PSA Set Registry
Collecting the 1979 Topps Hockey Card Set
Out with the Old, In with "The Great One"
by Kevin Glew
The 1979 Topps Hockey set marked the changing of the NHL guard.
"It has the final mainstream cards for guys like Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Ken Dryden, and it's the first year for Wayne Gretzky," noted Rich Katz, who owns the No. 2 Current Finest, 1979 Topps Hockey set on the PSA Set Registry. "This set is ushering in a whole new era. It just seems like this is a transition point. There's so much star power in this one set crossing over two different eras."
On top of saying goodbye to "Mr. Hockey" and introducing "The Great One," this set also boasts the final pasteboards of Atlanta Flames players prior to the team's move to Calgary and the first NHL cards of skaters from the four WHA teams - Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers - that joined the NHL to start the 1979-80 campaign.
More evidence that the times were changing can be found on the playoffs card (#83) that honors the Montreal Canadiens' fourth consecutive Stanley Cup triumph, the last in their 1970s dynasty. Meanwhile, this set also exhibits the rookie card of John Tonelli (#146) and second-year single of Mike Bossy (#230), two key New York Islanders who would help lead their club to four consecutive championships starting with the 1979-80 campaign.
Yes, this set not only marks the beginning of a new decade, but the dawn of a new NHL era.
The Gretzky rookie is, of course, the most desirable pasteboard in this 264-card issue, which, with the exception of four cards, has the same composition as the first 264 cards in its O-Pee-Chee counterpart. As you will see in the accompanying chart, O-Pee-Chee put a greater emphasis on the individual WHA teams in their offering.
While almost identical to the O-Pee-Chee cards from the same year, the 1979 Topps singles are distinguished by their darker backs and by the fact that they showcase solely English text. The fronts of the Topps cards fashion a vertical orientation and distinct blue borders. A large player photo is the centerpiece. Many of the photos are on-ice action shots that were snapped when teams were playing the Washington Capitals in the nation's capital. The player's name and position are indicated in the blue border at the top while the team name is emblazoned in a banner below it. The team logo is located on the bottom right.
"The cards are beautiful with their blue borders," said Bob Clark, who owns the No. 1 Current Finest, 1979 Topps Hockey set on the PSA Set Registry. "To me, it's the best designed hockey set. There are a few other hockey sets that I like as well, but this would be my favorite. Sometimes the blue borders are so sharp and crisp that it's incredible."
The horizontal backs have a dark gray base, but most of the information is presented inside a blue skate design. The card number and vitals (e.g., Height, Weight, Shoots, etc.) are situated on the top left of the skate, followed by the player's 1978-79 and lifetime statistics and brief biographical information. Copyright data ensues, with the player's name, position and team highlighted in the skate blade at the bottom.
One of the set's standout features is the cartoon found on the top right of the card backs, which illustrate facts about the players. These facts range from their collegiate accomplishments to their hobbies to their marital status. Some of the cartoons are downright comical. For example, the cartoon on the Wayne Babych card (#142) indicates that he "once wore two different colored shoes to a hockey banquet," while Rogatien Vachon's cartoon (#235) shares that he "bears a strong resemblance" to Sonny Bono.
There are four subsets within the 1979 Topps Hockey set. The 1978-79 League Leaders card (#1 to #8) start off the set. Seven of these cards showcase photos of at least two Hall of Famers and six of the cards highlight three Hall of Famers. With just two and three PSA MINT 9 examples each (and no PSA GEM-MT 10s), respectively, the Goal Leaders (#1) (featuring Mike Bossy, Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur) and Game Winning Goals Leaders (#7) (featuring Lafleur, Bossy and Bryan Trottier) cards are the toughest to uncover in top condition.
Clark notes that there was an error on the Shutout Leaders card (#8). The original version had the photos of Mike Palmateer and Mario Lessard switched. This was corrected shortly into the print run, and as a result, the error version is tougher to track down.
