Hockey Central

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Hockey Trading Cards

The Oldest—and Certainly the Most Volatile—Hockey Hobby

Collectors who place new hockey cards in plastic sheets to keep them in pristine condition shudder when they hear the Parkhurst cement mixer story.

Back in the 1950s Parkhurst officials were looking for a method of achieving a better mix of cards in each pack. Their solution was to dump freshly manufactured Parkhurst cards in the cement mixer and give them a few wild whirls.

"A lot of cards probably got wrecked, but back then they didn't care," said Ken Whitmell, who worked for Parkhurst Products Inc. when they acquired permission to use the Parkhurst trademark in 1991-92. "The cards in the middle of the mixer came out in mint condition, and those on the outside probably got dinged up a little from banging around on the sides of the steel drum."

Today's collectors, especially those folks who have plunked down hundreds of dollars to purchase "dinged-up" Parkhurst cards, hate that story. But it shows conclusively that the hockey card manufacturers of yesteryear could never have envisioned that their innocent, relatively low-budget business venture would mature into a multi-faceted, multi-million-dollar industry. Plenty of modern collectors tear open their packs and immediately consult the Beckett Price Guide to see how much their insert cards are worth. Today's collector could find a $100 autographed card, or a $40 insert card, in his pack. That certainly would have been a bizarre thought for many folks before World War II who found hockey cards in packages of cigarettes, candy and gum. Sometimes they simply threw away after looking at them.

To appreciate the rich, colorful tradition of hockey cards, consider that there were hockey cards before there was even a National Hockey League. Cigarette companies began issuing hockey cards throughout Canada in 1910, seven years before the NHL debuted. The 1910-11 Sweet Caporal 45-card postcard set, printed by British American Tobacco company and included in Imperial Tobacco cigarettes, featured players from the Nation Hockey Association, which was the forerunner of the NHL. Many players featured did eventually play prominent roles in the NHL, including George Vezina, Newsy Lalonde and Art Ross. Vezina's card, if it's in top condition, can fetch $4,000 in the marketplace. That same 1910-11 season featured another set, now called the C56 set. The cards were in color, and small by today's standards.

Three different cigarette companies issued cards from 1910 to 1913 with the hope of spiking their sales. In the 1920s candy companies began to insert cards in packages to increase sales, and in the 1930s gum companies, in particular O-Pee-Chee and World Wide Gum, began to use cards to boost their products in the marketplace. The cards still remaining from that era are quite valuable in the collecting marketplace. For example, a Champs cigarette card of Howie Morenz is valued at $4,000 today.

Some of the prized hockey cards from the pre-World War II era are those from "redemption sets". Some manufacturers would give away prizes—such as skates and hockey sticks—for collectors who could send in a complete set of their hockey cards. Manufacturers obviously hoped consumers would buy more of their product while in a frenzy to complete their sets. The short-printed cards from those sets, regardless of how little notoriety the player had, are now extremely valuable today. The Bert Corbeau card from the 1923 V145s is valued by some at $15,000. "It's just impossible to find," said Al Muir, an editor at Beckett. "It's believed that was the card that was printed in short quantity so you couldn't turn in those complete sets." A Sprague Cleghorn card from the 1924-25 Maple Crispette set can fetch $10,000 for the same reason.

Today's older collectors seem to have a special fondness for the Beehive photos, first issued in 1933. Kids in that era would tear the labels off the Beehive corn syrup bottles and send them in for the photo cards. Hall of Famer Gordie Howe collected these cards as a child in Saskarchewan and still laments that a relative threw away his collection. Bobby Hull was a Beehive collector and is fond of telling stories of rummaging through neighbor's garbage looking for the corn syrup labels. Beehive stopped issuing cards briefly in 1944 because of the war, but returned with a new series of photos postwar. They issued those photos until 1963. A third set of Beehives was issued from 1964 to 1967.

The modern era of collecting starts with the introduction of the 1951-52 Pakhurst set. Topps hockey cards debuted as a test in 1954-55. Topps didn't seem convinced that this was an effective method of selling chewing gum. The company didn't issue card sets in 1955-56 or 1956-57, but then came back in 1957-58 with a set. As a general rule in the 1950s, Topps issued cards of players from American teams and Parkhurst issued cards of players from the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. Starting in the 1960-61 season, Parkhurst also began to issue cards for players from the Detroit Red Wings. Topps covered the remaining teams.

