Twenty-five years ago, the hockey card market grew exponentially when three new companies — Upper Deck, Pro Set and Score — joined Topps and O-Pee-Chee, bringing the number of hockey card manufacturers to five. Not only that, but Topps issued a second set of cards, branded as Bowman, while O-Pee-Chee released a set called O-Pee-Chee Premier, giving collectors a total of seven hockey sets that season.
The year 1990 was clearly the start of the “hockey card boom.” No longer were hockey cards just the stuff of specialty shops; now every grocery, drug and convenience store carried hockey cards. Likewise, practically everyone saw hockey cards for their investment potential, hoarding cards of hot rookies as well as established players. The increased revenue even led to the NHL Player Strike of 1992. But overproduction, along with the decline of the market in 1992, led to 1990-91 sets plummeting in value.
Looking back a quarter-century later, it is easy to dismiss the entire 1990-91 season as “junk wax.” Yes, the companies printed tons of cards and flooded the market. Even 25 years later, you can find unopened boxes of 1990-91 cards for around $5 and complete sets for $10 or less. It is kind of sad that newer collectors can buy the cards from my childhood for less than what they actually cost during my childhood.
Just because those sets are “worthless” doesn’t mean they aren’t worthwhile to have in your collection…assuming, of course, that you don’t already have them. And maybe you don’t. Perhaps you are a newer collector, or maybe you didn’t bother with hockey cards in 1990-91. Today, you can pick up a hearty dose of nostalgia, history and rookie cards for less than what a blaster box costs.
That said, here is my ranking of every 1990-91 hockey set. Those of you over 30 can feel free to disagree.
#1 – 1990-91 Upper Deck
Number of Cards: 550 cards (400 cards plus 150 “High Number Series” cards)
Random Inserts: 9 “Stereograms” (think magic-motion holograms)
Original Cost: 99 cents for a 12-card pack; the 150-card “High Number Series” were found in packs issued later that year, and as a boxed set that sold for around $15.
Notable Rookie Cards: Ed Belfour, Sergei Fedorov, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Bure, Scott Niedermayer. There’s even a card of Frank Zamboni, the inventor of the ice resurfacing machine.
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Jason Herter, Jason Soules, Jason Miller
Why It Is #1: Upper Deck was not the biggest set of hockey cards released in 1990-91, but it was hands-down the best due to cutting-edge technical innovations and excellent photo selection. Upper Deck’s technology for printing photographs was unparalleled at the time, and the back of each card had a small hologram, making the cards impossible to counterfeit. Most cards had a photo on the front and the back. Many times, the pictures on the backs of Upper Deck hockey cards were better than the photos used on the fronts of other brands of hockey cards. (My favorite card photograph from 1990-91 is also in this set.)
Fun Fact: The 1990-91 Upper Deck Hockey cards were also printed in French. For most of the season and a bit into the next, the French versions sold at upwards of 10 times their English counterparts on the secondary market.
Lasting Legacy: Upper Deck practically reinvented the trading card. Seeing that Upper Deck is the only game in town when it comes to hockey cards today, the 1990-91 Upper Deck Hockey set is an important cornerstone of any serious hockey card collection.
#2 – 1990-91 Pro Set
Random Insert: A Stanley Cup Hologram, limited to 5,000 copies, found less than one per case.
Original Cost: 50 cents for a 15-card pack
Notable Rookie Cards: Ed Belfour, Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Fedorov, Pat Burns
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Bruce Shoebottom, Frank Breault
Why It Is #2: Released in in the late summer of 1990, Pro Set was THE first hockey set of the boom. Cards lacked borders on the left and right sides, making the photos bigger than on other cards. Each team had its own unique color scheme for the top and bottom borders, giving Pro Set a very colorful look. It was the most comprehensive hockey set released that year, with over 200 rookie cards. It included cards from the 1990 All-Star Game — all 40 players in their all-star garb — as well as cards of retired greats, award winners, coaches and even referees.
Fun Fact: This set had over 100 errors, from spelling mistakes, to design inconsistencies, to photo mix-ups.
