I t’s in there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it or held it in, what, 42 years,” Steve Babineau says. Vaguely. Matter-of-factly.
If you didn’t know what “it” was nor what Babineau does for a living, you’d assume the 68-year-old Bostonian is talking about a memento of no great consequence — it might be the embroidered pillow his grandmother gifted him or maybe his father’s bowling trophy. But “it” in this case isn’t any common detritus stuffed in a cranny in the attic or thrown into a shoebox in the bottom of a closet. No, Babineau is talking about buried treasure — no overstatement there, for there’s no price you could attach to the item he’s missing. It’s a piece of art, albeit no bigger than a Post-it Note, and unsigned.
The elusive “it” is a 35mm colour slide, a photograph taken at a hockey game. It’s not an action shot per se — not a famous goal nor a big hit — it’s a portrait of a single player, taken during warm-ups for a long-forgotten game in Springfield, Mass., of all places, though there’d be no way to know that even if you could find the picture and hold it up to the light.
What you could make out instantly, however, is that it’s a photograph of a very young Wayne Gretzky in an Edmonton Oilers sweater. And if you know hockey collectables at all, you’d put together that Babineau’s missing “it” is the original slide of the image on the Gretzky rookie card produced in 1979 by O-Pee-Chee, the London, Ont.-based maker of candy and collectibles. And if you put that together, then you also likely know that a pristine specimen of that card (graded Gem Mint 10) was sold to an unknown buyer in May 2021 for $3.75 million U.S. — a record for a hockey card and more than double the previous high of $1.29 million, set in December 2020 by… a 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card.
Now, something like that priceless original slide you’d imagine would be stored in a safety deposit box inside a climate-controlled vault. But according to Babineau, who back in 1979 was early in his decades-long stint as the Boston Bruins’ team photographer, the approximate location of the original slide is “somewhere” in his warehouse archive in Florida — no specific address given here, for fear of attracting unwanted attention from sports-art thieves.
While its location is a mystery, the image’s history is on several counts a curiosity and even a comedy.
One: Though this card belonged to the 1979-80 NHL set produced by O-Pee-Chee, Babineau took the original shot at a game between the New England Whalers and the Oilers in the final season of the World Hockey Association. If you look closely at the image and compare it to a shot of Gretzky in his rookie season in the NHL, you can notice a slight difference in the uniform. “The Oilers’ uniform colours and logo were the same in both leagues but the crests on the sweaters were bigger in the WHA,” Babineau says. “You’d have to know what you’re looking for to tell the difference. The roundness of [the crests]—side-by-side you can tell. I guess [O-Pee-Chee] let it go because it’s so hard to pick up — Wayne had his arms in front of his chest a bit and he’s looking up at the scoreboard. You’re not looking that closely at the crest.”
Two: Babineau made the trip to Springfield not to shoot No. 99 but rather Gretzky’s idol, Gordie Howe, who was playing for the Whalers. “This could have been Howe’s last season — it wasn’t, he played one more — but I didn’t know that,” Babineau says. “I didn’t know that Wayne Gretzky was going to become, you know, Wayne Gretzky and set all those records — nobody did. I shot 20, maybe 22 frames of Gretzky that night — there was at least one with Howe [in the frame] taking a faceoff with Gretzky.”
Three: Photographers will usually be able to recall the specs of a shot — in this case, Babineau used a Topcon Super DM manual focus 35mm camera with a 80-200mm zoom lens. More than that, though, Babineau remembers the exact circumstances of the shot, in part because the run-up was out of the ordinary. “I was down at the penalty box [in the warm-up], so I’ve got no glass between me and Wayne, who is maybe 10 feet away from me, no more than that,” he says. “I just said to him, ‘Can I get a couple of shots of you with my flash?’ The lighting in Springfield [Civic Center] was real dark. I took a couple of shots with my flash. That sticks out — asking him. When Topps [which owned O-Pee-Chee at the time] sent out its list of shot requests [for the 1979-80 NHL set] they had Gretzky in the first pressing and when I saw the name there, I remembered the shots from the penalty box in Springfield right away. They bought 12 shots of mine and they were all WHA guys.”
Four: Topps bought the Gretzky photo from Babineau for the standard fee the company paid out to their lensmen: $17. (If you adjust for inflation since 1979, it works out to $65.) That was roughly what you’d pay for a charcoal portrait at a street fair. As measly as that sounds for such a piece of hockey history, it looks laughable when you factor in the costs. “Film was five bucks a roll and it was that much to get a roll developed,” Babineau says. “I’d shoot a bunch of rolls and there was no guarantee that they’d use a shot from any of them.”
Five: Babineau’s recollection fogs somewhat when it comes to the company returning the Gretzky slide and the others used in the 1979-80 set. “It could have been the fall of ’79 or maybe that winter — the middle of the winter at the latest — but I was particular about getting my originals back, because you don’t want them showing up somewhere else,” he says.
Six: Only by a quirk of timing did Babineau remain in (theoretical) possession of the original slide. “The NHL acquired my archive of NHL [photographs] in 2007,” he says. “Because that shot was from a WHA game it wasn’t included [in the league’s acquisition].”
Seven: When Babineau started to round up shots in his archive for a coffee-table book featuring his WHA work, he conducted a search of his archive. “I couldn’t find the Gretzky rookie card shot or the other transparencies [from the WHA games] O-Pee-Chee bought back in ’79,” he says. “You gotta keep in mind that I shot the Bruins, the Red Sox and the Celtics all those years. Millions of shots. It’s in an envelope just buried in the bottom of a box in storage. I just haven’t found it yet.
“It would make a great ending to the book.”