The 1968 Topps Hockey set marked the dawn of a new hobby era.
Prior to the release of this trailblazing issue, Topps had almost exclusively printed and marketed their hockey sets in Canada.
But perhaps emboldened by the NHL's TV deal with CBS (trumpeted on the card backs), the league's expansion from six to 12 teams and the transcending popularity of Bobby Orr, Topps unveiled a series separate from O-Pee-Chee that they marketed to the American masses for the first time.
"I think Topps really wanted to jump on the Bobby Orr bandwagon at that point," said Bobby Burrell, author of Vintage Hockey Collector, who also noted that Topps manufactured a 1966 USA Test issue. "If I'm in a boardroom at that time, I'm thinking, 'Bobby Orr is the be-all and end-all, he's with Boston in the U.S. and O-Pee-Chee has probably had very good sales [with Orr in their sets].'"
At 132 cards, this seminal Topps set was smaller than the two-series, 216-card O-Pee-Chee offering, but the design was virtually identical. Starting with this issue, Topps and O-Pee-Chee released separate hockey sets for more than two decades. Burrell points out that Topps typically rolled out their series each November, while O-Pee-Chee waited until January. And although a 1968 Topps Hockey sheet wasn't uncovered during the research for this article, it seems plausible, given the similarities in design, that the two companies may have shared printing plates.
The 1968 Topps Hockey cards measure 2-1/2" by 3-1/2" each and the fronts showcase a horizontal design. The player photo is presented with a hockey scene in the background surrounded by white borders. A team logo is at the top of the front and the player's name, team and position are highlighted along the bottom.
"I like the horizontal design," said Bill Tiede, who owns the No. 4 Current Finest, 1968 Topps Hockey set on the PSA Set Registry. "The cards really offer a good picture of the player. To me, it's one of the nicest looking sets. When they don't have centering issues, they're beautiful cards to look at."
Also employing a horizontal design, the card backs house the card number and player name along the top, while the rest of the information is presented in two sections. A box on the left side harbors a cartoon illustrating a "Hockey Fact" about the player, while a notation running up the side encourages collectors to watch the NHL on the CBS Network.
The box on the right side offers the player's position, team, a short bio and their 1967-68 statistics. Copyright information is printed along the left edge. Unlike the O-Pee-Chee backs, the Topps cards present information solely in English and in blue rather than black. The borders on the Topps cards are also a lighter shade of red.
Distributed in wax packs, rack packs, cellos and vending boxes, the 1968 Topps Hockey cards could be purchased in several different manners. Burrell owns a photo of the proof of the original 1968 Topps Hockey box, and it appears that the company planned to include a comic pennant insert - similar to those in 1967 Topps Football - in every pack. But for some reason, that idea was scrapped prior to production.
Burrell also notes that Topps has 24 wax packs in their boxes, while O-Pee-Chee had 36.
If you examine the O-Pee-Chee and Topps sets closely, you'll see that the composition of the first series of the O-Pee-Chee set is very similar to the Topps issue. Of the 132 cards in the Topps offering, just eight are different (see accompanying chart) than those in the first series of the O-Pee-Chee set.
From the chart, you can see that Topps substituted some bigger name players (that were included in the second series of the O-Pee-Chee set) in place of common players.
Cards in the 1968 Topps Hockey set are sequenced alphabetically by team, starting with the Boston Bruins (#1 to #11) and ending with the Toronto Maple Leafs (#122 to #132). Unlike the O-Pee-Chee issue, there are no all-star or award winner cards in the 1968 Topps set.
As noted earlier, because O-Pee-Chee generally released their cards approximately two months later than Topps, their cards frequently were updated to reflect trades. Joe Henninger, who owns the top set on the registry, can identify at least 14 players in the 1968 Topps offering whose cards have been updated in the O-Pee-Chee series.
"The primary difference is the uniform that they're wearing," noted Henninger.
He says the most blatant example is the O-Pee-Chee Frank Mahovlich card (#31). Dealt to the Red Wings by the Maple Leafs in March 1968, the "Big M" is still pictured in his Leafs uniform on his Topps single.
"For the O-Pee-Chee card, they took Dean Prentice's body in a Red Wings uniform and placed Mahovlich's head on there, so now he's in a Red Wing jersey," explained Henninger.
Three other Hall of Famers - Terry Sawchuk (#34), Pierre Pilote (#124) and Norm Ullman (#131) - also had their uniforms updated on their O-Pee-Chee cards.
But despite these differences, the key cards in the 1968 Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets are basically the same. As a rule, however, Henninger says the Topps cards fetch less money.
The veteran collector says the Orr (#2) is the most coveted card in the Topps set.
"That card does real well," he said. "It's condition sensitive. Being the No. 2 card in the set, it was always near the top of the stack."
"It's probably one of the toughest Orrs to get in high grade because of the [poor] centering," added Tiede.
If the 1968 Topps Hockey sheet employs the same layout (with the exception of the eight different cards identified in the chart accompanying this article) as the first series 1968 O-Pee-Chee sheet, then the Orr is the third card in the bottom row, a position on the edge of the sheet that generally makes cards more susceptible to flaws. Of the 360 Topps Orr cards submitted, there have been six PSA MINT 9s, one PSA NM-MT+ 8.5 and 32 PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 9 sold for $4,050 on eBay in November 2011.
On top of Orr, this set also boasts singles of more than two dozen other Hall of Famers, including Phil Esposito (#7), Bobby Hull (#16), Stan Mikita (#20), Gordie Howe (#29), Gump Worsley (#56), Jean Beliveau (#61), Glenn Hall (#111), Johnny Bower (#122) and Dave Keon (#128).
"The Stan Mikita was extremely tough to find in PSA 8," said Tiede. "With Mikita, there are only three examples grading higher than [PSA] 8; I've got a [PSA] 8.5 and a [PSA] 8 and it took me the longest time to get an 8."
Tiede says the Mikita is often hampered by poor centering. One of the two PSA 9 Mikita cards sold for $326.01 on eBay in May 2009.
The only Hall of Famer rookie in this set is Bernie Parent (#89). If the Topps sheet is the same as the first-series O-Pee-Chee sheet, the Parent is the second card from the left in the top row, an edge-sheet position which generally makes cards susceptible to condition woes. There are 14 PSA 9s, one PSA 8.5 and 45 PSA 8s of the Parent single. One PSA 9 fetched $500 on eBay in December 2012.
Among the other rookies in this set are Bill White (#37), Danny Grant (#52), Andre Boudrias (#53), Ray Cullen (#54), Leon Rochefort (#95), Les Binkley (#100) and Bob Plager (#112).
Centering woes are the most common condition issue with cards from this offering.
"The 1968 Topps set is really plagued by centering problems," said Henninger. "It's the worst Topps Hockey set of all the sets from 1954 to 1969 [in regards to centering]. The cards have small white borders and just being off a little bit throws the card into the off-center category."
The light red borders on the reverse are also easily chipped.
"If there is a bit of a chip, it really stands out," noted Tiede.
But these condition woes haven't deterred a devoted group of Set Registry enthusiasts. And even if it's overshadowed by its larger O-Pee-Chee counterpart, this set is desirable because it represents the beginning of a Topps Hockey tradition, boasts a strong player selection and remains relatively affordable.
"It's not too expensive to put together a really nice set," said Henninger.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Bobby Burrell (http://vintagehockeycollector.com/) and Joe Henninger for sharing their resources for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of March 2014.
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