The Hottest Cards on Ice

W ith all due respect to Abner Doubleday, most sports historians point to the English game of rounders as being the genesis of modern baseball, and credit Alexander Cartwright as the man who first formalized the rules of what would become America's pastime.

With American football, most likely derived from the ancient Greek game of harpaston and the English game of rugby, it was Yale University player and coach Walter Camp who initially instituted the rules of gridiron play.

Gordie Howe

The history of hoops began in 1891, with Dr. Luther Gulick who was the Head of Physical Education at the School for Christian Workers in Springfield, Massachusetts. Determined to create an "athletic diversion" for students who were prone to getting a bit restless, if not downright rowdy, during the long and brutal New England winters, Gulick commissioned a Canadian athletic director by the name of Dr. James Naismith to come up with such a diversion – thus – basketball.

So, now you know how America's most popular team sports were created.

What's that you say? There's another team sport that we overlooked? Hmmm, let me think for a moment – Oh yeah! Hockey!

While immensely popular in various geographic locations throughout the United States, hockey has always been the red-haired stepchild of American sports – a fact that has also been true when it comes to the interest and desirability of hockey cards.

Maurice Richard

When pressed as to why hockey has never resonated with Americans the way the other three major sports have, diehard fans will tell you it is because the sport is not as conducive for television as the others. With hockey's continuous play, there are very few opportunities for commercial breaks thus television contracts have not been as lucrative.

As for the history of hockey – while there are a few conflicting theories, most everyone agrees that its roots were formed in the fields of Ireland with a game called hurley. The game of hurley, which is played with a ball and stick on a grass field, was a summer game that was played in Nova Scotia during the early 1800s. When winter came along, there was no desire to stop playing so the game moved from the grass onto the ice. The earliest reports of the formalization of hurly on ice teams, state that the sport was established at King's College in Windsor, Nova Scotia, which is on the outskirts of Halifax.

Terry Sawchuk

Hurley on ice, which was also called rickets and shinny in different regions, eventually became known as hockey sometime in the latter part of the 1800s. One legend has it that the name came from a Royal Canadian officer, stationed in Nova Scotia, who organized games with his fellow officers and whose surname was Hockey.

A more documented account says that, in the 1870s, an engineer from Nova Scotia named James Creighton introduced hockey to his friends at McGill University in Montreal. As the game caught on and gained popularity, Creighton took it upon himself to constitute rules that he called the Halifax Rules, which called for nine players on each team. Along with his engineering degree, Creighton also had a degree in law and, in the 1880s, moved to Ottawa, the Canadian capital, where he became the law clerk of the Canadian Senate. It was during that time that he organized Ottawa's first hockey team that was called the Rideau Hall Rebels. It was also during this time that an amateur hockey league had been established in Kingston, Ontario.

Jacques Plante

In 1892, Lord Stanley, Earl of Preston and Governor General of Canada decided to support and promote hockey by donating a cup that could be vied for by amateur teams and the first Stanley Cup was awarded in 1893.

By the end of the 1800's, hockey was well on its way to becoming Canada's national sport. A great evolution had taken place in the sport in a rather rapid period of time. By the end of the century players were using solid wood sticks and wearing skates that screwed into the bottom of their boots, shin pads and wool uniforms.

To the dawn of the Twentieth Century, tube skates were invented. The new inventions, coupled with the introduction of netting over the goal posts and the reduction of team size from nine to seven, was the standard until the formation of the National League in 1917. With hockey nationally organized, the team size was again dropped to six players and five franchises throughout eastern Canada made up the inaugural teams of the NHL. In the league's first year, the Toronto Arenas won the Stanley Cup. Within a decade the league would gain total control of the Cup, which assured that it could only be won by an NHL team.

Jean Beliveau

By 1942, after many NHL franchises came and went, there were six well established teams: the Montreal Canadians, Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks. These "Original Six" as they have come to be known, made up the NHL until league expansion took place in 1967. The latter part of the Twentieth Century saw the addition of the curved hockey stick that was introduced by legendary players Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Goalie masks also came into existence thanks to goalie Jacques Plante who got tired of getting hit in the face with a puck. Some players began wearing helmets around the early 1970s but they did not become mandated by the league until 1979.

The next wave of league expansion brought the Minnesota North Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, California Seals, St. Louis Blues and the Los Angeles Kings into the NHL's fold, and in 1970, Vancouver's Canucks and Buffalo's Sabers also joined the NHL.

Bobby Orr

In 1972, the World Hockey Association came on the scene posing a threat to the firmly established NHL. At first, just like the American Basketball Association and the World Football League, the WHA began stealing some of the NHL's big stars such as Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson. But just as with the ABA and the WFL, the WHA never garnered loyal fan support and was nothing more than a bit of hockey history by 1979.

The NHL was flourishing during this time, adding the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames in 1972 and the Washington Capitals and Kansas City Scouts in 1974.

