My Quest to Own a Tony O Rookie Card

1969-70 O-Pee-Chee #138: Tony Esposito

Tony Esposito rookie cardOne thing that most of us know by now is, you can’t try to be cool – you either are or you aren’t…although many of us still try to be. Four decades ago, hockey cards didn’t “try” to be cool – they just were.

Take for instance this rookie card of Hall of Fame goaltender Tony Esposito, and you will see what I mean. It is not die-cut, bogged down with holograms, multiple layers of gloss or a swatch from a jersey like the “cool cards” of today – it didn’t need all those gimmicks. Hell, this doesn’t even use a game action photograph. Just a logo, some text and a pic of the goalie in his gear – probably posing in the hallway outside the locker room. Cards back then had such a low-tech and barebones appearance–and yet, such a feeling of authenticity. You really don’t see that much anymore, in this day and age of metallic foil, laser-etching and UV-protective coating. Plus, sports photography has come such a long way since this shot was snapped in 1969.

Not to imply that the improvement of photography was bad for cards. Nowadays, cards have some of the best action shots ever. Even portraits these days are a thousand times better than this. But it was that time from the early seventies to about the early nineties, where the majority of hockey cards were adorned with pictures of the players milling around during warm-ups or stoppages of play. While that was somewhat a stride in the right direction, there’s just something preferable by comparison about a dimly-lit portrait. It has character, you could say.

One thing that struck me about this is that this is Esposito’s rookie card, and yet it came out during his rookie season. While that’s the norm these days, way back when that seemed like a novel concept. Usually, you had to play a full season before the card companies would take notice and issue you a card. But that wasn’t the case here. Esposito played a handful of games the previous year for Montreal before his trade to Chicago. The folks at O-Pee-Chee must have known he would be something special, since they photographed him early on in the 1969-70 season for inclusion in that set. Even the text on the back of the card astutely predicts Esposito’s eventual success:

Tony received his big “break” this year when Chicago drafted him from the Montreal organization. This rookie goaltender appears to be on the threshold of a brilliant career in the N.H.L.

That’s some foresight on OPC’s part. Esposito would post 15 shutouts, setting a record and earning the nickname “Tony O” in the process – not to mention winning the Calder and Vezina trophies. He would play until 1984, and earn a Hall of Fame induction in 1988–the season I “discovered” hockey. Shortly thereafter, I found out that my Mom and my Aunt Gayle were both hockey fans in the 1970s.

Tony EspositoGuy Lafleur was my Mom’s favorite player, and Tony Espostio was my Aunt’s favorite – as evidenced by her old Chicago Black Hawks home jersey, emblazoned with number 35. I “inherited” the jersey when I was 14, when I decided to borrow it one day. 

Having a Tony Esposito jersey really made me want to own his rookie card, so a year later, I would track down and buy this one you see here. This was the first time I would seek out an expensive, vintage single for my hockey card collection. Prior to that, I only had purchased sets or wax packs from recent years. Heck, every card I owned at the time would maybe be worth half of what I paid for this card back then. But this was my “white whale” in 1990, and I had to find it.

This little endeavor turned out to be quite a painstaking process in the pre-internet days. Living in Chicago – where hockey cards were practically nonexistent – I had to call numerous card dealers in Canada, inquiring if they had a Tony O RC. Not only was that a tedious and costly experience (long distance calls, people!), but I had to buy the card sight unseen.

To think of what us collectors had to put up with back then!

In the end, though, I was happy with my purchase. The centering is off, and there’s a bit of a wax stain on the back, but that seemed almost expected for a card this old. Twenty-one is not an age one should associate with being “old”, and yet in 1990 this – at the time – 21-year old card felt ancient to me; a relic from an era before my time. This card is now 39 years old, and while it does not have all the visual bells and whistles like cards of today, I still can’t get over how something so no-frills and archaic-feeling can still be so cool…without even trying.

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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

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