that could be separated by a perforation, 1961-62 Topps Stamps are made up of 52 different players that were drawn from the rosters of the Chicago Blackhawks (then Black Hawks), Boston Bruins, and New York Rangers along with several members of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The inclusion of Hall of Fame members coincides with the previous season’s card set featuring some of the greatest names from the game’s early days. Kids had a chance at a panel with Stan Mikita and Andy Bathgate or a combination with Cyclone Taylor and Art Ross. Today, the stamps can more easily be found individually, but intact panels in prime condition can command a serious premium when up for sale. eBay usually has a few of each.
For 1962-63, Topps (or O-Pee-Chee, depending on your point of view) decided to keep slashing away at Parkhurst, who was running a contest in its packs where you could win a bicycle. Instead of filling out a contest card, you got a Hockey Buck along with your condition-sensitive cards. Closely resembling a Canadian dollar from that time, there was a head shot of a current NHL player (again, from the Rangers, Bruins, or Black Hawks) instead of Queen Elizabeth II.
The Hockey Bucks came folder in the packs and featured blank backs and are even tougher to find today than the previous season’s stamps but they’re out there.
The next few years saw hockey cards rest on their own laurels. Topps overtook Parkhurst in 1964-65 and it was not until 1968-69 where we would see a premium in packs. Coincidentally, this was the first year where there was a full-blown separation between the Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets for the American and Canadian markets.
O-Pee-Chee decided to issue a second series that year and in order to boost sales, 21 perforated Puck Stickers featuring many Hall of Fame talents were issued along with an unnumbered 22nd sticker commemorating Gordie Howe’s 700th career goal. It could be argued that since second series packs were coming out later in the season, there needed to be a gimmick to maintain sales.
The experiment must have proven successful as both releases making up 1969-70 O-Pee-Chee included a bonus in every pack. For both the first series of O-Pee-Chee and the lone Topps product, there were All-Star Stamps. Like the 1961-62 version, these stamps came in panels of two and there were just 26 players included. Kids were able to lick ’em and stick ’em to the backs of the player’s card in the set thanks to a spot which replaced a cartoon that others had. Today, you can still find individual stamps but also plenty of cards with stamps affixed to them – creating an unofficial variation that hardcore collectors can only love.
With 26 players and 22 different pairings, there are some players that will naturally be tougher to find than others. Based on the known checklist, the shorter prints are Yvan Cournoyer, Ted Hampson, Gerry Desjardins, Keith McCreary, Ray Cullen, Carol Vadnais, Stan Mikita, and Bobby Orr.
Even with super rookie Tony Esposito coming in the second series of 1969-70 O-Pee-Chee, there was another tough insert offered up. This time, O-Pee-Chee took a slight cue from Topps and developed a set of Four-in-One Stamps – similar to what had been offered to American football collectors just a few months earlier.
Regarded as the toughest insert set of the 1970s for most hockey collectors, there were 18 different panels which offered miniature stamps that re-used the photos from their regular cards. With a total of 72 players, they were split evenly into six for each of the then-12 NHL teams. Printed on blank-backed card stock, they had an adhesive on the back which required kids to lick them and try to affix them in the album as neatly as possible.
There is one caveat, however, in that unscrupulous types have made counterfeits of both 1969-70 O-Pee-Chee insert sets. Collectors are encouraged to not support such activity as it creates opportunities to try and pass them off as authentic – making for problems when buying raw, ungraded inserts.
Living on the (Deckle) Edge
O-Pee-Chee and Topps decided to share resources for the initial 1970-71 issues and delivered a set of 33 sticker stamps. This time, all you had to do was peel and stick and they can sometimes be a bit of a challenge to get fully intact examples today. This time, the photos were different from the base cards as well.
For O-Pee-Chee’s next trick in 1970-71, they called in another design concept Topps used in other sports with Deckle Edge cards. The black & white photos were slightly smaller than a standard card and while the backs had limited information, the fronts boasted a blue facsimile signature. The set is a bit large compared to other inserts from this time at 48 cards, but it is loaded up with star power along with original members of the Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres.
Hockey cards didn’t really need help to fly off the shelves in 1971-72, but Topps and O-Pee-Chee gave a little extra for your dime with a set of booklets. Once again borrowing heavily from the baseball world, these flimsy comics gave kids a better look at 24 stars. The English Topps and O-Pee-Chee versions differ slightly as Topps has a production code on the back and there are French-only O-Pee-Chee booklets.
Spit Makes it Stick
The next insert offered by O-Pee-Chee in 1971-72 were Team Logo stickers that you could punch out and stick to a surface with the help of a little water or saliva. There were 15 in total, including an NHL logo, and the concept proved so popular that it carried over into the next two years with some twists – but we will get to those momentarily.