After the 1963-64 season, Parkhurst decided NHL licensing fees were too high and left the hockey card business. Starting in 1964-65, Topps began issuing cards of players from every team. Once Parkhurst left, Topps seemed to take advantage of its situation as the lone provider of hockey cards. Topps designs in the 1960s were unique, but at some point in that decade the company's editing process became shoddy. Today, card designers take three to six weeks to finalize one card design. "When Topps had no competition, the (design) process probably took 10 minutes," said Ted Taylor, a collector, writer and public relations guru in the industry for many years. "Topps could put anything out and we had to buy it. I think they got lazy."

Evidence supports that contention. The attractive 1968-69 set lost some of its luster because many of the cards were cut unevenly. Also, Frank Mahovlich's head is pasted on another player's body. "They didn't even bother to put it on straight," said Beckett's Al Muir. "They did that with eight or 10 cards that year."

Topps had no qualms about using three- and four-year old photographs, and occasionally Topps used the same photo of a player two years in a row. Nothing illustrates the company's sloppiness more than the Boston cards from the 1971-72 set. The Bruins' players obviously put their jerseys and gloves on over street clothes for the photo shoot. Topps didn't even bother to crop out the dress slacks underneath. You see Phil Esposito's plaid pants on the card.

Today's cards are standardized at 2½" x 3½", but they haven't always been that size. Parkhurst's 1952-53 cards were 1-1/16" x 215/16". The following year, Parkhurst went to a 2½ x 35/8" card. There have been variations on that, including the 1964-65 Topps set. That 110-card set had oversized cards of 2½ x 411/16", that have been nicknamed "Tall Boys" by collectors. That set in mint condition today sells for about $6,000. One reason why its valuable is 1964 youngsters didn't seem to like the design and didn't take very good care of those cards. As oversized cards, they didn't fit well in boxes. Most of the 1964-65 cards that still exist have damaged corners. Corner sharpness is crucial to fetching top dollar for older cards.

No other card of that size was issued until 1993-94 when Fleer introduced a set called Power Play. One major reason why companies are reluctant to vary from standardized card sizes is that most collectors now have special plastic sheets, boxes and card sleeves that fit only regular sized cards. Unlike yesteryear when collectors put cards in the spokes of bicycles, or taped them to their walls, today's collectors go to great lengths to protect their treasures.

Most hockey cards issued through the years have featured vertical action. "The last horizontal set that worked was the 1956 Topps baseball set," Taylor said. "The market has never taken to horizontal cards. Hockey is a vertical sport. Unless you are a swimmer, or a knocked-out boxer, horizontal doesn't work."

Although purists criticize Topps' work in those days, some 1960s sets are extremely popular with older collectors. The 66-card 1966-67 set is valued at about $4,000, primarily because it boasts Bobby Orr's rookie card. His card is valued at $2,000. In a rare creative effort, Topps designed these cards like television sets. The wood grain boarders made it difficult to keep those cards in perfect condition. It's difficult to find these cards today without scratches on the boarders. That also explains the high price. This set design also illustrates the fickle nature of collectors. Some people love the design and others hate it. Some call it the "floating heads" set because the players' heads seemed to be pasted into the television set.

At the time, Topps' cards had French and English on the back of cards so they could be distributed in both Canada and the United States. In 1966-67, Topps issued a special "American only" test set with no French. That also included the Orr rookie card. That set is for more valuable because few are known to exist. O-Pee-Chee started to make hockey cards again in 1968-69. O-Pee-Chee used the Topps design, but always had more cards in the set, a reflection of hockey's popularity in Canada. That makes those O-Pee-Chee sets very popular with collectors of rookie cards. For example, the 1970-71 O-Pee-Chee sets had rookie cards of Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur. The Topps set did not. Beginning in 1974-75, O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets became nearly identical, except for the color of the back of the card. O-Pee-Chee did issue World Hockey Association sets from 1974 to 1978, while Topps did not.

