Change is a part of all sports and especially hockey, where new rules and a new generation of stars have made the game look drastically from eras past. But that doesn’t mean we’ll stop looking back with fondness at the league’s simpler, (maybe even better) days. For a number of fans, there was nothing like the Original Six. For others, though — especially kids of the ’80s like myself — nothing beats the old 21-team NHL, an era that stretched from the 1979–80 season through 1990–91.
For kids of the 21-team era, there were usually only one or two games on the tube per week, and 24-hour sports networks were just coming into style. So, the best way to get to know your favourite players was through a pack of hockey cards.
In honour of that, I present my top 21 cards from the 21-team era. In order to be fair and not leave anyone out, all 21 organizations get a card (kind of). How nice.
Atlanta/Calgary Flames, John Tonelli, 1986–87 O-Pee-Chee #132
OK, I know you’re wondering why I chose a card of John Tonelli on the Calgary Flames. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, right? Well, that’s exactly why I chose it. To me, John Tonelli was as big a part of the four straight Cups the New York Islanders won to start the ’80s as anyone. It made absolutely no sense to see him in a Calgary Flames uniform.
But Tonelli was much more than an Islander. To me, he was the X factor for Team Canada in the 1984 Canada Cup. He was the ultimate grinder, the guy who did the dirty work. If Canada needed a spark, they turned to Tonelli. Case in the point, the semi-final series winner against the USSR. This goal is the perfect embodiment of 1984: An Islander to an Oiler to an Islander. Tonelli went in deep and got the puck to Paul Coffey at the blue line, who fired a shot tipped in by Mike Bossy.
The goal taught me to never give up (and I hope you noticed the best two-on-one play ever by Coffey at the 1:13 mark). Sadly, I guess the Islanders did throw in the towel on Tonelli when they shipped him to Calgary — at least that’s how it appeared to my young eyes.
Boston Bruins, Rick Middelton, 1984–85 #352
Magic. That’s what Rick Middleton was. He was Magic. Middleton’s goals were burned into my brain as a child. Don Cherry loved the guy, so I loved the guy. Sure, he was a Boston Bruin (I was a Habs fan) but I knew skill when I saw it. Enough of me talking about Middleton, check out a few of his beauties here; proof that Rick Middleton can work magic.
Buffalo Sabres, Craig Ramsay, 1980–81 O-Pee-Chee #13
I’ll admit it: It’s the bucket. Craig Ramsay may be one of the most underrated players of all time. He was a fantastic defensive forward who played 80 games in five straight seasons and never missed an assignment. But for me, this card is all about the helmet. It’s a lid that more than a few of my minor-hockey teammates used to wear. My Atom C captain, Willie, wore one. It seemed like this beauty disappeared from history, until Bubbles brought it back.
Chicago Blackhawks, Tony Esposito, 1983–84 O-Pee-Chee #99
I just love this old Tony Esposito card. It was so different than all the other goalie cards. For one, he’s down on the ice. No one went down in the early ’80s — except for Tony, of course. He was one of the early innovators of the butterfly. And speaking of innovation, look at that handiwork on the mask. You can bet Tony did it himself.
Colorado Rockies/New Jersey Devils, Lanny McDonald, 1981–82 O-Pee-Chee #77
Lanny. It has to be Lanny. Just look at the blade: No tape, huge curve — an absolute weapon. And sorry Devils fans but I have to go with a Rockies card. What a classic uniform. Yeah, I know it says, “Now with Flames” but I’m giving myself a pass.
Detroit Red Wings, Reed Larson, 1982–83 #88
My friend Chad and I always had a soft spot for Reed Larson. I suppose that makes sense because Reed’s first name was our last name. As I got a little older, though, I realized that Reed was a pretty solid defenceman with a pretty solid shot. Based on the condition of this Larson, it looks like it was hauled out of the Daoust skate box I used to stuff my cards in on more than one occasion.
Edmonton Oilers, Wayne Gretzky, 1979–80 O-Pee-Chee #18
Sorry, but it has to be the Gretzky rookie. I could go on and on but I don’t have to: Gretzky. Rookie card. That is all.
