1996-97 Upper Deck Game Jerseys

Remembering Hockey’s First Jersey Cards

It’s a brisk, early morning in September of 1997. I’m sitting at a picnic table at an elementary school playground, just north of Pittsburgh. My nine-year old self is huddled up with a few friends, rummaging through the new cards we had acquired over the summer. We were all in awe over Jeffy’s Joe Thornton rookie card, when a boy with a Sidney Crosby-esque pencil mustache approached us.

“Pfft, you guys think that’s cool?” asked eighth grader Joey M. “Check this out.”

He laid something out on the table that blew our pre-pubescent minds: a Mike Modano 1996-97 Upper Deck Game Jersey card. We stared in amazement, like it was a winning lottery ticket.

Joey glared at us like we were mere peasants in his newfound collectors kingdom. He then slowly picked up the card and walked away, without another word, leaving us in utter disbelief. 

Trading my Upper Deck Collectors Choice Stick’Ums seemed pointless after what we had just seen. We packed up our cards and hung our heads until the recess bell rang. 

Youngsters today will never get to experience how cool seeing that card was to us. Nowadays, jersey cards are usually just tossed aside; they are borderline commons these days. but in the late 1990s, these cards made you the king of the playground cardboard hustlers. 

When Upper Deck released the first Game Jersey cards in 1996-97  Upper Deck Series One and Series Two, they were next-to-impossible to find. Seeded 1 in every 2,500 packs, it was like trying to find a real tooth in Bobby Clarke’s mouth. The first five cards inserted in Series One packs were Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Doug Gilmour, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Bourque. When Series Two was later released, it featured Mario Lemieux, John Vanbiesbrouck, Eric Lindros, Mike Modano, Pavel Bure, Mark Messier, Theo Fleury and Mats Sundin. That’s a rather stacked checklist! 

When these insert cards first came out, it was not just a gimmick; it was an honest attempt to make collectors feel closer to the superstars they were collecting. As a kid, having a piece of game-used Mario Lemieux jersey was like having a piece of Superman’s cape. Hell, I still feel the same way! It’s owning something connects you directly to your hero. 

To this day, these cards are still heavily sought after. Even though the value has dropped a good bit since their release — taking into account how many jersey cards have hit the market in the past 20-plus years — they have still held pretty solid.

Here is what the cards were priced at in the July 1997 Beckett Hockey price guide:

And here are the prices from Beckett’s Hockey Guide 2018 Annual:

You will see that Joey’s Mike Modano Game Jersey card went from $200 in 1997 to $100 in 2018. Keep in mind that multi-colored swatches may also bump up the value a little. 

Sure, I know what you’re thinking: the card lost half of it’s value. Okay, fair. But it was the 90s! It’s hard to find anything from that decade that hasn’t taken a loss like that in value. (Go ahead and fire away in the comments if you can prove me wrong.) 

We all know now that jersey cards went on to be a common practice in the trading card world, which was expanded to patches, sticks, skate books, leg pads, blockers, gloves, etc. But love it or hate it, this is the set that started it all. Now every time I see a 90’s jersey card, it always takes me pack to that picnic table on the playground in fourth grade. That to me is worth more than any dollar amount you can put on a card. 

Travis Shaw is a blue collar steel plant worker from Pittsburgh who is borderline obsessed with everything hockey and is married to a woman who is waaayyyy out of his league. Follow him on Twitter @Tshaw311

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Author: Travis Shaw

Travis Shaw is a blue collar steel plant worker from Pittsburgh who is borderline obsessed with everything hockey and is married to a woman who is waaayyyy out of his league. 

3 thoughts on “1996-97 Upper Deck Game Jerseys”

  1. A few years ago me and my brother have pulled a 96-97 Mario Lemieux Game Jersey card straight from a retail pack which also contained a Joe Sakic Hart Hopefuls Gold numbered to 100 (1:1500 packs). I swear, we were so amazed at the Lemieux card that my brother almost forgot to check what was left in the pack. We could have missed on that second hit!

    I think it was the first box out of approximately two cases we’ve opened back when they could be found relatively cheap on eBay. Unfortunately the next best thing we got out of these is a Wayne Gretzky Hart Hopefuls Silver (1:150 packs). No more Jersey!

    Still, pulling one of those tough 90’s Holy Grail cards always feels pretty special.

    1. Buster

      That’s insane and if I was to pull one that would be the one I would be dreaming of pulling! Nice pull shows sometimes cheap wax from the bay pays off lol

  2. Hey Travis,

    Being from Quebec myself it’s no surprise if I tell you that it’s the one I wanted the most! Yzerman would have been great as well, but 96-97 UD Series One boxes are much harder to find than Series Two, so no luck in that department anyways.

    One little downside, that’s a plain white jersey card, but given the set’s majestic design and legendary status, anything looks perfectly fine on these cards. Actually I would have been okay with any player as long as it’s a legit old school pack find, but pulling Lemieux along with the extra Sakic just made the moment so surreal, it literally reignited our passion for the hobby.

    I’m definitely more of an autograph guy, but I have to agree there’s something mystical about those 96-97 / 97-98 Jersey Cards. Seriously, who would have guessed back in the day that this single insert set would determine the entire hobby’s destiny?

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