It’s hockey season. And for thousands, if not millions of collectors, that means it’s hockey-card season as well. Different people collect for different reasons. For me, it’s pretty simple: Hockey cards represent a childhood connection to the game that I love.
I grew up a hockey nut. And in the 1980s, that meant you were a hockey-card nut as well. The cards I grew up collecting, just like the times, were a lot simpler. There was usually only one game on TV a week, and there was only one card manufacturer: O-Pee-Chee. The games we saw on TV weren’t in high definition and the cards we collected didn’t always have the sharpest photography. We didn’t know every singe detail about a player’s life and the cards only gave us a brief glimpse into a player’s background.
But in those days, the cards were often the only place we could get information on a player. If you wanted to know what a player looked like — because guys weren’t on TV all the time — or his stats from the previous season, you picked up his hockey card.
I devoured everything about the game as a kid. And now, all these years later, my cards have come to life again. I’ve selected a few cards to offer a glimpse into my collecting life, with the players themselves offering their takes on the old pieces of cardboard featuring them. Airbrushes, errors, classic poses and one mean-looking Halifax Mooseheads GM are all below for you to enjoy.
Tod Hartje [Editor’s note: Check out the misspelling] remembers the story behind his card. “That picture was taken in Moncton. Upper Deck contracted the photographer. I don’t know if he was from Moncton, but he was from somewhere in the vicinity. He came over to the rink after practice. I had been sent down from Winnipeg and he came and took the picture.”
A few months later, a large package from Upper Deck arrived at Hartje’s house. It was a four-foot-tall version of his rookie card. As we all know by now, Upper Deck went with the low angle shot. “When you’re a younger kid like that, that kind of stuff is cool.”
The four-foot version is currently missing in action. But it would give you a larger look at something that, to me at least, really stands out in the background. And it is a sign of the times. These days, you’d be hard-pressed to find a cigarette ad anywhere, let alone in a hockey rink. But there it is, right off Hartje’s left hip, at the bottom of the scoreboard at the Moncton Coliseum, an ad for Export A cigarettes.
“Oh my God, that’s funny,” says the Harvard grad. “I played in Fort Wayne for a bit my first year. I’ll never forget, we had a couple of really good players there: Scott Gruhl, Bruce Boudreau, and a couple of other guys who were at the end of their careers. They literally had a smoking room off the dressing room. In between periods, they’d go in there and smoke. It was great.”
In the summer of 1992, Darren Rumble, now the head coach of the Moncton Wildcats, put on a smile for the cameras at an Upper Deck photo shoot. Rumble, who had three seasons of pro hockey under his belt, was picked up by the Senators in the June expansion draft.
“It was my first time putting on a Senators uniform. I had put on the Flyers jersey a few times; I had played a handful of games. It was a weird feeling because I still hadn’t technically made the team, but they were giving me the red-carpet treatment, and they brought me in for a big photo shoot. So it was a weird feeling, having rode the bus for three years.
“They had the lights set up and the cameras. We did it several times. They’d look at the picture and ask you to do it again and again and again. They’d say, ‘Try to make yourself look mean. Give me an angry look when you come in and put on the brakes.’ Now when I look at the card, I laugh at myself. That’s what I look like when I’m mean? No wonder I didn’t scare anybody.”
Winding up in a Senators uniform came as a bit of a shock for Rumble. He was on the Flyers’ protected list until the night before the expansion draft on June 18, 1992. The Sens and their expansion cousins, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were looking to fill their rosters. Rumble, a 23-year-old former first-round pick, didn’t think he was going anywhere. He had spent three years in the Flyers organization and was Hershey’s top-scoring defenceman in 1991–92.
“I was ready to join the Flyers — an established team — and get insulated as the young guy and be brought along slowly. So I often wonder where my career would have gone had that happened. The Flyers had gotten me a personal trainer that summer, so I was rocking as far as conditioning goes, and then, boom, I was in a new organization. I was not sure what that meant. Obviously it was going to be a change. I went from one mindset to another.”
Broken nose: check. Black eye: check. Moustache: check. Feathered hair: check. Menacing grin: check. Seventy-ﬁve-pound Koho hockey stick: check.
Where to begin? Cam Russell, the ﬂoor is yours. “It was during my ﬁrst year in the minors. I’d just taken a severe beating. I can’t even remember who it was from. That’s how bad a beating it must have been. I had my nose ﬁxed. I had it packed. I was sent down to the minors.” Now that sounds glamorous.
In Indianapolis, the day after his unfortunate mishap, Russell arrived at practice for Darryl Sutter’s Indianapolis Ice to discover that it was picture day. “‘This is really bad timing’ was my first thought,” says the now Memorial Cup–winning general manager of the Halifax Mooseheads.
Luckily for Cam, the Ice had a top-notch photographer working that day. He took one look at his mangled subject and made a quick suggestion: “‘Let’s turn this into a good picture.’ He told me to go with it and I thought, ‘Hey why not?’”