The other subsets in this series are the playoff cards (#81 to #83), Record Breakers (#161 to #165) and team photo cards (#244 to #260). Separate all-star cards were not created, but rather a first- or second-team all-star banner was extended across the bottom of the photo of the players' regular cards.
The 1979 Topps Hockey cards were distributed in 10-card/20-cent wax packs that also included a team helmet and stick decal and gum.
"Up to 10 years ago, you could still find wax packs, but now you can't find them," said Clark.
The Topps Hockey cards were released prior to their O-Pee-Chee counterparts. Consequently, O-Pee-Chee was able to print updates on their card fronts to reflect transactions that occurred in the late summer or early fall of 1979. The Andre St. Laurent single (#73) reveals that, as early as August 1979, Topps was too far along in their production process to revise their cards. In the Topps series, St. Laurent is still pictured with the Red Wings even though he was dealt to the Los Angeles Kings on August 22, 1979. His O-Pee-Chee card was updated to reflect this transaction.
As noted earlier, the Gretzky rookie (#18) is the most important card in this set. If you study the back closely, you'll notice that The Great One's 1978-79 and lifetime statistics contain an error. The card indicates that Gretzky played 60 games when he actually played 80. Due to its fragile blue borders, the Gretzky rookie is hard to find in pristine condition.
"It's also a tough card to find well centered," noted Clark.
There are only two PSA 10s, and the PSA Population Report indicates that the Gretzky Topps rookie is only slightly easier to find in high grade than his O-Pee-Chee rookie (see accompanying chart).
"It's pretty incredible that there are only two PSA 10s after all these years," said Clark. "There's just nothing like it when you see that card or when you open a pack and get that card. It's really an eye-catching card. It's right up there with the Michael Jordan rookie."
One PSA 9 Topps Gretzky rookie fetched $6,954 on eBay in February 2016. Katz notes that the value of a PSA 9 Gretzky has gone up significantly over the past few years.
"They have more than tripled in value," said Katz.
Other than Gretzky, there are several other players who made their cardboard debuts in this issue and also had productive NHL careers, such as Tonelli (#146), Charlie Simmer (#191), Bobby Smith (#206), Ryan Walter (#236) and Ken Linseman (#241).
This set also boasts the second-year cards of Hall of Famers Bernie Federko (#215) and Mike Bossy (#230). Clark says the Bossy card is elusive in flawless form. Sheets of the 1979 Topps set were not uncovered during the research for this article, but 1979 O-Pee-Chee sheets were and it's likely that the two companies employed the same sheet layout. The Bossy card is the last card on the right in the 11th row of one of the O-Pee-Chee print sheets - an edge-sheet position that generally makes cards more vulnerable to flaws such as miscuts. Incidentally, the Bossy card is regularly hampered by poor left-to-right centering.
"There are only three PSA 9s [and no PSA 10s]," shared Clark. "That's a really hard card."
As noted earlier, this set contains the last Basic Set cards of Ken Dryden (#150), Stan Mikita (#155), Gordie Howe (#175) and Bobby Hull (#185). The Dryden, Howe and Hull cards are more coveted, but the Mikita has proven to be the most elusive in gem-mint condition. There has yet to be a PSA 10 and there are just seven PSA 9s.
The cards of Hall of Famers Larry Robinson (#50), Bobby Clarke (#125), Phil Esposito (#220) and Bill Smith (#242) are all but impossible to find in mint condition. A PSA 9 or PSA 10 example hasn't been uncovered of any of these cards. On the O-Pee-Chee print sheet, the Robinson, Clarke, Esposito and Smith cards are all on the far-left column in positions that tend to make cards more susceptible to condition woes.
There are also four common cards - Mike Murphy (#31), Guy Charron (#152), Lee Fogolin (#183) and the St. Louis Blues team (#257) - that have yet to have a PSA 9 or PSA 10. With just 15 submissions, the Charron card appears to be the most difficult to track down in high grade. If the Topps sheet was laid out the same way as the O-Pee-Chee sheet, the Charron card was on the top-left corner, which made it more likely to be damaged during the production process.