Lasting Legacy: Until the 2008-09 O-Pee-Chee set, totaling 800 cards, came out, the 1990-91 Pro Set Hockey set was the largest set of NHL trading cards ever released. Sure, they’re about a dime a dozen today and easily found on the secondary market. But 25 years later, there hasn’t been a hockey card set as ambitious as this one.
#3 – 1990-91 Score Hockey
Inserts: None in the packs, though boxed sets did have a special five-card Eric Lindros subset
Original Cost: 50 cents for a 15-card pack
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Rick Corriveau, Mario Thyer, Kory Kocur, Peter Lappin, Kim Issel, Wayne Doucet, Shayne Stevenson
Why It Is #3: Score featured a hockey-centric design, with red and blue lines along the borders to give it a “hockey rink feel.” Score also had a lot of cards of draft picks and prospects — some better than others — and was the only set savvy enough to include Devils first-rounder and future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Fun Fact: There were both American and Canadian versions of the 440-card set produced. The American version used a blue Score logo on the front, and a two-paragraph biography on the back in English. The Canadian version used a red Score logo on the front and a pared-down biography, since it had the text in both English and French. Save for 12 cards, the American and Canadian sets featured the same players. (Those 12 cards are mainly of journeymen players.) The Rookie & Traded Set was released in English only.
Lasting Legacy: Score’s look may have seemed a bit cluttered then, but now it feels like a classic hockey card design. See a 1990-91 Score card from 100 feet away, and you know it is a hockey card, just like if you saw a 1971-72 or 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee card. Panini even modified the 1990-91 design and used it on their 2010-11 Score set…which was probably the only reason why Gen Xers bought it.
#4 – 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee
Inserts: 22 Central Red Army cards, found one per pack. A four-card panel of “box bottom” cards was found on the bottom of each box, giving kids incentive to purchase an entire box at once. There were four different panels, for a total of 16 cards.
Original Cost: 45 cents for seven cards, one Red Army insert card and one stick of gum.
Notable Rookie Cards: Sergei Fedorov, Arturs Irbe (plus any RCs found in the 1990-91 Topps Hockey set).
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Wayne Van Dorp, Sergei Mylnikov
Why It Is #4: It’s all about the stats. While Upper Deck, Score and Pro Set only showed limited player statistics on the backs of their hockey cards, the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set shows the player’s complete NHL — and for some, even WHA — stats. Sure, Topps has full stats too, but O-Pee-Chee had more cards. Another unique feature of the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set is its inclusion of players from the Soviet Union who toured North America in the previous season’s “Super Series,” which pitted NHL teams against Soviet teams. As a result, O-Pee-Chee has the earliest cards of future NHL players Sergei Fedorov, Arturs Irbe, Sergei Nemchinov and Vladimir Konstantinov.
Fun Fact: A factory mishap resulted in many of the Soviet Red Army insert cards to have a pinhole and scratch on the front towards the bottom. Back in 1990-91, you could send back your damaged cards to O-Pee-Chee for perfect copies. No such luck if you open a vintage pack today.
Lasting Legacy: O-Pee-Chee was the best hockey card company of the 1970s and 1980s. A 1990-91 set is important to own if you plan on getting every set from OPC’s 26-year consecutive run (1968-69 to 1994-95).
#5 – 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier
Random Inserts: None.
Original Cost: 59 cents for a seven-card pack — but this shot up to $10 a pack on the secondary market by the middle of the 1990-91 season.
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Jergus Baca, Jarmo Myllys, Greg Parks
Why It Is #5: I’ll probably get a lot of angry comments, but frankly, I always found the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier Hockey set to be overrated. Sure, the cards looked nice, but the only reason why it was so popular back in the day was because it was perceived to be scarce, since it was initially sold in retail outlets that carried candy and gum. Once O-Pee-Chee got wise and printed a ton more, the market was saturated. The set does feature some notable rookie cards, as well as all the superstars like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull. But it also has a lot of cards of journeymen players who changed teams in the offseason.
Fun Fact: Back during the 1990-91 season, a complete set of O-Pee-Chee Premier sold for as high as $125 on the secondary market, while an unopened box sold for as much as $250. (And let me tell you, I enjoyed opening every pack of that box.)
