It was summer of 1989. I just finished 8th grade and got my first pair of hockey skates as a graduation present. Every Friday that summer, my mom took me to ice skating lessons. Afterward, she’d take me to a local card shop. One day, I spotted something awesome in the display case: a 1981-82 Topps Hockey card of Tony Esposito.
Even though I had only been a hockey fan for a half a year at that point, I was no stranger to Esposito’s career accomplishments: Calder Trophy winner in 1970, record for most shutouts in one season, member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and one of only four Blackhawks at the time to have his number retired.
And here, in this display case, sat a card of Tony-O, clad in red ‘Hawks sweater and his plain, workmanlike mask, glove hand outstretched as he goes to make one of the countless saves he made throughout his career. It was one of the coolest cards I had ever seen. But there was a catch: it was part of a stack of cards, wrapped in clear plastic and labeled “50 Topps Hockey Cards for $2.50.”
Well, I was too smart to fall for that game: obviously, the card on top is nice, while the other 49 are dogs. I didn’t want to spend a whole $2.50 for one card that I wanted and 49 I didn’t. Keep in mind that it was 1989, when 50 cents could get you a pack of new cards, and that I was only 14 and with no job. I decided to spend my money on five packs of newer cards that could help me finish off a set.
I regretted my decision as soon as I got home. The more I thought about that 1981-82 Topps Hockey card of Tony Esposito, the more I wish I had bought it. But my mom wouldn’t take me back to the shop; I would have to wait until next week after my ice skating lesson. (In all fairness to my mom, though, I probably spent all my money anyway.)
And so I thought about that card all week. I probably lost some sleep over it too, dreaming that some other kid would get that awesome Tony-O card and that I’d be left wishing for it.
Finally, the next Friday rolled around. After class, we stopped at the card shop. I remember hurrying through the store – the glass case with the hockey cards was all the way in the back – and being both excited and relieved that the stack of “50 Topps Cards for $2.50” was still available. I even remember removing the clear plastic wrap on the car ride home to look at the cards I just bought.
The cards under the Esposito were also from the 1981-82 Topps set – basically, the entire “National” set (1 to 66) minus Wayne Gretzky, Jarri Kurri and a few others. Guy Lafleur was in the stack; I recall my mother, who was a huge fan of The Flower back in the 1970s, correcting my botched attempt at pronouncing his name. Marcel Dionne was in there too, though that card had a crease along the bottom.
But all that didn’t matter. I had the card that I wanted – that my 14-year old mind fixated on all week.
Like any good collecting story, things came full circle. Last year — more than 20 years since I purchased this card — I worked out a trade with a collector named Shane, who has a blog called Shoebox Legends.
He offered to trade me a very unique item that he purchased from the Topps Vault: the match print photo used for the 1981-82 Topps Tony Esposito card. It is bigger than the card, measuring 3.5″ by 5″. It is also uncropped, meaning that we see Tony-O’s full glove hand, and there are no borders or text interfering with the picture.
Of course, I really wanted this picture, given my obsession with this card two decades ago. But this time, there was no week-long wait on pins and needles. After hearing my tale, Shane was more than willing to trade the Esposito photo to me, telling me that it belonged in my collection.
One point of interest about the photo: it’s been touched up.
On the surface, someone sprayed a little black paint between the top of Esposito’s stick and his left shoulder. This was to cover up the face of a spectator. Topps did that sort of thing a lot in the 1970s and 1980s. You don’t really notice it on the card so much because the painted area looks dark green.
And now you know more about this card than you thought possible.