Every 1990-91 Hockey Card Set Ranked

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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

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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.)

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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

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1990-91_pro_set_pat_burnsNumber of Cards: 705 cards (405 in Series 1; 305 in Series 2)

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.

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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

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1990-91_ScoreNumber of Cards: 440 cards, plus another 110 sold in a “Rookie & Traded” set.

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

Notable Rookie Cards: Martin Brodeur, Eric Lindros, Olaf Kolzig

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.

Score_USA_Lemieux_front Score_CDN_Lemieux_front

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.

Score_USA_Lemieux_back Score_CDN_Lemieux_back

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

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1990-91 O-Pee-Chee #19R - Sergei FedorovNumber of Cards: 528 cards

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.

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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.

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Many of the Central Red Army insert cards had a pinhole and scratch on the fronts due to a factory mishap. O-Pee-Chee would replace any card that had this factory defect.

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

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1990-91_premier_jagrNumber of Cards: 132 cards

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.

Notable Rookie Cards: Sergei Fedorov, Jaromir Jagr, Curtis Joseph, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Alexander Mogilny

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.

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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

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1990-91 Bowman #218 - Mike RichterNumber of Cards: 264 cards

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.

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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

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1990-91 Topps #348 - Mike ModanoNumber of Cards: 396 cards

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.

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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.

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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

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

21 thoughts on “Every 1990-91 Hockey Card Set Ranked”

  1. I’ll def agree with this list; The UD’s were sooo fresh to see in any sports card collecting experience. The OPC’s looked pretty dated, and the Bowman’s weren’t far behind. They looked exactly like their baseball counterparts (which were surprisingly hard to find, growing up in NC).

    But come on, that Topps Gum, yo! That’s was the greatest thing ever! The initial flavor only last about 5 seconds before it faded out so you wouldn’t get bored with it, but you wouldn’t have noticed anyway because the shattered fragments sliced up the inside of your mouth like your were chewing a 40w bulb and you mouth filled with blood!!! Oh nestalgia!

  2. At one time I once owned The Topps, Score, Bowman and Pro Set Series 1 sets. I guess I enjoyed the Bowman brand the most, it had a large photo with a minimal and colorful Bowman logo. Topps had a terrible design, Score’s design is iconic but photo is smaller than Bowman, Pro Set had too much boarder top and bottom. Upper Deck was not worth the money, Premier had the odd checklist.

    Though I still own Basil McRae’s card which displayed for the first time in sports card history blood on a player’s face. I believe 1977 Topps Mark Van Eeghen’s football card showed blood on his thigh pad.

    1. Welcome to the site, and thanks for the comment. You make a strong case for Bowman, and you succinctly state what’s wrong with Premier — the checklist is too odd. I’m cool with the rookies and superstars, but too many journeymen in new uniforms water down the 132-card set.

      That Basil card is pretty boss!

  3. I used to take the referee cards from the Pro Set series camping and use them for target practice with the BB rifle as a youth.

  4. Interesting blog post and a fun look back.
    I’ve definitely dealt with my share of the french Upper Deck cards. I recall that they went for a premium as people expected them to be far less produced compared to the english. I know today, some people confuse that set with the 91-92 Pro Set which has the auto’d Roy cards and that could contribute to a bit of extra demand.

    Loving all the Mario cards BTW!!! I have versions of each one (except Bowman) and I would have to say that the Pro Set is my favourite of the year (was the first Mario card I got my hands on as a kid!)

  5. Crazy times they were.

    I remember when ProSet came out…their look was so revolutionary. Still looking for some of the correction cards, and every time I see an unopened pack of ProSet I wonder if there is a SC hologram inside!

    Of course, UD was highly anticipated, and OPC’s looked typically cartoonish as usual. Loved those 5 extra Lindros cards in Score, as well.

    The year after this, me and two other guys started our own card store because the hype was still high…

  6. I’d rank them as follows:
    1. OPC – OPC was the standard growing up in rural Canada. Everything was compared to it (for better or worse)
    2. Upper Deck – great set! Started the schism at school where some kids would “only trade Upper Deck”
    3. OPC Premier – these were like golden tickets to the chocolate factory. But it wasn’t the main set
    4. Score – good photos but the back text was too dense for kids to get into. Having the American and Canadian versions also made it confusing to collect.
    5. ProSet – even as a kid it was sad to see so many errors. These made up the bulk of “scrambles” for several years
    6. Topps – It beats bowman because it was like the OPC set but with darker pictures
    7. Bowman – Very uninspiring. It’s like every photo was taken from a preseason practice. The stats on the back were created by an over achieving undergrad student who just discovered exel and needed to document data into the smallest possible categories. Plus the gum was smaller than OPC’s and tasted funny.

