Card of the Week: King for a Day

1979-80 Topps / O-Pee-Chee Dale McCourt – Card #63

Dale McCourtOne day while thumbing through my extra hockey cards, I came across this odd card – 1979-1980 Topps #63, Dale McCourt. This card featured McCourt in his L.A. Kings Jersey.

However, Dale McCourt was never a member of the L.A. Kings. And yet, this card clearly shows him as one. The back of the card even says “AQUIRED: Awarded from Red Wings”. But later cards never mentioned him playing for the Kings. Intrigued, I did some research, only to find that McCourt’s place of employment was, in the end, determined in a year-long legal battle.

Back in 1977, Dale McCourt was selected by the Detroit Red Wings, who had the 1st overall selection. McCourt had played really well in junior hockey, and also for the Canadian Junior Team, so expectations of him were high. During his rookie season – 1977-1978 — he led the Detroit in scoring. The Red Wings even made it to the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Things were looking good for both McCourt and his team.

In an attempt to bolster their team for the next season, the Red Wings signed veteran goaltender Rogatien Vachon as a free agent in August of 1978. But for those of you who don’t know, the free agency rules in pro hockey have pretty much sucked up until recently. A team could sign a player, but the team who “lost” that player was entitled to compensation. Sometimes compensation was a few draft picks, but many times it was a player.

The Los Angeles Kings didn’t just want a player from the Red Wings as compensation – they wanted McCourt. Mind you, while Vachon was a great goalie for the Kings during the 1970s, he was already 35. McCourt was 21. One was on the way up, while the other was on his way down. The case was decided by league-appointed arbitrator, who thought McCourt was indeed fair compensation for Vachon. And back in the day, that’s the way things were. You get traded, you go to your new team. You get awarded as compensation, too bad. NHL players really didn’t have a choice.

Dale McCourtAlthough perhaps McCourt did. Not wanting to go to the Kings – despite a lofty contract offer from them – McCourt got a temporary restraining order from the U.S. District Court. He and his lawyer went on to sue the NHL, the NHL Players’ Association, the Kings and the Red Wings, in an effort to never have to go play for the Kings. This legal brouhaha allowed McCourt to remain with Detroit during the 1978-1979 season. (Rogie Vachon, meanwhile, was still allowed to play for the Red Wings.)

At the end of that season, McCourt lost the case. He then escalated things, appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. Before that went down, however, the Kings came to their senses, realizing that McCourt really didn’t want to play for them. They traded McCourt’s rights back to the Red Wings, and accepted an alternate compensation package – one that included a 1st round pick that was used to draft future HOF defenseman Larry Murphy.

Back to this card – which is really the point of this article, isn’t it? Topps figured that McCourt was going to be a King – since the Kings won the court case, after all – so they went ahead and doctored up the photo to make McCourt look like a King. I have a hard time telling if the jersey is an airbrush job, or if they cut and pasted McCourt’s head on some unknowing King’s body. The helmet, of course, is airbrushed. The logo is definitely cut from another photo. I mean the airbrush guys at Topps did some amazing work in the 1980s…but they weren’t that good

But as you now know, McCourt was not a King. Ever. Except on this one piece of cardboard. Even his O-Pee-Chee card – which was released later than the Topps card – bears the Red Wings name and logo along with the message “Now with Red Wings”.

Dale McCourtI find the O-Pee-Chee card as funny as its American counterpart. The Topps card tries to pull the wool over our eyes, while its Canadian cousin tries to tell us “Now with Red Wings”, as if they are so up-to-date. What it should have said instead was “Never with Kings”. Or perhaps “Never left Detroit”. Or even “No, he’s not really with the Kings, but we did a mighty fine job doctoring this photo.”

In closing, what Dale McCourt did was courageous. His actions angered many NHL players, who thought he was undermining their collective-bargaining agreement between the NHL and the NHLPA. But he stood up for what he thought was right. Or maybe he really just didn’t want to play for the Kings. Either way, NHL free agency was atrocious. This incident would help to change the NHL free agency rules – but not for some time. 

Author: Sal Barry

Sal Barry is the editor and webmaster of Puck Junk. He is a freelance hockey writer, college professor and terrible hockey player. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk

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