Heading into the 1979-80 season, the game of hockey was undergoing tremendous change. Four clubs from the World Hockey Association (WHA) were being absorbed into the National Hockey League and as a result, hockey card manufacturer O-Pee-Chee had to call in some quick favors while making its set for that year.
Joining the NHL at the time were the Edmonton Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, and the New England Whalers – soon to be dubbed the Hartford Whalers due to the location of their normal home arena. Since the roof of the Hartford Civic Center (now called the XL Center) collapsed due to the weight of snow that had accumulated during a winter storm on January 18, 1978, the Whalers were forced to instead play out of the nearby Springfield (MA) Civic Center until repairs were completed. It took two years for that job to be finished, so the team shared the facility with an AHL affiliate throughout the first half of their 1979-80 campaign.
The preseason was drawing to a close on October 7, 1979 and the Nordiques were in Springfield to take on the Whalers. Your humble author was kindly given a copy of the program from that game recently and it became apparent that this contest and another exhibition from the day before were a part of hockey card history as well.
At the time, Boston-area photographer Steve Babineau was a regular contributor to hockey card sets from Topps and O-Pee-Chee and had even shot the photo used on Wayne Gretzky’s rookie card and likely most of the game action shots of Whalers and Nordiques players used in the 1979-80 Topps set for Whalers players such as the trio of Gordie, Mark, and Marty Howe along with high-scoring Mike Rogers, and WHA all-time leading scorer Andre Lacroix.
On the Nordiques side, only three players made it into the Topps collection – but they were solid choices in Real Cloutier, Marc Tardif, and Serge Bernier.
Home Ice Advantage
Starting with card 265, defender Gordie Roberts, collectors were treated to several members of the Hartford squad in their home uniforms. There were carryovers from the WHA days like goaltender John Garrett and some newly-added toughness in Nick Fotiu, who had previously played for New England before a memorable stint with the New York Rangers. The shot on Fotiu’s card has a cameo from Nordiques goalie Goran Hogosta, who never had a card during his brief time in the NHL.
Don Kozak, who never cracked the Whalers’ roster gets a card here, which lends a great deal of credence to the photos being taken that day. Bob Stephenson also got a card depicting him in his home sweater.
One of the most intriguing Whalers photos Babineau took during the game was of goaltender Terry Richardson, who not receive a chance to play in a regular season contest with Hartford and his addition to the set is a bit of a head-scratcher. You can see a Nordiques skater in the foreground. A longtime prospect for the Detroit Red Wings who rarely saw action, Richardson went 3-10-0 over the course of four seasons despite being a first round pick in 1973. He signed with the St. Louis Blues on July 26, 1978 and got into a disastrous 9-5 loss to the woeful Colorado Rockies on April 1, 1979.
In the midst of all of this, he was actually dominating with Salt Lake in the Central League and led the loop in many key statistical categories on the way to being named a Second Team All-Star. Soon after, Richardson was shipped off to the New York Islanders, who then flipped him to the Whalers. By virtue of being on the roster for that game against the Nordiques, he appears on a hockey card, but he was soon relegated to Springfield and never played in the NHL again.
Not Every Shot From This Game
A few of Babineau’s WHA-era shots were also utilized on cards exclusive to 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee. You can see that the photos of Whalers players Dave Inkpen and Al Smith were taken in their WHA jerseys, but the picture of Smith could date back to 1976-77 or earlier due to the mask he is wearing. Ron Plumb’s card photo dates back to 1974-75, which goes to show that O-Pee-Chee often had to use whatever was at their disposal.
The only Nordiques card appearing between cards 265 and 396 in 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee, which is obviously a WHA shot, is that of Paul Baxter. An examination of the photo shows a referee in a red striped sweater, which was unique to the WHA.
The Nordiques team card, which features a team photo instead of a logo is from 1978-79 as you can spot the unforgettable facial hair of Jim Corsi and clean-shaven Richard Brodeur, who had been traded to the New York Islanders. A cool cameo is there, too, with legendary coach Jacques Demers sitting up front.
