Prior to the release of their inaugural hockey set, Upper Deck issued prototype cards of Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy. The two cards were given out at the National Sports Card Convention in Arlington, Texas in July 1990 – roughly four months before Upper Deck Hockey would hit the shelves. The prototypes helped generate excitement and anticipation for what would be one of the most memorable hockey releases ever. However, these cards are not without their own share of controversy.
There are numerous differences between the prototypes and the actual cards that were found in packs: minor changes to the typefaces used, logo sizes, and most notably, the photographs. Both prototype cards would use different photographs on the front and back than what appeared on their “real” cards a few months later.
The prototype Gretzky card features a tight close-up of the Great One, captain’s “C” emblazoned on his jersey, long locks flowing from the back of his JOFA-brand helmet. The classic, Kings-era Gretzky.
The picture on the back shows Gretzky and a teammate battling with two Buffalo Sabres. Perhaps that photo was just too awesome to be on a trading card.
Patrick Roy’s promo card was also more interesting than its counterpart. While the real card shows Roy in action, the prototype uses a close-up of the netminder poised for action. You can see the concentration in Roy’s gaze.
The card back shows an overhead shot of Roy making a glove save, giving the card a nice variety in the photos used.
A humorous error on both prototypes is that Gretzky and Roy are each listed as being only 6 inches tall – written 6″0′ instead of 6’0″. It’s a small mistake that makes a world of difference.
Both prototype cards are must-haves for the die-hard hockey card collector, but note that the cards were allegedly reprinted by Upper Deck. When the two promos were given out at The National in 1990, they were encased together in a screw-down holder. According to the Beckett Hockey Online Price Guide:
The cards were first handed out as samples at the 1990 National Sports Collectors Convention in Arlington. The Arlington National promos were issued as a set in a special screw-down holder commemorating the National; these sets are much more limited and are rarely offered for sale.
Go on eBay, and you seldom see these two cards packaged together in the screw-down holder with the etched gold lettering. Frequently, you can find both cards for sale – either by themselves or as a set – but almost never in the holder. It is highly unlikely that so many copies of the cards existed without the special holder unless Upper Deck reprinted the cards.
Further evidence of reprinting is found in the book Card Sharks. According to statements made by former Upper Deck employees, the company would reprint error and prototype cards and sell them to upper-level employees for the purpose of reselling the cards into the secondary market. Bill Hemick, a former minority owner of Upper Deck, sued the company, alleging that company executives…
“…have taken possession of additional trading cards for their own benefit…along with reprinted prototype hockey cards featuring Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy.” (Card Sharks, page 174)
Later in the book, the alleged reprinting of these prototypes is mentioned again:
“The cards were warmly received by investment-minded collectors, who gobbled them up amid the ever-present rumor of a limited production run. The two cards of Los Angeles Kings superstar Wayne Gretzky and Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy, still sell for $40 and $25 respectively, even though, according to [former plant manager Buzz]Rasmussen and [assistant plant manager Bob] Ruggeri, the cards were reprinted months after their first distribution at The National”. (Card Sharks, page 179)
According to the book, some baseball cards were reprinted and redistributed by the tens of thousands. And let us not forget Upper Deck reprinting (counterfeiting) their own Yu-Gi-Oh! cards a few years ago. No quantities are mentioned as for how many times these two hockey prototypes were reprinted. Regardless, they are still cool to have, but just not all that rare.
Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned a Child’s Hobby into a High-Stakes, Billion-Dollar Business
Macmillan General Reference
Beckett Online Price Guide
Entry on 1990-91 Upper Deck Hockey Promos
Upper Deck Settles Yu-Gi-Oh! Lawsuit