Most serious collectors look at the early 1980s with fondness because that's the last period older cards were found for inexpensive prices. No price guide existed and many Americans were more than willing to trade hockey cards for baseball cards, or sell hockey for next to nothing. Before Muir worked for Beckett, he toured in a band. He remembers finding incredible bargains at fles markets in the U.S. in the 1980s.

"Baseball cards were always on display, but dealers almost always had hockey stuff buried away," Muir said, "They were only too happy to get rid of it. (With no) price guides for hockey at the time, to most people, they were worthless. But it was in 100-card for $1 stacks that I picked up my (Phil) Esposito rookie card, plus rookies of Lafleur and (Ken) Dryden, plus early Orr cards, even stuff as far back as 1954-55. The fact that names such as Howe, (Alex) Delvecchio and (Terry) Sawchuk didn't have the cachet in the States they had in Canada meant bargains were not tough to find."

It wasn't until Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 that the hockey trading card market gained legitimacy south of the Canadian border. The 1988-89 Topps card with Gretxky (holding) a Kings jersey seemed to signal the start of the rising card price. "Those bargains stopped soon after," Muir said.

The Beckett price guide debuted in 1990, and let everyone in on the secret that older hockey cards could be sold at higher prices in various parts of the country. Dr. James Beckett, who owns a Ph.D in statistics, made a name for himself as one of the leading authorities on baseball card collecting. He had started his own baseball price guide in 1984 and a hockey guide was another logical step. "His hockey guide had a very profound effect," said Fleer's Steve Charendoff, a long-time collector. "It brought stability to an industry that previously had none."

Another event helped fuel interest in hockey cards. The Wall Street Journal published an article about how a Billy Ripken baseball card with a vulgar message written on his bat had managed to creep into a card set. The story explained how the card had risen dramatically in value. It also included examples of other older cards that were also skyrocketing in value.

"The article told how some cards had outperformed every stock in the market," said NHL Players' Association collectables boss Michael Merhab, who was working for the Upper Deck company at the time. "All of a sudden you have all these guys reading the Wall Street Journal saying 'maybe I should buy trading cards instead of stocks.' There were people who didn't know hockey was a major sport, but they were buying cards. That was happening in football and basketball as well."

Investors scrambled to buy older hockey sets with the hope of selling them to adult collectors in the midst of a nostalgic craving. The vintage hockey card market seemed like an untapped mother lode.

"There were stockbrokers on Wall Street definitely buying cards," observed Michel Vaillancourt, owner of House of Hockey, a Tampa business specializing in buying and selling older cards. "They were looking to make quick money. Some did. Some didn't."

Hockey card collecting was no longer a kid's game. NHL player Darren Turcotte owned two card stores and former NHL 50-goal scorer Brian Bellows bought cases of cards as investments. Patrick Roy, the winningest playoff goaltender in NHL history, frequently talked about becoming an avid collector. NHL coaching legend Scotty Bowman was quoted as saying he and his son had bought a pile of Brett Hull rookie cards as an investment. PGA golfer Craig Stadler admitted he had started to put money into the collecting world. The industry's credibility was at an all-time high in the early 1990s.

The logic behind the rising prices of hockey cards was based on the same principle of antique collecting. Most cards produced in years gone by were destroyed in the spokes of bicycles, chewed up by family pets or thrown away by parents after the children moved away. The theory: cards tucked away in the attic were rare, hence valuable. As had happened in baseball card collecting, a player's first card—called his rookie card—took on greater value.

Following the marketplace closely, companies lined up to obtain licenses to print hockey cards. After having nothing but Topps and O-Pee-Chee since the 1963-64 season, the hockey world welcomed Score, Upper Deck and Pro Set as trading card licensees in 1990-91. By coincidence, the new card companies debuted at a time when the league was rich in promising youngsters. The rookie cards of Jaromir Jagr, Jeremy Roenick, Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros came out in 1990-91. Teemu Selanne's rookie card came out in 1991-92. It was clear that big-name rookies could drive sales to record heights.