Oh, and yes, mine has a marker stain on it. Maybe I will tell you about it sometime. (I likely will, my book Hockey Card Stories II comes out in the fall of 2018. Cheap plug.) All I can say for now is thanks Mom. Not for the marker stain, but for finding this card for me three decades ago.
Hartford Whalers, Blaine Stoughton, 1982–83 O-Pee-Chee #130
True story: One of my old coaches, Wayne Woodacre, tried out for the Hartford Whalers one year. He played the previous season, get this, in the Pictou Town Hockey League. You read that right. He was a former junior-B star who lit up the local league in Pictou. My dad and a few friends knew a guy who knew a guy, and all of a sudden Wayne was trying out for Blaine Stoughton’s Whalers. Stoughton was a sniper, so was Wayne. From all accounts, Wayne put on a good show but never made the big club. I always had a soft spot for the Whalers after that. Plus, are these not some of the best uniforms of all time?
Los Angeles Kings, Wayne Gretzky, 1988–89 O-Pee-Chee Mini #11
Yes, Gretzky is on my list twice. He just set another record. This mini hit the scene the fall after the trade — proof that it actually happened. There’s Wayne, all smiles in his new Kings jersey. I’ll never forget watching The Price is Right when local Detroit CBS anchor Eli Zaret broke into Bob Barker’s show and broke the news – Gretzky to L.A. For me, hockey — not to mention Barker and his beauties — would never be the same again.
Minnesota North Stars, Bobby Smith, 1983–84 O-Pee-Chee #181
This card is burned into my brain. It was a big deal for me to pick it up in 1983, likely out of a pack I bought at the old Hector Arena in Pictou. It was big deal because Smith was born in Nova Scotia, which I thought was pretty cool, and he had just been traded to my favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens.
But that’s not why the card stuck in my head. I remember thinking how cool it was that Smith had his hand on his heart during the national anthem. It wasn’t until about 30 years later that he told me he was not “listening to the f—ing song,” rather he was adjusting an annoying pair of shoulder pads that were always falling out of place. And yes, I know it’s officially a Canadiens card. But like Lanny on the Rockies, I get a pass here.
Montreal Canadiens, Steve Penney, 1985–86 O-Pee-Chee #4
Take a close look at the top of this card. It’s still there, the tack hole. When I was a kid, I pinned this card (and a lot of other Canadiens cards) onto my wall. Steve Penny was the closest thing I’d ever seen to Ken Dryden. Dryden arrived on the scene for the Habs in the spring of 1971 and led them to a Cup. Penny did his best Ken Dryden impression in the spring of 1984. He came out of nowhere (actually, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs) and led the Canadiens to within two games of the Stanley Cup Final. Penney only lasted another couple of seasons in Montreal before Patrick Roy did his best Dryden impression. Penney played his last NHL game in 1987–88 for the Winnipeg Jets. This card has been with me since 1984.
New York Islanders, Butch Goring, 1980–81 O-Pee-Chee #254
Butch Goring was perhaps the first ever Deadline Day trade that really made the difference in a post-season run. The Islanders, loaded with young talent, picked up the 31-year-old, and he put them over the top. He won four straight Cups with the Islanders. But, again, just like Craig Ramsay, this card is all about the lid. What a beautiful piece of technology.
New York Rangers, Steve Weeks, 1982–83 O-Pee-Chee #234
My old buddy Mark Harroun, that’s who I think of when I see this card. What do Mark and former New York Ranger Steve Weeks have in common? Not much, except for the jogging pants. As far as Mark and I could tell, Weeks was wearing jogging pants under his pads. I never did get an official answer from Weeks. I’ve been trying to track him down for the next Hockey Card Stories but I’ve had no luck. Anyway, back to Mark. When we saw this card, we went with the Weeks look every day playing road hockey up at Mark’s old place on Westwood Drive — jogging pants under the pads. Mark’s parents, Millard and Jean, were very patient with us constantly smashing tennis balls off their house.
Philadelphia Flyers, Tim Kerr, 1985–86 O-Pee-Chee #91
Tim Kerr – sniper. The man scored goals for a living. I’m pretty sure this was the first Kerr card I ever came across. He was a big deal to me, but not until the summer of 1987. That’s when I went to a hockey school in Bible Hill, NS. One of the instructors was Gordie Howe. He told us, “When you’re in front of the net, get the pass on your back foot like Tim Kerr.”