Rick Vaive laughs. “The ﬁrst time I saw it, I was shocked. It was kind of weird looking. I think they did a pretty decent job making it look like me, but it was just weird. I think I know why — it was in the middle of the trade from Vancouver to Toronto”
The trade Vaive is talking about happened on February 18, 1980. Vaive and Bill Derlago went to the Leafs; Tiger Williams and Jerry Butler went to the Canucks. A trade in the middle of February should have given the card makers plenty of time to get Vaive in a Toronto uniform, but it didn’t happen.
“They had to do something. I’ve seen some cards where they’ve just put a different sweater on the person, but mine was like a complete overhaul.”
The overhaul can be deﬁned by one thing: the hair. I get that the card makers had to airbrush a Leafs uniform onto Rick — in 1980, that was standard operating procedure. But can somebody explain why they decided to paint his hair? Maybe the artist got into the zone and just couldn’t stop at the uniform.
“You think they would have put a helmet on me or something. I don’t know. The ﬁrst time I saw it, I went, ‘What the hell is this?’”
This card made absolutely no sense to my 10-year-old self. To tell you the truth, it was unthinkable. How could Harold Snepsts — Mr. Vancouver Canuck — be in a Minnesota North Stars uniform?
I’ll be honest, growing up in Nova Scotia, I was not overly exposed to the Vancouver Canucks. In fact, I only knew a few things about them: They made an incredible run to the Cup Final in 1982, where New York Islander Billy Smith slashed and saved everything in sight, their goalie was a guy named King Richard, and they had a really slick forward in Thomas Gradin, and a defender with an awesome moustache named Harold Snepsts. In fact, for reasons I still don’t fully comprehend, Harold Snepsts was a kind of cult hero to me and my grade-school buddies, even though we rarely saw him play.
So what in the hell was Harold Snepsts doing in a crudely drawn Minnesota North Stars sweater with, as Snepsts points out to me over 30 years later, “Vancouver socks on.” It turns out, Harold was in Minnesota green and gold because he was no longer a Canuck. It’s right there in the fine print on the back of the card: “Acquired: Trade with Vancouver, 6-21-84.”
Snepsts says the Oilers hated the Flames and vice versa, but the Canucks didn’t have any real rivals back in the 1980s. That changed when Snepsts joined the North Stars in the Norris Division, or as he calls it, “the Black and Blue Division.”
In 1984–85, when Snepsts and his Minny teammates lined up against Detroit or Chicago, it was game on. “I enjoyed it. They were intense games, and the teams hated each other. The fans hated each other and the players got to the point where they hated each other.”
Moe Lemay on a Joel Otto rookie card? If you told Bemidji State freshman Otto that Lemay would end up on his rookie card he would have been okay with it. “I would have taken that — absolutely,” says, Otto, the assistant coach of the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. The simple fact of having his own NHL card would have blown his young mind. “I would have been quite flabbergasted.”
The error was not corrected. So if you were a kid not all that familiar with Joel Otto and the Flames, you were probably left wondering why the player on the front of the card was wearing a Vancouver Canucks uniform. You also probably wondered why the player shot left when he was listed as right-handed. Plus, this guy in the Canucks uniform didn’t look six-foot-four, 220 pounds.
Lemay and Otto were swapped — so the same questions were likely being asked when people came across a Lemay card with Joel Otto in his Flames uniform. “I was kind of excited just to have a card at that point. I wasn’t too worried about anything.”
“I sit here reading the paper in Calgary, and every now and then you’ll say, ‘That ain’t so and so in that picture.’ Somebody made a mistake. I don’t know who was proofing the cards.”
Guy Lafleur was confused. “The first time I saw it, I said, ‘What the hell’s that?’ I thought, The guys that are making the cards don’t know much about hockey, or they don’t follow the players. I was laughing, and I’m sure I said, ‘One day it’s going to become a collector’s item.’ But I don’t have one.”
As Guy and I chat at the National in Chicago, I try to come up with a reason why the card makers might list him as a defenceman. Maybe they saw him on the point on the power play one night on Hockey Night in Canada? Scotty Bowman would use him on the blue line with the man advantage. “I used to play a lot on the power play on the point. I loved it. We had such a great team at that time, and it was easy to play on the point.”
What a terrifying thought: Guy Lafleur with his ripper of a slapshot, on the power play, with all that time and all that space. He says he had all that time and space not only because the other team was shorthanded, but also because of who the Habs had playing forward when they were on the power play.
“[Jacques] Lemaire, [Steve] Shutt, [Yvan] Cournoyer. We had such a great offence that the two wingers on the other team didn’t really check us on the point, because they were more worried about the three guys up front. It was not a tight game. It was more wide open at the point.”
I’m smiling as I write this, just thinking of Guy Lafleur going unchecked with the man advantage. It must have been fun for No. 10. “Yeah, it was,” he says.
And now, three decades later, I’m talking about my Wayne Gretzky rookie card with Wayne Gretzky.
And I want to know: When this card came out in 1979, did it mean anything to him? I mean, after all, he was already a household name by the final year of the ’70s. He’d been in the spotlight since before he was a teenager.
“Oh, yeah,” says the NHL’s all-time scoring leader. “The first time you see your first hockey card, it’s a pretty nice feeling. I think that for anybody who becomes a professional athlete, to get a card, it’s always a good feeling. So, for me, yes, it was exciting when I saw my first hockey card.”