Forty years ago, the NHL was embarking on a new era.
With franchises debuting in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Oakland in 1967-68, the league's Original Six had expanded to 12.
Everything was suddenly bigger for the storied circuit. There were more fans, more players, more marketing opportunities and even more hockey cards. Boasting 216 pasteboards, the 1968-69 O-Pee-Chee (OPC) set offered the largest number of cards of any puck issue to that point.
Marking the first time OPC issued a separate set under its license from Topps, this Canadian product's design mimicked that of its U.S. partner. Showcasing a horizontal layout, the fronts of these singles exhibit player pictures with a hockey sketch in the background. The player name, team and position are also on display. The bilingual OPC backs are a darker red than their Topps counterparts and flaunt statistics, biographical information and cartoons.
Unlike the 132-card Topps offering, the OPC set was released in two series. Bobby Burrell, author of Vintage Hockey Collector, says Topps traditionally released their hockey products in November, while OPC waited until January. As a result, OPC cards often reflected trades that occurred in the pre-season or early in the season. Terry Sawchuk (#34) is one of the most notable updated cards in the OPC set. His Topps card showcases him with the Los Angeles Kings, his 1967-68 squad, while his OPC card pictures him with the Detroit Red Wings, his 1968-69 club.
For the most part, players in the OPC set are grouped by teams, but early season trades help explain why some cards appear out of sequence. For example, Wayne Hillman (#48), dealt to the Montreal Canadiens early in the season, is pictured with the Habs in the first series, but is not grouped with his new teammates.
Released in six-card, five-cent packs, the first series boasted 132 cards. There were no inserts and 36 packs to a box.
"The first series came out and the kids were just gobbling them up in Canada like crazy," said Joe Henninger, who has owned the top set on the PSA Set Registry since 2003.
Second series cards were unveiled a month or two after the first series. Also five cents, these packs boasted a bonus All-Star Pushout Card (sometimes referred to as a Puck Sticker) in each pack. Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Jean Beliveau are among the legends featured in the sticker set. A single paying tribute to Gordie Howe's 700th goal is also included. The design of the Howe sticker differs from the rest.
"It's the only card in the set that's printed horizontally. It has very beautiful coloring and it's not a puck sticker like the rest," explained Gerry Chartrand, owner of Gerry's Sports Cards in Dorval, Quebec.
Henninger agrees, adding that the Howe is also difficult to uncover in high-grade.
"That card is often miscut," he noted.
Chartrand adds that because it was the last card in the set, the Howe was subjected to additional wear. Of the 27 evaluated, just seven have been graded PSA NM-MT 8 or higher.
Like the Howe sticker, the 1968-69 OPC cards are hampered by a number of condition issues. Some have deemed this set's centering as the worst in OPC history. Contrary to popular belief, however, this was not the first set OPC produced in its London, Ont., headquarters, so the centering problems can't be attributed to rookie mistakes, says Burrell. The renowned hobby historian says that OPC had been producing Topps' hockey sets since 1958.
"The '68 set was not the first kick at the can for OPC employees. They should've known what they were doing by then," said Burrell.
Burrell attributes the bad centering to poor quality control. The 1968-69 OPC cards also appear to be closer together on the sheets than cards in previous years, making them difficult to cut properly. Henninger says singles in the bottom row of the first series sheet are almost always miscut. The first card on the left in this row is the Series One checklist (#121).
"That card was just grossly miscut," said Henninger. "That's the lowest pop hockey checklist out there."
Of the 20 checklists evaluated, just one has been deemed a PSA 8 (with nothing grading higher).
Bobby Orr's regular single (#2) is the third card in the bottom row of the first series sheet. This card is tougher to uncover in pristine condition than his rookie.
"It's miscut on the left side and on the bottom of the card. On the bottom left corner, there's excess cardboard," said Chartrand.
Henninger has also had problems tracking down this card in high-grade.
"It's also a condition sensitive card because it's card No. 2. It was always on the top of stacks of kids' piles, so it got beat up," he noted.
Of the 71 sent in to PSA, there have been two PSA MINT 9s and one PSA 8. A PSA NM 7 sold for $969.59 on eBay in September 2008.
The four cards with the lowest number of PSA submissions are also located in the bottom row of the first series sheet. Less than 10 examples of Ken Hodge (#8), Chico Maki (#17), John Ferguson (#20) and Roger Crozier (#23) have been submitted, while Terry Gray (#44), also in that row, has yet to have an example grade as high as PSA 8.
Also hampered by condition woes is Gordie Howe's regular single (#29).
"Right down the center of the Howe card, there's a printing machine roller line," said Chartrand. "The majority of the Gordie Howe cards have the machine line down the center."
On top of legends like "Mr. Hockey," this set also boasts rookies of Lowell MacDonald (#42), Mickey Redmond (#64) and Garry Unger (#142). The biggest name rookie, however, is Bernie Parent (#89).
"The Parent is pretty well always cut 10/90 top-to-bottom," said Chartrand.
Henninger adds that Parent's sheet position exacerbates its condition sensitivity.
"It's on the top row, second from the left. For some reason, cards in the top row and the bottom row are tough ones to get in high-grade," he said.
The sole PSA 9 Parent fetched $598.88 on eBay in June 2007.
Doug Harvey and Claude Provost (Masterton Trophy winner), the set's first and last cards respectively, are also elusive in flawless form. Just four Harveys have graded PSA 8 or better. One PSA 8 sold for $685.55 on eBay in December 2007. PSA 8 has been the highest grade recorded for the Provost. One of his six PSA 8s garnered $328 in an eBay auction in April 2008.
This set also boasts a few notable errors. The player pictured on the Don Awrey (#3) card is actually Skip Krake, while the photo on the Krake (#43) is Awrey. Also, the photo on the Barclay Plager single (#177) is actually Bob Plager.
These errors, coupled with the condition issues and historical significance of this set make it highly coveted amongst hockey collectors.
"It's definitely the most desirable OPC set," said Chartrand.
So while there may be larger sets now, one could argue that this seminal issue continues to be OPC's "biggest" contribution to the hockey card hobby.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at email@example.com if you have any additional information or comments. Joe Henninger provided pictures for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted are those as of press time.
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