Things are good, but they can always be better. That’s probably what someone at the O-Pee-Chee card company thought in 1990, when they were looking to improve the quality of their hockey cards. Sometime that year, OPC experimented with a new type of paper stock that was brighter and whiter than the tan-colored stock they normally used. The paper stock was purchased from Tembec, a company that specializes in paper, pulp and lumber products. This resulted in a change of paper supplier for O-Pee-Chee — as well as some of the rarest hockey cards from 1990.
Roughly 100 copies of 132 cards from the 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee Hockey set were printed on the Tembec stock. These were intended for in-house review purposed only — so as to test the new paper stock — and not intended for sale or to be collected. But like any rare collectible, the Tembec Test cards found their way out into the secondary market.
The experiment with the new paper proved to be successful, as the O-Pee-Chee company decided to use it for both of their 1990-91 card sets. According to the book Got ‘Em, Got ‘Em, Need ‘Em: A Fan’s Guide to Collecting the Top 100 Sports Cards of All Time by Stephen Laroche and John Waldman:
“It is especially interesting that [1990-91 O-Pee-Chee] Premier was printed on the brilliant white Tembec stock that O-Pee-Chee had tested the previous year for a short one-sheet run of their regular set…The paper was used for the regular 1990-91 set and proved versatile enough for the Premier cards.”
The front of the Tembec Test cards look identical to the actual 1989-90 O-Pee-Chee Hockey cards. But the backs are much lighter, making the text easier to read.
The Beckett Online Price Guide states that while the exact number Tembec Test cards printed is not known, “the general consensus among collectors who chase these cards is that there are around 100 or less copies of each card. Based on how rarely these pop up for sale, that seems to be about right.” (Note that I retrieved this information from the Beckett Online Price Guide in 2009; however, information about the Tembec cards is no longer on their website.)
In my own experience as a collector, that number also seems to be about right. You can find these card on eBay every now and then, but I’ve never seen them at shows or at card shops in the U.S. Then again, you are probably more likely to find them at shops or shows in Canada, considering that these were printed in Canada and are hockey cards.
That said, a card from 1990 that is printed in a quantity of less than 100 makes for an enticing collectible. Several superstars are in this set, such as Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Steve Yzerman, Doug Gilmour, Chris Chelios and Mark Messier. Also printed are the rookie cards of Joe Sakic and Brian Leetch.
There are 132 skip-numbered cards in the Tembec Test set, counting from 1 to 198, but skipping numbers in between. However, one huge piece of misinformation circulating about is the checklist for this set. According to information put out in the past by both Beckett Hockey and by A Charlton Standard Catalog of Hockey Cards (15th Edition), Tembec cards were supposedly printed of Brian Benning (#86), Trevor Linden (#89) and Guy Lafleur (#189). However, in my experience, this is not true; Tembec cards of Benning, Linden and Lafleur have not been confirmed to exist.
On the other hand, Tembec Test cards of Dave Volek (#85), Neal Broten (#87) and Checklist 111-220 (#198) — while not noted in any price guides — do exist. I have multiple copies of each of these cards. O-Pee-Chee used to print their cards on sheets that held 132 cards. It seems highly unlikely that they would have printed up 135 sample cards — the 132 I have plus Benning, Linden and Lafleur — for in-house review purposes. Several other highly-knowledgeable collectors agree with this theory.
Owning a Tembec card of a player you collect or a team that you like would make an interesting collectible. What is most interesting, though, is the small part of history these played in the improvement of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards in the 1990s.