    It was a great year to be 10 and collecting hockey cards. Too bad it usurped in the current era where there are dozens of sets, creating a pile of filler cards to make packs look full while hunting for hits.

    Thanks for your blog. I really enjoy your reviews

    1. “The stats on the back were created by an over achieving undergrad student who just discovered exel and needed to document data into the smallest possible categories”

      LOL, funny comment. Welcome to the site, Chris, and thank you for reading.

  7. for the most part I agree with the ranking , especially from an aesthetically pleasing view. Obviously I am in the group that would put the Premier set higher. I have been working on a PSA 10 set of them for a couple years now and for a heavy produced issue it is surprisingly tough to get a lot of them as 10’s. There are only 27 possible sets at the moment. Those ProSet IMO are the real gems in 10 though , those were brutal on the cut and dinged and chipped quite easily. And my goodness that Stanley Cup insert…I owned my own shop for many years and traveled over the country doing conventions and the like and to date have seen exactly 4 copies of that one in person. Interesting write up , I liked it it was a nice trip down memory lane.

    1. Hi Duane, Thanks for your comment, and welcome to the site. If I am ever crazy stupid rich, I would try to assemble the 705-card Pro Set set at PSA 10. That would be madness! But awesome.

      1. Interesting read….being from Canada, I’m more drawn to the O-Pee-Chee / OPC sets and consider the 1990-91 OPC Premier as the top set of that year. I completed the set in PSA 10’s in 2011 and it took me 2 years to do it…my set name is “Ronnie’s PSA 10 1990-91 OPC Premier Hockey Set”.
        I am also the first person to complete that set in BGS 9.5 (Gem Mint) and shown in the Beckett Registry as “Ronnie’s Complete BGS 9.5 1990-91 OPC O-Pee-Chee Premier Hockey Set”.
        I am trying to complete a BGS 10 Pristine set however I know that’s going to take a while longer.

        Thanks

        1. Hi Ronnie, sounds like a fun — and expensive — project. Do you send the raw cards in for grading and hope for the best, or did you buy them already graded?

          1. My BGS 9.5 set was sent to Beckett to be graded..raw review, and my PSA 10 set is a bit of both..secondary market and raw review.
            The BGS 10 set i am presently working on is from the secondary market and raw review…and yes it is expensive however its my hobby

            1. No argument here. You’re talking to a guy who owns seven of the Pro Set Stanley Cup Holograms and nine Mairo Lemieux RCs. But if money were no object, I’d totally collect a PSA 10 Pro Set set

  8. I have a Pro Set Dan Quinn that is misprinted on the front. It is cut wrong from manufacturer. The border is too big on the bottom and the top is cut through the team logo and the Pro Set logo. The back, however, is printed perfectly. I know is has the mistake of having two teams on the back of that card however I can find no mention anywhere of anyone else having a Dan Quinn Pro Set card from 1990 with this offset printing defects on the front of the card. Have you ever heard of or seen this card?
    Thank you!

    1. Printing mistakes like the one you mention are not very valuable. They are known as miscuts. Chances are, the whole sheet of cards was miscut, along with the Quinn card that you found.

  9. Nice trip down memory lane for me. I had collected cards in the late 60’s and most of the 70’s. Alas, my story ends as so many others, mommy tossed them one day and the rest is history. I just started collecting again about 4 years ago and have amassed about 50,000 cards nothing real note worthy or extremely valuable per say. Hundreds of star rookies both hockey and baseball but cards that should be valuable are sadly not. For me, as quickly as I got back in, I’m now running even faster to get out. What ever happened to just collecting your sets and waiting for next years set to come out. We have taken a hobby that is enshrined forever in my childhood, and made it into a Las Vegas style venture. Kids can longer afford this hobby and that is what is so sad and so wrong with this hobby now. People like numbers well here is a beauty for you. I did an excel program on Topps series 1 Baseball for this year, base set 350 cards{value 10-20} total cards in series 1 over 1800 and hockey is no different. Inserts have ruined this hobby and killed the dream of kids wanting to enjoy a hobby that was so prevalent for people like me. We played with them, we traded them, and yes we did check off our checklists, that’s why they were inserted in packs. Good luck in your ventures and may the hobby Gods reward you with some auto card you just paid 150-750 to open.

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