In that first year, these companies were printing cards as if they had a license to print money. In a sense, they did. Comsumers were buying up every product that hit the marketplace, and companies were scrambling to push new products out the door. (Pro Set even acquired the rights to use the Parkhurst trademark on cards). Topps came out with Bowman hockey cards and O-Pee-Chee offered a premier edition that skyrocketed in price before it even arrived in dealers' hands. "It was selling for $8 or $10 for a pack because it seemed like there was none available," Vaillancourt remembered. "It was like that with a lot of products, especially when they first came out. And then prices would start to fall and dealers ended up with cases of (high-priced) cards they couldn't sell."

Collectors' pursuit of rookie Score to sign Eric Lindros to an exclusive contract to appear in their sets even before he signed an NHL contract. Upper Deck attempted to sign exclusives with national junior teams in an attempt to feature players before they landed in the NHL.

Other companies complained about the exclusive contract, and the NHL Players' Association and league officials also didn't like the fact that too much emphasis was being placed on players who weren't yet in the league. The new rule: no exclusive deals with draft picks and limits on the number of non-NHL players who could appear in sets.

Complicating the situation was the fact that Classic, an unlicensed company, was giving potential draft picks huge amounts of money to be photographed to appear in their sets. Roman Hamrlik, for example, recieved more than $150,000 from Classic after he was the first over-all pick in the 1991 draft. "People thought they were going to put their kids through college by buying a case of cards and putting it away for 20 years," said Charendoff, who worked for Classic at the time. "The trouble is if everyone does that then it becomes a house of cards and it comes tumbling down. And that's exacty what happened."

The idea that cards will have higher value in the future is predicated on scarcity. But non-stop press runs in the early 1990s, coupled with everyone hoarding cards, made it clear that scarcity wouldn't be a problem in the 21st century. Card companies then decided to create their own scarcity by including insert cards that had limited production. By 1992-93, the hockey card market was awash in insert cards. Collectors began to look at opening packs like they were entering a lottery. Would they be lucky enough to get a high-priced insert card? That worked for a while, but even that idea soon became stale.

In 1992, Fleer was awarded a license to issue hockey cards. By 1993-94, Pro Set's financial problems caused it to lose its license to print hockey cards. Leaf Brands joined the fray. The following year, O-Pee-Chee announced that 1994-95 would be its last year of printing hockey cards. Pinnacle Topps announced in 1996 that it was quitting the hockey business after 42 consecutive years of making cards. By 1997, Fleer was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and out of the hockey card business. Pacific Trading Cards received a license to issue trading cards in 1997-98.

"When O-Pee-Chee stopped making cards, that's what really sounded the death knell for the hobby," Whitmell said, "People thought: 'Wow! I've been collecting O-Pee-Chee since the 1960s.' That's when it hit people that the industry was in trouble."

Collectors in Canada seemed to lament O-Pee-Chee's passing more than Americans grieved about Topps' decision to quit the hockey business. "There was just a minor sentimental ripple when Topps left," Muir said. "It wasn't as if Topps left the baseball market. There was some dismay about O-Pee-Chee, but not surprise. They had become the out-of-step grandfatherly company. O-Pee-Chee didn't speak to the modern collector. That's why it went the way of the dinosaur."

Merhab says the industry knew in the 1990s that boom period wouldn't last forever. "I can remember (former Upper Deck executive) Jay McCracken saying that this ship is going to hit an iceberg," Merhab says. "Nobody was saying it was right around the corner, but everyone was saying we have to watch this."

In 1998, the hockey card industry was still trying to stabilize. Efforts were being made to attract young collectors back in the marketplace and take advantage of hockey's growing popularity by catering to new fans. the wild investor mentality is reduced, but not erased in hockey cards.

"In the last questionnaire I saw, they asked what was the number-one reason for collecting hockey cards. The answers were heavily weighted toward investment," Merhab says. "The day someone shows me research in which people say they collect because they love players, or love hockey, then we can say all of the investors are gone."

No one believes the industry will ever regain its lost innocence. The days of cement mixer collation and holding cards together with a rubber band have gone the way of scooters and toy tops. Even the youngest collector today is taught early that rubber bands damage a cards' edges.

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