When the WHA met its demise in 1979, the NHL absorbed their four remaining teams: the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques.

During the 1990s, nine more teams were added to round out the league with thirty franchises, two conferences and six divisions.

Gordie Howe

Still, despite the strength and success of the NHL and the loyalty of fans to franchises, the sport still does tend to be an afterthought to baseball, football and basketball. "Hockey is so overlooked," said Sports Market Report Editor Joe Orlando. "Not just as a sport, but in the sportscard hobby. Hockey cards are some of the most difficult cards to find in high grades and yet, the prices don't in any way reflect how rare these cards are."

The reason that vintage hockey cards are a challenge to find in high grades is attributed to a few factors. First, they were never produced, distributed, desired or protected in any way near the way baseball cards were. Secondly, many of the early hockey cards were produced with a host of manufacturing problems. Finally, today, very few major dealers carry high-end hockey product in the United States.

Although the popularity and desirability of hockey cards is at the bottom of the major sports, there are a handful of cards that have reached legendary status within the hobby.

Bobby Hull

From the 1951 Parkhurst issue the #4 Maurice Richard, the #61 Terry Sawchuk, and the #66 Gordie Howe are three of the early standouts. The '51 #66 Howe card is the only issue to be recognized a Howe's rookie card. His 1954-55 Topps card, which is undeniably better looking, is also a desirable one with fans, but the '51 Parkhurst is THE card for the man who was one of the few hockey stars to be known to the mainstream public.

Another vintage card that has garnered attention is the 1955 Parkhurst #50 Jacques Plante, the first goalie to wear a mask. This is the rookie card of one of the greatest goalies the game has ever seen. Plante was a fierce competitor on the ice and his card is as tough to find in high grades as he was at the net. Centering, chipping, bleeding and toning are all problems associated with this card.

Along with Howe, another hockey star that had appeal with those beyond diehard fans was Bobby Hull. No matter what sport, fans are attracted to the offensive scorers who rack up the points and Hull was a scoring machine. He led the NHL in scoring for seven years and the "Golden Jet" was a true slapshot artist.

Wayne Gretzky

The most desirable Hull card is the 1958 Topps #66, which, of course, was his rookie card. As is the case with most 1958 Topps cards, it is hard to find in high grade. This card has a centering problem being as that it was the corner card on the uncut sheet. The card was also the last in the set, which meant it was subject to the handling abuse a final card usually sustains. Aside from the centering issues, this card's lime green and yellow background is vulnerable to printing defects and the paper stock that was used (just as with the baseball issues) is of very poor quality. Locating this card in high grades will entail a quixotic search.

If Bobby Hull's rookie is hard to come by in high grades, consider this: No samples of Bobby Orr's rookie card have ever been graded Mint 9. Designed much like the 1955 Bowman baseball issue, the 1966 Topps #35 Bobby Orr card is super susceptible to wear. The dark brown borders have not held up well at all and even the slightest handling has proven to cause damage that has downgraded its condition.

Now that we've discussed all the hockey cards that are next to impossible to find in high grades, we'll pause to highlight one that, while desirable, is also fairly available. The 1985 O-Pee-Chee #9 Mario Lemieux card. Although he was plagued with injuries that sidelined him for much of his career, he is widely considered to be one of the most talented players the game has ever seen. His rookie card has far fewer production problems than the other cards discussed and, due to his vast popularity, many of these cards were kept and respected more than most hockey cards.

Mario Lemieux

Finally, there is THE hockey card: the 1979 O-Pee-Chee # 18 Wayne Gretzky.

This is the rookie card of the greatest player to ever pull on skates and take to the ice. Few if any baseball, football or basketball players have ever totally dominated their respective sports the way "The Great One" dominated hockey.

Holding over sixty NHL records, Gretzky finished his career with 894 goals and 1,963 assists. He was selected to the All-Star team fifteen times, earned nine Hart Trophies, ten Ross Trophies, two Smythe Trophies and four Byng Trophies. Gretzky truly stands alone, as does his rookie card, which is almost nonexistent in high grades. Susceptible to chipping and edge wear, centering is a big problem with this card and printing defects are also common.

This past year, PSA graded the first GEM-MT 10 "79 O-Pee-Che # 18.

"Early estimates are that the card will sell for over $100 thousand dollars, which is incredible," said Orlando. "The card is not even 25 years old and it has vaulted into elite company with some of baseball's most desirable cards. When that card sells, it will take its place in sportscard history. Very few cards that were produced in the modern era generate the interest that this card does. Along with Michael Jordan's rookie card, this is the most significant card in modern sportscard history, which says so much about Gretzky as an athlete and a person. No expert in the hobby would have ever guessed that one of the most desirable cards of the past quarter century would have been a hockey card. But the bottom line is that whoever buys this card will join the ranks of other legendary collectors."