Saturday, June 25, 2016

More, More, More

Topps began a mostly uninspiring run of cards across all lines starting around 1974 that would continue through the end of the decade.  There were some exceptions of course but the painstakingly designed graphics of the previous quarter century were giving way to a more homogenized look once they became an established public company.  This of course was a look also shared by their Canadian partner, O-Pee-Chee. More subsets and more efficient packaging (more cards, less wrapper, less gum) were what Topps was moving towards as rising prices from the oil embargo had changed the economics of the time. Looking back on it, it's clear the second golden age of Topps (roughly spanning 1961-73), which was part of a lineage going back to the heady post World War 2 years, essentially ended within a year or so of their first IPO in 1972. That's OK though, we'll muddle through.

Finishing off our look at the 70's NHL regular issues (stay tuned for the WHA and standalone sets) brings us to 1974-75 and the first season both Topps and O-Pee-Chee both came out with one big issue all at once. Card counts:

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

There's not much to say on either front. The cards were pretty generic and only Topps had an insert (a reverse from the year prior):

This OPC card of Billy Smith looks like it was taken in his den-check out the baseboard heater in the background! Still, the card stock and sharpness of printing were much better in Canada:

The insert was a very basic scratch off game with no graphic elements to speak of.  Topps also issued similar inserts with their Football and Basketball sets this year as well.  Not many people seem to be aware of these:

The first standalone WHA card set came out for 1974-75 and will be looked at in an all WHA post coming next.

The 1975-76 sets are even more bland than their immediate predecessors:

Topps: 330
OPC:   396

That Topps count means double prints abounded, 66 subjects in all; a scourge that was spreading to their other sports lines as there is nothing more double printed than DP's from the mid- 70's and later! Copyright dates have been added for Topps (but not O-Pee-Chee) and also the NHLPA:

O-Pee-Chee's claim to fame this season was poor cutting I guess, I could not square this one up for the life of me:

For the first time since they both began co-issuing cards, neither Topps nor OPC had an insert this year, although a standalone cloth sticker set (look for an upcoming post) was issued in the US and O-Pee-Chee had their WHA issue.

1976-77 saw a bit of brightening and a reduction by Topps:

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

A much better design than those of the prior two years makes this much more appealing visually. Topps had some crazy cuts as well, check out the back of the Daigle card, which is squared up:

O-Pee-Chee once again with the better stock, which made things easier to read for sure. Look, you can even see they added their own copyright date:

Topps also included a nice Glossy Photo insert this year, 22 in the set, while OPC for some reason did not.  Note the copyright date, which is pretty rare on Topps or OPC cards of the era:

1977-78 was virtually a repeat of the prior season, even the inserts made a return (across both lines):

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

Here is Topps with its muddy reverse:

And the super easy to read OPC:

The picture quality definitely went up a notch this season.

The Glossy Photo inserts looked quite similar to the prior year's but here are some subtle differences (and player changes). In addition, each company offered inserts with both rounded and square corners, which is somewhat bizarre.  Topps first:

Not sure if the rounding machine went bust or not.  There seems to be very little difference in pricing though as squares just go for a hair more:

And now OPC.  Except for the copyright, they look identical to the Topps offerings:

1978-79 brought card counts of (wait for it):

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

This might be the worst design of the "bland era".  Look at this Topps version:

Stop me if you've heard this before but the O-Pee-Chee's are a model of legibility yet again. This Reed Larson card also displays a classic OPC rough cut along its top border:

Inserts prevailed on both sides of the border.  Topps had a nice "combo" white back sticker, 16 in all, that mixed a larger team logo with three smaller stickers designed to be stuck on a kid's helmet or stick. It's really quite a nice little set:

O-Pee-Chee had a two-sided insert of dubious collector value, namely six different premium offers and ads designed to push a product called Super Bazooka:

I like the way it was assumed you could navigate the French only text on one side and the English only on the other! How you feel about the poster premium being an official Topps/OPC product is entirely up to you. The non O-Pee-Chee address makes it a third party item to my mind and the five other inserts all had different premiums on them.