The other three tough commons appear to have been on the top or bottom rows of the print sheets: Murphy (bottom row, fifth from the right), Fogolin (top row, third from the right) and Blues team (bottom row, fifth from the left). Cards situated on the top and bottom rows of print sheets also tend to be flawed.
But the fragile blue borders make almost all of the 1979 Topps Hockey cards difficult to track down in gem-mint grade. Clark adds that poor centering can also be an issue and that the stock is not of high quality.
"The O-Pee-Chee cardboard is much stronger than the Topps cardboard," shared Clark. "The Topps cardboard is very fragile and it gets damaged much easier than that of the O-Pee-Chee cards."
Aside from the aforementioned errors on the Gretzky rookie (#18) and the Shutout Leaders card (#8), there are a few other uncorrected miscues in this issue. For example, the text for the cartoon on the Bob Sauve card (#49) indicates that he "is a skillful goalie at cutting off the angels" rather than "angles," and the biographical information on Serge Savard's single (#101) notes that he had "20 Points and 40 Assists in 1974-75," when it should read "20 goals and 40 assists." Also, the photo on the Randy Pierce single (#137) is actually Ron Delorme.
But to collectors, these idiosyncrasies only enhance the mystique and appeal of the 1979 Topps Hockey set, which clearly marks a changing of the NHL guard.
"There are just so many Hall of Famers in this set, and it's an awesome looking set. I think it's a great set for someone to collect," said Clark. "Of the modern era, it is the Topps Hockey set."
Katz offers a similar assessment.
"I think this set is as important as any modern [Topps] hockey set," he said. "All the way around, it's just a very desirable set. It has the Gretzky card and it's the end of an era for great players like Howe and Hull. To me, it seems to be the most prominent modern [Topps Hockey] set; that's the bottom line."
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Summary of Key Cards
Rookie Cards: Wayne Gretzky (#18), John Tonelli (#146), Charlie Simmer (#191), Bobby Smith (#206), Ryan Walter (#236) and Ken Linseman (#241)
Key Star Cards: Larry Robinson (#50), Bobby Clarke (#125), Ken Dryden (#150), Stan Mikita (#155), Gordie Howe (#175), Bobby Hull (#185), Phil Esposito (#220), Mike Bossy (#230), Billy Smith (#242)
Toughest Common Cards in High Grade: Mike Murphy (#31), Guy Charron (#152), Lee Fogolin (#183), St. Louis Blues team card (#257)
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Fun Facts about the 1979 Topps Hockey Set
• This is the only NHL set that features cards of the three Howes - Gordie (#175) and sons Marty (#46) and Mark (#216) - during their active playing years.
• Dave Dryden, the brother of Ken Dryden, was an Edmonton Oilers goalie that's featured card #71 in this set. The cartoon on the back of Dave Dryden's card says he is "one of hockey's leaders in signing autographs." Autograph seekers will tell you that this would make him the opposite of his more famous brother who has become a very tough autograph to obtain.
• According to the cartoons on the backs of their cards, two "Garys" in this set - Gary Sargent (#52) and Gary Smith (#103) - had an opportunity to play baseball in the Minnesota Twins organization. Research confirmed that Sargent was offered a contract by the Twins, but it couldn't be confirmed that Smith was. Given that they have the same first name and initials, it makes one wonder if this information was mistakenly reprinted on Smith's card?
• Speaking of Smith, the back of forward Derek Smith's card (#89) served as a great personal ad for him. The text accompanying the cartoon touts him as "one of the Sabres' most eligible bachelors."
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For more information on the 1979 Topps hockey card set, please visit http://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/hockey-cards/1979-topps/864.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. Thanks to Rich Katz for providing cards for this article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of July 2016.
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