Thirty years ago, the 1988-89 hockey season was winding down. Wayne Gretzky was in his first season with the Los Angeles Kings, while the Calgary Flames would go on to win their first Stanley Cup Championship. Hockey legends Marcel Dionne and Lanny McDonald retired at the end of the season, while Guy Lafleur successfully started his three-year comeback.
It was also a simpler time for hockey card collectors. There were only two mainstream hockey sets to collect — Topps and O-Pee-Chee — and there were not yet any Eric Lindros cards for speculators to hoard. In fact, the word “hockey cards” and “investments” weren’t even uttered in the same sentence back then.
The 1988-89 season was also when I first discovered hockey — and thus started collecting hockey cards. So, here is a look at the 10 best hockey cards from the 1988-89 season. These are not necessarily the most valuable or most-rare hockey cards from that year; rather, these are cards that have significance and should be in any serious hockey card collection.
1988-89 Topps #120: Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings is the most important trade in hockey history, and arguably in all of sports. The best player in hockey, in the prime of his career, was being traded to the second-largest market in the U.S. So important was Gretzky’s trade that Topps didn’t show The Great One still in an Oilers sweater, with the text “Now with Los Angeles,” on his card in the 1988-89 Topps Hockey set. Nor did they crudely repaint his photograph like they did on so many cards over the previous 40 years.
Instead, Topps opted to use a photo of Gretzky from a press conference in Los Angeles on the day of his trade. The card is significant not only because it is Gretzky’s first card as a King, but because it was the first time a press conference photo was used on trading card, making it an acceptable practice for card companies in the years that followed. Next season, the 1989-90 Hoops basketball card of David Robinson showed him at a press conference. After that, it became commonplace in trading card sets to see a big free agent holding up the sweater of his new team, standing at a podium at a press conference, or otherwise just not in a sports setting. Gretzky’s Topps card did it first.
1988-89 ProCards AHL/IHL: Ed Belfour
ProCards was a company that issued trading cards of minor league baseball and hockey teams from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. During the 1988-89 season, ProCards made team sets of 14 AHL teams and five IHL teams, for a total of 465 cards — that’s larger than the 1988-89 Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets combined! Many future NHL stars were found in this set, but perhaps none more important than of Saginaw Hawks’ goalie Ed Belfour.
Belfour’s card is unremarkable; it uses a head shot photograph supplied by the Chicago Blackhawks; in fact, the same photo was used on Belfour’s 1988-89 Blackhawks team-issued card, and also appears in the Blackhawks 1988-89 media guide. The back of Belfour’s minor league card is in black and white and doesn’t hint at his future greatness. Two seasons later, Belfour would win the Calder, Vezina and Jennings Trophies. “Eddie the Eagle” was one of the best goalies from the 1990s, and won a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011. This card isn’t necessarily hard to find, but is a great “pre-rookie” of a future NHL legend.
1988-89 O-Pee-Chee #66: Brett Hull
Brett Hull had cards in both the Topps and O-Pee-Chee hockey sets that year, but the Topps card was double-printed, making it much easier to find — and thus, the O-Pee-Chee version is more scarce by comparison. Like the photo on Belfour’s card mentioned above, there’s nothing special about Hull’s photo, which had been altered for his rookie card. Hull’s Calgary Flames jersey was repainted to look like a St. Louis Blues jersey, and the photo was most likely selected because it didn’t show a logo and there was very little to repaint. However, Hull’s RC has many similarities to the rookie card of his father, Bobby Hull. Not only does Brett look like his dad, but his rookie card looks like his dad’s rookie card, too.
Both cards use portrait photographs, with left wing Bobby facing left and right wing Brett facing right. (Bobby’s card lists him as center, but he’d soon change positions.) Both are gazing upwards and off into the distance. Then consider that the cards, which came out exactly 30 years apart, are both card number 66, and that both are the most-expensive cards in their respective sets. Brett’s rookie card would still be on this list if it wasn’t so similar to his father’s rookie card, but the similarities make Brett’s card even more iconic.
1988-89 Quebec Nordiques: Joe Sakic
Joe Sakic made his NHL debut in the 1988-89 season, but didn’t get a rookie card until the next year. However, he was included in the 1988-89 Quebec Nordiques team-issued trading card set. Sakic is the 9th all-time leading scorer in NHL history and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Although an injury nixed his changes of winning the Calder Trophy, Sakic is arguably the best player to emerge from the 1988-89 season, so this card makes a nice, harder-to-find alternate to his 1989-90 Topps and O-Pee-Chee rookie cards, which were printed by the truckload.