1979-80 is, of course, the most famous hockey set of its time thanks to the inclusion of Wayne Gretzky's rookie card. Once again we rest at:

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

The full bleed blue border and inventive reverse design make for a compelling set.  I'll use the great one to look at both Topps and O-Pee-Chee.  After all, it's the hockey card of the decade (and last 35 years):

That's also a much better design than the previous season's effort.  O-Pee-Chee brings the clarity but know this, that dark stain on the front of the Gretzky card (between the L & E in "Oilers") is a printing flaw that exists on a lot of his rookies and is often a lot longer than the one seen here:

Topps repeated their sticker inserts, even adding five more, while OPC demurred. Helpfully dated (as were the one issued the year before), these also have a premium offer that was being pushed by them across their sports cards lines this year:

O-Pee-Chee though, did offer a pack configuration with a stick of Hockey Bubble Gum that may or may not fall into the insert category but with a wrapper bearing team logos on the interior. This bubble gum was also issued on its own over a roughly two or three year period to boot and will be looked at in the upcoming "standalone" post I have planned.

I have remarked before that 1980 is the last year of the decade of the 70's (do the math) so the 1980-81 season's offerings will conclude my look at over 30 consecutive years of hockey issues (including a two season hiccup!).  Once again, no variance in the set counts:

Topps: 264
OPC:   396

The Topps cards had a scratch off feature on the front:


The scratch off overlays were not limited to the regular issue cards either. Yeccch!

O-Pee-Chee did not conduct this ill-advised experiment:

An insert from Topps gave us sixteen 5" x 7" team posters but was five teams shy of the full 21 in the NHL at the time! Check out the commodity number (product number) along the right edge:

The Whalers, Jets, Nordiques and Oilers all missed the cut. Those four teams were absorbed into the NHL when the WHA mercy killing occurred in 1979, while the Calgary Flames were also omitted, having moved from Atlanta before the start of the season. Topps either didn't have good team photos to use given all the merging and moving or just plain didn't care enough to provide OPC with production materials. The latter option gets my vote.

More hockey to come...hope all y'all are liking this lengthy look.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

A Tale Of Two Companies

Beginning with the 1968-69 season, which brought the six brand new teams along with it, Topps and O-Pee-Chee began a degree or two of separation when it came to issuing their annual Hockey sets. Rather than just release the Topps cards with added French text, the Canadian sets, while still under license from Topps, would use different pictures and numbering going forward, add inserts and include an additional series of cards. The designs though, would remain unified. Topps claimed the fall, with a rollout timed to begin in earnest in October while O-Pee-Chee waited until New Year's, allowing updates to be made that reflected deals and signings over the previous summer and into the early part of each season.

The 1968-69 sets were still more alike than different though, although Topps issued one big series and O-Pee-Chee (OPC) went for two. Topps first:


These are hard to square up, the cutting is particularly abysmal this year. Note too the ad along the left hand side of the reverse. CBS was broadcasting a weekly regular season game now and I have to think the NHL required the little line of text advertising this fact.

O-Pee-Chee had similar cutting issues; what a mess!

And "Watch NHL Hockey On TV Network"...they just replaced "CBS" with "TV"!

The counts:

Topps: 132
OPC:   1st Series = 132, 2nd Series = 84 (216 total)

That "84" for OPC is the result of 48 subjects being double prints, a bizarre number for sure but O-Pee-Chee did  not always follow the "rule of 11" like Topps did and would muck around with small groupings on some sheets. Topps had no inserts while OPC added a set of 22 All Star "Push Out Stickers" to their 2nd series. You punched out the card's main part, which had a hockey puck motif and moistened the back to stick them somewhere.

A special and very colorful Gordie Howe 700th Goal insert that does not follow the theme is also included in the insert set.

Of note this year is the first true Topps Rak Pak for Hockey. Raks don't seem to have been a consideration in Canada; guess they really like their gomme.

