21 Cards, 21 Teams, and One NHL Golden Age

1988-89 O-Pee-Chee – Mario Lemieux

If Ken Reid is the godfather of sports card nerds, I want to be one of his followers… and, as it turns out, I guess I kind of am. (Read his hockey card books… just do it.) And there’s no better time to dig into at-home hobbies than in this brand new, uncharted era of isolation. If we’re all going down in flames, let’s at least have some fun along the way.

Now, Ken recently posted about the top 21 cards of the NHL’s 21-team era, and it’s amazing. I don’t disagree with any of his choices. They were well thought out, personal, and entertaining. But, I have my own ideas here, and I want to communicate them. I can’t help myself.

That said, I do have a few ground rules that I want to have in place. These rules are by no means scientific, of course, but they do apply to my specific experience of this particular NHL era. Here they are, whether they make sense or not:

1. The 21-team era stretched from 1982-83, when the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey to become the Devils, until 1990-91, the year before the San Jose Sharks became a thing. This, to me, is an indisputable truth. The Rockies are from a different era, a time when Don Cherry coached and wasn’t on the CBC, therefore 1979-80 until 1981-82 don’t count.

2. We must use at least one card from every season during this period (1982-83 to 1990-91). Beyond that, it’s kinda random. If you’re here for science, you’re in the wrong place.

3. We shall highlight a card from each of the 21 teams that played in the NHL during this time. This is the version of the NHL that made me love hockey… and I was a Leaf fan at the time, so there is literally zero explanation as to how that could have possibly happened. The League must have been doing something right.

With that all said… now we go:

1990-91 Upper Deck – Ray Bourque

I chose this card, first of all because Ray Bourque, but also because when I was a young hockey player, and not very good, I might add, jumping over the boards was some kind of insurmountable future goal. Once I got to my early 20’s however, and learned how to jump the boards, line changes made a lot more sense.

1988-89 Esso – Gilbert Perreault

Two things are important here. First of all, this is the set that got me into hockey cards. Thanks, vehicles of the time that were horrible on fuel that made my dad have to go to Esso constantly. Secondly, Perreault rocked the Cooper XL7 here. Not many NHLers dared to tread these waters, but a lot of kids a few years older than me sure did, and for a brief time, did I ever want one.

1989-90 O-Pee-Chee – Lanny McDonald

During the 1988-89 season, Lanny McDonald scored his 500th goal, and won the Stanley Cup, scoring a key goal in game six as the Flames beat the Montreal Canadiens on Forum ice. This card tied a neat little bow on a magnificent human’s NHL career. You couldn’t script the end of it. Even though the retirement date is wrong, I love this card. Also made it this far without even MENTIONING THE MOUSTACHE.

1988-89 O-Pee-Chee – Darren Pang

This card proves nothing else other than even your littlest buddy could end up making the NHL, so be nice to everyone. They didn’t even try to make him look small, it’s just a regular picture on a regular card.

1984-85 O-Pee-Chee – Steve Yzerman

This is, of course, one of the greatest rookie cards of all time. However, I also spent my entire childhood (and a significant portion of adulthood) battling one of my best friends, who, for some reason, was a Detroit fan in every sport. This made me dislike Steve Yzerman as a hockey player, which SHOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE.

1982-83 O-Pee-Chee – Dave Semenko

First of all, this picture of Semenko is amazing. He’s about ready to kill someone, right off the draw. Because of course he is. I also love this card because as a kid, I read Wayne Gretzky’s autobiography at least 5 times, cover to cover, and Semenko was such a big part of the “Meet the Inmates” chapter, which I still love to this day. Plus, I’m watching The Boys on the Bus while I type this, so I don’t need to say anything else.

1983-84 O-Pee-Chee – Ron Francis

When I was very young, I wanted Cooperalls. Because of course I did. My dad, to his eternal credit, would not allow this behaviour, and made me get regular pants, and regular socks, like a normal hockey player. To this day, I am forever grateful. My play and appearance set me back far enough in the game, I didn’t need my pants making it worse.

1990-91 Pro Set – Wayne Gretzky

One criminally underrated thing about Wayne Gretzky is his hair. The dude could rock some seriously sick flow. Early in his career with the Kings, he showed it off on this Pro Set card. Pro Set, while a complete mess from the beginning, was a lot of fun, and totally unpredictable. Kind of like the hockey card version of a drunk uncle at a wedding, which I basically am at weddings today.

1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier – Stephane Richer

I did not like the Montreal Canadiens as a child. I still don’t… and I will never apologize for that. But I kinda dug Stephane Richer. He had all the tools, and he kinda had that “fun to party with” vibe, like all the time. And can’t you just tell this picture is taken at the Forum? The blue and red boards in the background, the weird blueish hue of the lights… he represented the Empire of Evil in the most positive way.

1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier – Brendan Shanahan

Even though the road went through New Jersey, St. Louis, Hartford, Detroit, and even the stupid Rangers, the Shanaplan will save our souls. I still believe. There’s nothing else about the Devils to care about, go away.