O-Pee-Chee went larger than ever in 1972-73 and was split into three releases. While Topps only had one large 176-card collection, there was nothing additional to entice buyers. The first O-Pee-Chee release kept it somewhat simple with Player Crests that had a star or at least a semi-popular player’s head shot inside of a die-cut shaped like the league logo. They aren’t visually striking and are not too popular with collectors today, but the next series had something truly special.
Following Canada’s defeat of the Soviet Union in September, 1972 exhibition series, the hockey world was abuzz about the exploits of Paul Henderson, Phil Esposito, and the rest of the country’s heroes. O-Pee-Chee put together a 28-card collection with as many roster members as possible and despite a dated design and oddly cropped heads, it was a smash hit with collectors. There are five double-printed cards and even today, it is a set that folks love to chase.
By the third series, sales were slowing and O-Pee-Chee did a crazy thing by throwing NHL and WHA players together to make up the balance of the set. This time, Team Logos returned for a second year and in addition to repeating the same 15 logos from the previous years, the expansion Atlanta Flames and New York Islanders were added along with a World Hockey Association logo and all 12 clubs from the rival league’s debut campaign. The end result was 30 different logos, but some are extremely short printed and others appear quite often on the uncut sheet.
The Flames and Islanders cards are highly coveted today and the WHA logos also perform well on the secondary market – especially the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, New England Whalers, and even the Philadelphia Blazers. Finding the Blazers card in top shape is especially tough at times since the logo was so large and the cardboard around it can be quite brittle.
Undoubtedly, the NHL was displeased with the co-mingling of their players with WHA talent and collectors did not see that again over the seven-year war between the two organizations. For the 1973-74 O-Pee-Chee set, the first series saw the return of Team Logos. There was a twist, of course, as instructions on how to affix the crests appear on 15 of the 17 inserts. Series Two dug into the Topps archives for a concept that was part of their 1966 Football issue, but instead of being Funny Rings, these punch out rings had logos. The checklist for both 1973-74 O-Pee-Chee insert offerings were the same, but there are some that were produced in higher or lower quantities depending on how the sheet was constructed.
Topps was not to be outdone this season as well, providing buyers with a set of Team Logo stickers that had a logo at the top and a smaller pennant with the team name on it. Appearing twice in this set are Boston, Montreal, Detroit, Toronto, and the New York Rangers, but the pennants on the bottom will feature different teams. These are quite similar to the 1974-75 Topps Cloth Stickers which added in the expansion Kansas City Scouts and Washington Capitals.
The next two years gave hockey card buyers no bonuses in packs, but for 1976-77, Topps decided to out-do O-Pee-Chee and offered an extra treat while their Canadian competitors did not. The Glossy “Autographed” photos were close to standard size due to rounded corners and were able to shine brighter than a conventional card thanks to their slick fronts. The 22-card set was loaded up with most of the game’s big names – including Bobby Orr, who had just signed with the Chicago Black Hawks. Some shots were on-ice and some were from the studio, but they all had a facsimile signature and plain backs reminiscent of the 1970-71 O-Pee-Chee Deckle Edge inserts.
Seeing the success of the experiment, both O-Pee-Chee and Topps brought them back for 1977-78 and these cards can be found with or without rounded corners.
The Waning Years
From 1978-79 to 1984-85, O-Pee-Chee did not feel the need to include anything remarkable to entice young consumers. There were offer cards in 1978-79 and 1981-82 and 1984-85 O-Pee-Chee had the sweepstakes cards, but Topps issued Helmet Logo stickers in 1978-79 and 1979-80 and larger Team Posters the year after that. It should be noted that Gordie Howe can be seen on the Hartford Whalers poster despite not being directly included in the regular set.
Production was scaled back by O-Pee-Chee in 1985-86 and with less cards per pack, the company decided to match up with Topps for a sticker set made up of 12 All-Stars and 21 team logos. It was a one-year trial up North, but Topps continued to issue them until 1989-90.
The boom years kicked off in 1990-91 and other companies jumped into the tub to mark the end of the innocence. Pro Set took things to a new level with a coveted Stanley Cup hologram that was also the hockey hobby’s first serial-numbered insert and Upper Deck issued stereograms featuring Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier, and Brett Hull.
Topps and Bowman offered up glossy inserts (Team Leaders and Hat Tricks) and O-Pee-Chee countered with a Red Army collection featuring players who had come over for exhibition games against NHL clubs. The hottest at the time was Sergei Fedorov, who had just joined the Detroit Red Wings, but each card found in packs had an indentation that happened during the cutting and packaging process. O-Pee-Chee did offer up replacements, according to reports from the time, but most collectors today don’t seem to care if their cards have the flaw or not.
Moving forward, inserts became chase cards and the idea of collecting everything faded away. Certified autographs came along quickly along with cards that might fall once per box or case. Serial numbers became more common in addition to acetate stock and ultimately, game-used memorabilia cards, printing plates, and one-of-ones. Luckily, the early inserts are still coveted by collectors and getting them all can be an extreme, but worthwhile, challenge.