That was gospel to me. I’ve tried to take a pass like that ever since. And as soon as I got back home after my week of hockey school, I rummaged through all my cards to look for Kerr. This was the one I found.
Pittsburgh Penguins, Mario Lemieux, 1985–86 O-Pee-Chee #9
Yep, I was that guy. If you’re wondering why there’s no Mario Lemieux rookie card on this list, it’s because I traded it to my buddy Craig. We were serious card collectors and I, at some point in my young life, made a serious mistake. I traded Mario. Way to think it through.
Quebec Nordiques, Alain Cote, 1986–87 O-Pee-Chee #233
As a kid, I remember thinking the guys on the Pictou Jr. C Mariners were men. I was 11. Some of them had mustaches, so they looked like men to me. However, looking back on things, they were just kids — 17, 18, 19 and 20 years old.
Now, if I thought Mariners were men, I thought Alain Cote was an old man. This was a grey-haired dude in the National Hockey League. I remember wondering how an old guy could play in the best league in the world. Alain Cote was 29 years old when the picture on this card was taken. From my perch now, he looks pretty young. Time changes everything. It can make you a little greyer and, in some cases, a little wiser.
St. Louis Blues, Brian Sutter, 1984–85 O-Pee-Chee #192
As far as Craig — the guy I traded the Lemieux rookie to — and I were concerned, the Sutters were Canada’s first family. A far-off place called Viking, Alberta, had produced six brothers who all played in the NHL at the same time. We thought that was pretty incredible. Now, as a much older fellow, incredible doesn’t even do it justice. Brian was the first Sutter brother to play in the NHL, of course. He spent his entire career with the Blues. I hoarded as many Sutter cards as I could.
Toronto Maple Leafs, Jim Korn, 1982–83 O-Pee-Chee #323
I would like to apologize to Jim Korn. I drew a moustache on him when I was a kid. I have a few theories as to why: Perhaps I thought he should be like a lot of NHLers in 1982. Perhaps because my dad had a duster in 1982, I thought everyone should. And finally, I guess I just like to draw.
I admit I didn’t know much about Korn. While I was writing this story, my Sportsnet Central producer, Al Cole, told me a he was at The Gardens one night when the guy I drew a duster on got into a real dust up.
Vancouver Canucks, Harold Snepsts, 1983–84 O-Pee-Chee #360
No one represented the Vancouver Canucks more to me than Harold Snepsts. My friends and I had a strange obsession with Snepsts. I’m not sure why. We didn’t get a lot of Canucks games on the tube when we were kids. Maybe it was his name: Snepsts. It just sounded tough. He looked pretty cool in these old Vancouver colours as well.
Washington Capitals, Dale Hunter, 1987–88 O-Pee-Chee #245
Some things in life just don’t make sense. If I’d drawn up a list of those things in the summer of 1987, it would have included the Montreal Expos, a great club, being stuck in the National League East and Dale Hunter becoming a Washington Capital. Let me set the record straight: I hated the Quebec Nordiques. But I sure did respect Dale Hunter. He was one of the guys on the Nordiques who turned the Battle of Quebec into a real battle. I mean, the guy once fought his own brother.
The card kind of makes sense, though: You can still see Nordiques blue on his helmet. Hunter will always be a Nordique to me.
Winnipeg Jets, Paul MacLean, 1982–83 O-Pee-Chee #386
It’s not Paul MacLean, but it’s still Paul MacLean. Paul MacLean grew up 45 minutes from me. Everyone wanted his rookie card. I always thought it wasn’t Paul on the card. Turns out I was right. The guy on the card had feathered hair just like Paul MacLean. The guy had a duster just like Paul MacLean. But the guy was Larry Hopkins. It wasn’t Paul MacLean, who went on to score 324 NHL goals.
Behind the scenes on a historic day in NHL broadcasting
On the ice, it was just another game on the schedule — a Pacific Division tilt between the Flames and Golden Knights. Behind the scenes, it was anything but.