1988-89 O-Pee-Chee #61: Bob Probert
For a five-year span, roughly 1990 to 1994, Bob Probert was the undisputed heavyweight enforcer in the NHL. Sure, Probert lost a few fights — very few — in that time, but that is because everyone who was trying to make a name for himself dropped the gloves and challenged him. Probert could also score and even played in an NHL All-Star Game. He was formidable fighter up until the end of his career in 2002, and still remains a cult favorite nearly 10 years after his untimely death. Probert’s 1988-89 Topps rookie card, like Brett Hull’s Topps rookie card, is also a double-print, making it a fairly common find. His 1988-89 O-Pee-Chee RC is tougher to locate, and thus a bit more pricey.
1988-89 ProCards AHL/IHL: Mark Recchi
Mark Recchi retired in 2011, having scored 577 goals and 956 assists for 1533 points in 1652 regular-season games. He ranks 5th all-time in games played in the NHL, won the Stanley Cup during three different decades (1991, 2006, 2011) and is the oldest player to score a goal in the Stanley Cup Finals.
As remarkable as his career was, Recchi’s “pre-RC” in the 1988-89 ProCards AHL/IHL set is tame by comparison. Most of the cards use posed photographs of players standing in a darkened rink, and are not all that exciting. However, this card does pre-date Recchi’s rookie cards by a full two years.
1988-89 Panini Stickers #301: Brian Leetch
Brian Leetch won the Calder Trophy in 1989 and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Like Sakic, Leetch also has his official rookie card in the 1989-90 Topps and O-Pee-Chee sets. A nice “pre-RC” of the Hall of Fame blueliner is found in the 1988-89 Panini Hockey sticker set, which shows him from his post-Olympic stint with the Rangers at the close of the 1987-88 season.
1988-89 Los Angeles Kings: Wayne Gretzky
Several other Wayne Gretzky cards could have probably made this list, but the O-Pee-Chee and O-Pee-Chee Leaders (a.k.a. “Minis”) cards of Gretzky are not as unique as this regional issue of The Great One. Not long after Topps’ card of Gretzky came out, the Kings issued a team set, which was sponsored by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, but usually referred to as the “Smokey” or “Smokey the Bear” set. This is the first card to show Gretzky from a game with the Kings. Granted, this was probably taken during the pre-game skate, as evidenced by the unfastened chin strap on Gretzky’s Jofa helmet. Still, this is an offbeat, team-issued card of hockey’s greatest scorer.
1988-89 Esso NHL All-Star Collection: Bobby Orr
Bobby Orr was the greatest defenseman of all-time, and one of the most exciting players to watch. His 1988-89 Esso NHL All-Stars card is exciting, too, because only six cards of Orr were issued between his retirement in 1978 and the hockey card boom of 1990-91. After that, it became a normal practice to issue cards of retired greats, but back in 1988-89, it was a novel concept.
Sadly, I never got to see Orr play — not even in a “Heroes” game. Sometimes, I like to imagine that Orr, had he not been plagued by knee injuries during his career, would have played through the end of the 1988-89 season; an alternate future where Orr would have helped the Bruins win the 1989 Stanley Cup, and then retire on top at age 41.
1988-89 Oilers 10th Anniversary #115: Jim Corsi
Jim Corsi played two seasons for the Quebec Nordiques when the team was in the World Hockey Association, and one season for the Edmonton Oilers in 1979-80, which was the team’s first year in the NHL. But Corsi didn’t get a hockey card until 1988-89, when the Oilers issued a 164-card set of every single player to suit up for the Oilers during the team’s 10 years in the NHL.
What makes this card of Jim Corsi so darn special is that “Corsi” is an advanced hockey statistic that tracks the shot differential between teams during even strength. Corsi devised the statistic in part, but didn’t name it after himself. Tim Barnes, a financial analyst and stat geek from Chicago, heard then-Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier talk on the radio about a stat that tracked shot differential. Barnes developed a formula for the statistic and named it “Corsi” because he liked the way Jim Corsi’s mustache looked, without knowing that Reiger was talking about Corsi’s idea in the first place. If you are a hockey card collector who also loves advanced hockey analytics, then this card of Jim Corsi is a must-have.
What do you think of this list? Which card mentioned above is your favorite? Is there a hockey card from the 1988-89 season that you think should have been on this list? Leave a comment and let me know. ■
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.