It was a big deal when 1982-83 as O-Pee-Chee featured players from the first New Jersey Devils squad in its annual hockey card set, but the franchise’s roots were quite humble.
The Devils had spent the last few seasons as the Colorado Rockies—known as one of hockey’s hard-luck teams. It was the third move in less than ten years for the franchise that had started life as the Kansas City Scouts for the 1974-75 campaign, lasting there for just two seasons before relocating to Denver.
Over the course of six years, the rag-tag group only made the playoffs once and eventually wore out their welcome in the Mile High state. There were occasional glimpses of brilliance thanks to talents like Wilf Paiement, Lanny McDonald, and Barry Beck, but the lack of on-ice success had ownership looking at moving eastward to New Jersey. When trucking tycoon Art Imperatore held the purse strings, the idea was first floated in 1978, but never became a reality until John McMullen purchased them in May, 1982.
Dawn of the Devils
At the end of June that year, the New Jersey Devils name was announced and they were set to begin play that fall. With O-Pee-Chee and Topps already hard at work on their sticker album project for 1982-83, there was no time to update the Rockies pages and stickers. Even Post Cereal could not alter its plans for a special mini card game and would include Rockies players – a last glimpse at the players in those uniforms until many years later when trading card manufacturers would occasionally include a throwback Rockies player in a set.
O-Pee-Chee, though, had a little more time to make sure that Canadian kids were going to see the first Devils players on cardboard once their set hit in January. Topps would not be making a card set of their own as part of a two-year hiatus from the sport.
Once the Devils hit the ice, there was some hope that things might start to turn around. Their opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on October 5, 1983 was a 3-3 tie and they beat the New York Rangers 3-2 three days later. Over their first seven outings, they went 3-1-3.
The wheels started to come off soon after, though. It took them until their 26th outing to earn another win. By the end of the schedule, they missed the playoffs with a 17-49-14 record – one less win than the year before. It would take some shrewd drafting and a management shift to truly build into playoff contenders and they finally did it in 1987-88. Since that time, the franchise has won three championships and featured some incredible talents, but their early years were an exercise in patience for fans.
Cards of the Earliest Devils
Early Devils cards are quite affordable. Here is a breakdown players on the 1982-83 team that you can find in that OPC set from 35 seasons ago:
Technically speaking, most collectors would consider this to be a Hartford Whalers card as “Merlin the Magician” was traded by the Devils along with the rights to Scott Fusco for Garry Howatt and Rick Meagher on October 15, 1982. The five games he spent in a Devils uniform, one of them in which this photo was taken, were pretty solid. He scored in the team’s first game on October 5 against Pittsburgh and did it again three days later when the New York Rangers came to town – notching their first game-winning goal. While facing the Toronto Maple Leafs the next day, he scored again and added two assists in a 5-5 tie. In Hartford, Malinowski struggled offensively and was off to Europe soon after.
134 New Jersey Devils Goal Leaders
A feature that is sorely lacking in modern hockey card sets is the team leaders card. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was a dependable feature in one form or another and this card looks back on Colorado’s leaders from that last season in the Rocky Mountains. Steve Tambellini, who later went on to a long career as an NHL executive, paced the team with 29 goals, but was not their leader in points.
Who did lead the Rockies in points in 1981-82? That would be Ashton, who is featured on his own card for the first time. The frequently traded player was shown on former Vancouver Canucks teammate Per-Olov Brasar’s card the year before. He struggled a bit in New Jersey and was eventually shipped off to Minnesota for dependable defender Dave Lewis.
Broten gets his first card here – in the same season that his brother, Neal, got one as well. On this card, we get the first hint that these Devils photos were likely taken in training camp since there is no nameplate on the back. He was New Jersey’s top offensive talent in 1982-83 with 55 points and remained with them into the next decade.
137 Joe Cirella
A first round pick by the Rockies in 1981, Cirella got a baptism under fire in Colorado and was a shocking -36. Granted, he was learning the ropes with the league’s worst team and still managed 19 points. After the first two games of the season, he was sent back to the OHL’s Oshawa Generals for a chance to develop further. The idea was a success as he returned in 1983-84 and skated in the 1984 NHL All-Star Game on home ice.
138 Dwight Foster
The Rockies signed Foster as a free agent before the 1981-82 season and the cost was high – their first round pick in the 1982 NHL Entry Draft. The pick ended up being the first overall and the Boston Bruins chose Gord Kluzak. Due to a strained relationship with management, Foster was sold to Detroit just a few weeks into the 1982-83 season.
Gagne had a great 25-goal start with the Rockies in 1980-81, but suffered a major sophomore slump. He spent four seasons in New Jersey and only cracked the 20-goal plateau once before a back injury made him miss over two years worth of action.
140 Garry Howatt
The man known as “Toy Tiger” was one tough customer and after winning two Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders, he spent a pretty good year with a bad Hartford Whalers team. Part of an early season trade to the Devils, he only got into 38 games – but racked up 114 penalty minutes along the way.
141 Don Lever
Lever was acquired during the 1981-82 season as part of the deal that sent Lanny McDonald to Calgary. He was New Jersey’s first captain and scored the first goal in franchise history. That tally came at 2:21 of the first period against Michel Dion of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Lorimer won a Stanley Cup on Long Island before joining the Rockies and overcame a ruptured spleen in college to make it to the NHL. A veteran force on New Jersey’s back end, he was never a big scorer, but made up for it in a lot of other ways. He was often paired up with Tavio Levo, a promising defender that strangely never had an O-Pee-Chee card.
143 Bob MacMillan
MacMillan was one of New Jersey’s most reliable players during their first season and was picked up in the previously mentioned Lanny McDonald deal. A former Lady Byng Trophy winner that had 108 points with the Atlanta Flames in 1978-79, his numbers were in a bit of a decline at this point in his career and he was coached here by his brother, Bill.
Meagher took a bit of a long route to become an NHL regular as he starred for Boston University before turning pro in the Montreal Canadiens system. Traded to Hartford in 1980, he became a regular with the Whalers in 1981-82 at the age of 28. He spent three seasons with the Devils and later moved on to the St. Louis Blues. In 1989-90, he was awarded the Selke Trophy.
145 Glenn Resch
“Chico” Resch was fresh off winning the Masterton Trophy after being buried by an avalanche of rubber in 1981-82 with Colorado. He had risen to stardom as a member of the New York Islanders in a tandem with Billy Smith and won a Stanley Cup there before being traded to the Rockies. He became an instant fan favorite in New Jersey.
While the back of this card talks about a big game with the Rockies, we get to see Resch with a fresh white mask here. He remained with the Devils until late in the 1985-86 season and has spent many years in the broadcast booth for them. One of the most popular and beloved New Jersey Devils ever, he has a keen appreciation for vintage hockey memorabilia and classic cars.
147 Steve Tambellini
Tambellini continued to thrive in 1982-83 as he once again led the team in goals – four of which were game-winners. Before the next season began, he was off to the Calgary Flames along with future Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville for Mel Bridgman and Phil Russell.
In the twilight of a career that included Stanley Cups in Boston and Montreal along with being a part of the notorious California Golden Seals, Vadnais was 37 years old when the Devils claimed him from the New York Rangers in the Waiver Draft. Both of his goals with New Jersey came in the first month of the season, but his last career game on April 3, 1983 saw him notch a pair of assists against Pittsburgh.
You can see 1982-83 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards on eBay by clicking here.