Lasting Legacy: The 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee Premier set is seen as hockey’s first premium set of trading cards, and considered the most “rare” set of the season, but that really isn’t saying much. If you buy the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set, then Premier could be considered the update set, since it has cards of traded players in their new uniforms and rookies who don’t appear in the standard O-Pee-Chee set.
#6- 1990-91 Bowman
Inserts: 22 “Hat Tricks” glossy cards, found one per pack.
Original Cost: 50 cents for 14 cards, one glossy card and a stick of gum
Notable Rookie Cards: Ed Belfour, Mike Modano, Alexander Mogilny, Curtis Joseph, Mike Richter
Scrub Players Found Only In This Set: Chris Govedaris, Dave Thomlinson
Why It Is Second-to-Last: Bowman was a company that made baseball cards from 1948 to 1956, when Topps bought them out. Topps resurrected the Bowman brand name in 1989 to use on a set of baseball cards, and in 1990 made a set of Bowman-brand hockey cards — which really made no sense. The “Bowman” name had equity among baseball card collectors, much like the name “Parkhurst” or “Ice Kings” had with hockey card collectors. Dumb name aside — with no disrespect to Scotty or Stan Bowman, of course — Bowman had its share of problems. The photographs were dark and uninspired. The boring design was pulled straight from the Bowman baseball set. The card backs break down the player’s stats into how he did against the 20 other teams, which was more useful for baseball than hockey, where a player might face most teams three times a season. Plus, the text is tiny and hard to read.
Fun Fact: Topps released a high-end version of the Bowman set, printed on O-Pee-Chee-style card stock and with extra gloss on the front, commonly referred to as the “Tiffany” set because it was sold at Tiffany & Co. stores. But if you shine a turd, you have a shiny turd…
Lasting Legacy: If you buy one of those repack boxes, like “The Hockey Cube,” usually found at Target or Wal-Mart, you’ll find 1990-91 Bowman cards inside. Like a can of mixed nuts which is 40% peanuts, any hockey card repack is bound to contain about 40% Bowman cards. Sometimes, these repacks may even “boast” to contain the entire 264-card set inside.
#7 – 1990-91 Topps
Inserts: 21 “Team Scoring Leaders” glossy cards, found one per pack. A four-card panel of “box bottom” cards was found on the bottom of each box, giving kids incentive to purchase an entire box at once. There were four different panels, for a total of 16 cards.
Original Cost: 50 cents for 14 cards, one glossy card and one stick of gum; cello packs were 99 cents and had 31 cards and one glossy card.
Notable Rookie Cards: Curtis Joseph, Mike Modano, Mike Richter
Scrub Player Found Only In This Set: Does not apply, since Topps is the same as the first 396 cards in the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set.
Why It Is Dead Last: The 1990-91 Topps Hockey set is just basically the 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set, but with 132 less cards and printed on crummy gray cardstock. So, why not just get the O-Pee-Chee set instead? The “Team Scoring Leaders” inserts are kind of a letdown, considering that the previous five years had logo and all-star player stickers as inserts, which most of us preferred.
Fun Fact: Must I? Uhhh…the bottom card in every wax pack was always stained by wax. I once sent all my stained cards to Topps with an angry letter, and they replaced them with unopened cello packs. These cello packs used only a trace amount of glue, and did not stain the cards.
Lasting Legacy: Every other set issued in 1990-91 was better than Topps, who doubled the set size from the previous year but otherwise didn’t do anything to improve their cards. Like Bowman, there was also a “Tiffany” version of this set printed on O-Pee-Chee cardstock, but you are probably better off just buying a 1990-91 O-Pee-Chee set.
Overall, the 1990-91 season was a fun year to collect hockey cards. Each of the five companies tried to outdo each other — with varying degrees of success — from innovations in design, to including lots of rookies and prospects to releasing multiple sets. With the packs of cards costing less than a dollar, any kid could buy a pack or ten and dream big of getting cards that would one day put them through college. That didn’t happen, but sometimes the license to dream is more important than the dream itself.
So, did you collect hockey cards in 1990-91? Of course you did, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog! How would you rank these sets? Leave a comment below.
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk. ■