1987-88 O-Pee-Chee – Mike Bossy

I was a little young to have seen Mike Bossy play, but his numbers were amazing, so I was always a little bit in awe. Plus, Wayne Gretzky said that they weren’t going to share a cab together, which I was intrigued by. I was exactly the right age, however, for “Smart Hockey with Mike Bossy” on VHS, where he tried to help kids learn how not to get/cause the injuries that ended his career. Plus, you get to hear him say “nobody wants to play a sissy game,” so it’s clearly worth the watch.

1989-90 O-Pee-Chee – Guy Lafleur

I’m using this card because this is one of my favourite sets – it’s underrated because it’s not worth a lot, but it’s a lot of fun. But I do remember when the Leafs and Rangers played one time that season… it was also a game that Wendel Clark was coming back from injury, and they played Steve Winwood’s “Back in the High Life Again.” After some searching, I’ve found that this game was March 1, 1989. If you can find me that intro, I will respect you forever.

1983-84 O-Pee-Chee – Darryl Sittler

As a Leaf fan in the 1980s, there was a lot of sadness and frustration. Sittler was the personification of that sadness and frustration, having been pushed out of Toronto by Idiot Harold Ballard. While he got to rock Cooperalls with tube skates, which looks amazing, seeing him play for the Flyers was just salt in the wound.

1989-90 O-Pee-Chee – Rob Brown

In 1988-89, Rob Brown played on a line with Mario Lemieux and scored 115 points. That’s pretty good, although I probably could have put up 60 on that line. He also put up some huge numbers in the IHL in the 1990s. But none of it matters when you’ve got flow like that, or when you’re literally Down Goes Brown.

1986-87 O-Pee-Chee – Peter Stastny

We could talk about his numbers, or his escape from Czechoslovakia, or that sick Jofa/visor combo, but this card is important to me now because exactly 20 years later, I managed a fantasy hockey team that drafted his son Paul Stastny (STATSny, amirite?) prior to his magnificent rookie season, and he was a key part of our eventual FDBFHL victory a couple years later. Our team name? Les Nordiques.

1989-90 O-Pee-Chee – Brett Hull

Brett Hull was so cool. Brett Hull was so cool, in fact, that I wanted to copy his haircut just like my friend (who was actually good at hockey) did. My mother, however, crushed those dreams by telling me that I had the wrong kind of hair to do that. I think “wrong kind of hair” was a nice way of saying that I “wasn’t much of an athlete” and I should “worry more about school than hockey.” She wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t easy to take at the time.

1990-91 Pro Set – Wendel Clark

A top five list about this Wendel Clark card.
1. Heart.
2. Determination.
3. Courage.
4. Moustache.
5. An A that inexplicably had a line on top of it for years.

1985-86 O-Pee-Chee – Cam Neely

In the era of Courtnall for Kordic that I grew up in, it was nice for me to know that other teams sometimes made mistakes, too. Especially teams that were beloved by my Western Canadian cousins who loved nothing more than watching my team fail. Barry Pedersen was a good player who went through some serious stuff, but trading Cam Neely at age 21? Come on, Canucks. Not a great look. (And yeah, great unis, we all know that. Incredible.)

1988-89 Esso – Rod Langway

From this card and the sweet album it came in, I learned that not only was Rod Langway born in Taiwan (the only NHLer to have done so), but he also wore these incredible KOHO gloves that obviously had arrived to him in Washington directly from THE FUTURE.

1984-85 O-Pee-Chee – Perry Turnbull

I feel like this card represents a lot about this era. I know there was bad airbrushing. There are all kinds of examples of that. But, THIS? We were just supposed to accept THIS shit as reality? I know we were a bit new back then, but this is horrific, I don’t even know where to start. So I won’t even.

HONOURABLE MENTION NUMBER ONE: 1991-92 Score – Neil Wilkinson

The San Jose Sharks were the NHL’s 22nd team, ending this magnificent era. They became the 22nd team in a ridiculous expansion draft/merge with the Minnesota North Stars. It was insane, and only the NHL could’ve pulled it off. BUT, Neil Wilkinson, in their inaugural season, brought Easton Air gloves into the universe for all of us. They’d been around for a bit already, but not in TEAL. Look at those things. Incredible. Want meter: 100.

HONOURABLE MENTION NUMBER TWO: 1990-91 Score – Eric Lindros

I’m not sure if you remember, but Lindros didn’t enter the NHL peacefully. There was a lot of drama. One year before he got drafted in 1991, however, he was just a Future Superstar, out there winning the Memorial Cup with the Oshawa Generals. In the year the NHL let other card companies besides Topps and O-Pee-Chee make cards, this was the Mecca. And I pulled it from a pack on the morning of my tenth birthday. Beat that.

So, that’s it. That’s the end of this. You’re welcome. A 26-team MLB edition will follow soon.

Mr. Reid, I thank you for your work, please keep it up.

Stay strong and safe out there, everyone.

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