The 1969-70 season brought more cards to Canada while leaving the US at merely maintenance level; price increases to 10 cents for wax packs also happened in both countries. Card counts :

Topps: 132
OPC:   1st Series = 132, 2nd Series = 99 (231 total)

The Topps and OPC 1st series shared a set of 26 black & white stamp inserts (on 22 two-stamp panels).  The cards of players who had stamps issued had a spot to affix the stamps on their corresponding regular issue card; there was no difference in the stamps between the US and Canada. Players not depicted on stamps just had a cartoon added to their card back, as did all of the 2nd series OPC cards.

Here's the Topps array; it's sometimes difficult to find a card designated for stamping without a stamp affixed. The addition of team logos to the fronts was a nice touch:

The O-Pee-Chee offering sported a distinctly lighter blue on the reverse:

As mentioned, the Stamps came in panels of two:

O-Pee-Chee then added a set of color "Mini Cards" and Albums in their 2nd series packs. These very much resembled the 1969 Football inserts Topps issued in the US that year and were actually "stickers" that required the backs to be moistened. 18 four "card" panels were issued, or 72 players with 6 per team represented. The Albums held six players each:

Two more NHL teams for 1970-71 meant O-Pee-Chee would again increase their set size, which they had done so annually since beginning their "own" Canadian issues:

Topps: 132
OPC:   1st Series = 132, 2nd Series = 132 (264 total)

This is the first year the Canadian issue cards had O-Pee-Chee and not Topps indicia.

Here's the Topps in what was a pretty colorful year:

O-Pee-Chee would sometimes add a traded designation to their cards. In 1970 Brit Selby got the nod on the obverse here.  Also note the "ragged" OPC cut, a hallmark of many issues they produced.

1st series OPC and the Topps set shared an insert again, this time a set off 33 very large stamps in color that amazingly did not require user moistening but rather were actual stickers that almost look like a full size card if left unpeeled:

What's old was new again as the 2nd series of OPC had 48 black & white deckle edge inserts, mimicking a similar baseball insert from 1969. These are not quite as "crinkly" as the US baseball ones, which had a sort of notched look to the edges but instead are more ragged, like they were cut with a lumberjack's saw or something:

A bold and attractive design marked the 1971-72 releases.  

Set counts remained static though but there was a twist, namely an O-Pee-Chee Bazooka box back issue that used the same design, on a slightly smaller card that was blank backed. These Bazooka cards are scarce and in demand.

Topps: 132
OPC:   1st Series = 132, 2nd Series = 132 (264 total)
OPC Bazooka: 36 (12 panels of 3)

Topps first, once again:

Dig those team emblems, back after a one season absence.  O-Pee-Chee decided to rework the reverse and went all horizontal.  The backs are more legible to boot:

Fifteen Team Crest stickers, which  still required user activation after being pushed out came with the 1st series OPC cards. These are pretty nice, with graphics that look like they came directly from the NHL:

Series 2 of OPC and the Topps packs saw comic book style player Booklets, just like the US Baseball inserts of 1970. The O-Pee-Chee versions come in English or French while the US version, obviously in English, also sports the Topps commodity number (aka product code). Here are the three different types. US:

The English version of O-Pee-Chee:

Et le verion francais:

Let's not forget Bazooka! These are tough, tough tough.....

This season marked the beginning of standalone hockey issues that would be sporadically issued on both sides of the border; those will be looked at in a future post.

1972-73 would be a pivotal time for both the NHL and Topps.  Two more teams were added (including my Islanders) by the National Hockey League as they fought off the brash, new World Hockey Association; O-Pee-Chee added WHA cards as the new league clearly had a following, thanks in large part to Bobby Hull signing on, along with a number of big NHL names. This was the only time players from the two leagues would appear in the same major set.