There were also some Nordiques players who made it onto cardboard in their new jerseys thanks to this long-forgotten game, but there is an interesting note in the program’s lineup which could have been quite interesting had O-Pee-Chee shown a little foresight. While it would be tough to confirm if Michel Goulet or Dale Hunter skated that night, it would have been incredible to see them have cards in 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee. John Baby, who was late cut before the season, gets a card here but he would never skate for Quebec once regular play began.
Otherwise, there is a strong selection of players making into the Nordiques team set. High-scoring Robbie Ftorek is here along with tough Curt Brackenbury and long-time team member Alain Cote. You can clearly see a Whalers player on Rich LeDuc’s card along with new acquisitions like Jamie Hislop, Dave Farrish, and goalie Michel Dion.
What About The Away Jerseys?
Just one night before the battle which saw the Whalers defeat the Nordiques by a 4-3 margin to close the preseason, Hartford traveled to Washington to take on the Capitals. At the time, Topps and O-Pee-Chee regularly obtained shots from the Caps that were used on hundreds of cards. However, for many years, name of the photographer remained somewhat of a mystery as the Hockey Hall of Fame’s slides in the O-Pee-Chee collection do not identify them specifically. A recent conversation with legendary hockey photographer Bruce Bennett did confirm that Jerry Wachter was the shooter of many classic hockey cards from this era.
The Capitals did provide O-Pee-Chee with several of Wachter’s shots of the Whalers in their green road uniforms that were most likely taken that night since the two teams did not clash at the Capital Center during the regular season until December 4, 1979. Given the time needed in order to have the cards designed, printed, and packaged in time for a traditional early January release, the assumed date seems to make the most sense. Of these cards, there is one that provides an intriguing cameo as it is believed that backup goalie Tim Thomlinson on the bench behind Hall of Famer Dave Keon.
Thomlinson’s presence here is a bit curious as he never saw any NHL action and he had most likely been property of the Colorado Rockies then. Perhaps he was on loan to the Whalers, but records have proven to be elusive. It should also be noted that the goalie on the card is wearing number 31, while the regular tandem and Richardson did not have those digits on their sweaters. Garrett, who was the Whalers’ starter has spoken about Thomlinson sticking around with the team in the early stages of the season, which lends credence to this theory.
As for the clash between the Whalers and Caps? It was a 3-1 win for Hartford where Keon scored the winner and assisted on both of his team’s other goals. Jim Warner, who has a card in the 1979-80 set, made it 1-1 and Bill Bennett, who did not make it onto cardboard unlike his brothers Curt and Harvey, got the insurance marker.
What About the Oilers and Jets?
Astute collectors of the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee set will note that there are no Edmonton Oilers players in their new NHL jersey – likely because Topps or O-Pee-Chee could not get a photographer out to an exhibition or early-season game and WHA photos would have to do if they were available.
However, there are a few Winnipeg Jets cards shots that were taken at Boston Garden on October 11, 1979 as they faced the Bruins in their second-ever game. They were coming off a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins and could not reach the scoresheet in a 4-0 loss in Beantown. Babineau was on his home turf here and delivered some decent action shots of a few Jets players from that outing, though.
Confirmed players on the roster that night who made it into 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee include Mike Amodeo, Lyle Moffat, Gord Smith, Hilliard Graves, Bill Lesuk, Jude Drouin, Dave Hoyda, Wayne Dillon, Willy Lindstrom, team captain Lars-Erik Sjoberg, and noted coach and broadcaster Barry Melrose – who also makes his cardboard debut here. The fact that all of these players are in the new Jets jersey and Babineau’s track record essentially confirms this date, especially when the Jets did not visit Washington until early November that year.
It should be noted that Raymond Bourque was playing in his first career game here and he scored once and added an assist. Had O-Pee-Chee had the foresight to include him in their set, who knows how desirable that card would be today!