Topps was also going through an IPO that would shortly change how they did business and began experimenting with a single series release that would ordinarily have spanned two series worth of cards. Whew! Here is how things looked at the time:

Topps: 176
OPC:   1st Series = 110, 2nd Series = 99, 3rd Series = 132 (341 total)

After the prior year's practically pop art design, the staid look in 1972-73 is a bit surprising. Look at these Topps cards:

Topps snuck in a few action poses as well; something new for them in hockey:

Once again O-Pee-Chee had the more legible cards but their"double defense" wording is pretty amusing:

They did better with the WHA cards, which comprised the back end of the O-Pee-Chee high number series; they have no statistics as 1972-73 was their inaugural season for the league:

O-Pee-Chee also made up two 2nd series checklists, nos. 19 and 190, something I can't recall them doing before, although it would happen again. They also couldn't pull it off in their own set as they managed to skip number their second series by keeping a 3rd series number for the"preview" checklist printed with the second series so that card # 208, which was to be the 3rd series checklist printed and sold with the 2nd series, does not exist. Instead there are two #334's, one where the last seven entries are shown as "More WHA Stars" (which was to have been #208) and the proper #334, which lists individual players for those last seven slots in the set. 

Here's a look at the different versions of #334:

You can see two of those "more" players were Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers so they managed to appear on various special cards (NHL All Star, League Leaders and the like) earlier in the set, so the final series was also an update series of sorts thanks to the WHA!

Topps had no such issues with a lone checklist card and no WHA players.  They didn't even have an insert set.  Meanwhile, OPC had three: 22 Push Out cards, bringing back the non-sticker stickers, 28 Team Canada cards (with a special design commemorating the eight game "Summit Series" they played against the USSR --won by Canada) and 30 Team Crests with the NHL and WHA both represented. What a year!

The Push Outs:

They use of the NHL logo's outline for the pictures was a nice touch!

The Team Canada cards were clearly designed to look special:

The Team Logos are just that (and also had to be pushed out and moistened; clearly OPC was not down with sticker stock--but would be soon enough once Wacky Packages surged the next year):

That Islanders crest (and the Flames) are short prints and don't come cheap! Conversely there are triple prints (and even a quadruple!). The WHA angle also adds spice to what has to be the most expensive set of insert logos ever issued. If you can tell the fifteen 1971 NHL logos apart from those issued in '72 you're a better man than I...

1973-74 was a bit more stable in comparison.  There were no WHA cards for O-Pee-Chee and at a guess I'd say the NHL told them not to mix leagues ever again. Topps had a big single series while OPC went back to two, resulting in their first ever reduction. The cards were quite colorful this year:

Topps: 198
OPC:   1st Series = 132, 2nd Series = 132 (264 total)

The Topps cards had four primary colors, which I'll get into below:

A look at the uncut sheets shows there was an order to the color scheme:

On each half sheet one run of colors is double printed while the other is single printed. Pretty cool sheets, huh? #1-99 are red or blue and #100-198 are yellow or green.

O-Pee-Chee only had Christmas colors of red (1st series) and green (2nd series):

The 2nd series OPC Checklist comes with two numbers and therefore two colors:

You can also see how OPC used different cardboard stock (which occurred in both series). I've always thought the first press runs used the better stock and then subsequent ones cheaped out but that may not be true.

Another run of NHL Team Crests, 16 in number, appeared in the 1st series of O-Pee-Chee. Thankfully they have instructions on the front, allowing them to be distinguished from the NHL logos of the previous two years:

Meanwhile their 2nd series intriguingly featured cardboard "rings" with a tally of 17:

These mimicked the shape and form of two Topps issues from the 60's: 1966's Funny Rings and Rat Patrol Insignia Rings. Not content to be idle, Topps issued their own Team Emblem Stickers but they also included a smaller pennant on each of the 22 (actual) sticker cards. Seventeen logo designs can be found but only 16 pennants as the latter did not include the NHL. Topps took this design from their Action Emblems baseball sets, also issued in 1973-74 and also used it for their basketball inserts this season. Unlike the baseball stickers, the NHL used real team logos (as did the NBA):

O-Pee-Chee issued a standalone WHA Poster set; those will be looked at in a later post addressing the separate WHA issues. Next time out, the rest of the 70's!