One of the ugliest hockey card sets ever made
You would think that it would be impossible for me — a die hard hockey card collector — to hate a set of hockey cards. But there is one set that still makes me mad every time I think about it: the 1980-81 Topps Hockey set.
Topps used a stupid gimmick on their hockey cards that year. Player names were obscured by a black “scratch-off” puck that you had to remove with a coin in order to identify the player. This is even touted on the card wrappers.
It’s like a hockey card and a lottery ticket had an ugly baby.
Sports trading cards are supposed to educate you about the player depicted. If the player’s name is hidden, then the card fails at the most basic level.
The player’s name is not mentioned anywhere on the back of the card. You either must refer to the checklist, or scratch that stupid black disk.
And many people did just that. More often than not, you find 1980-81 Topps Hockey cards with the “scratch-off” area removed. This would make the cards less valuable in the eyes of collectors and the price guides, since the card was modified from its original state.
At the same time, these cards don’t look any better un-scrached, as the black circle is seldom perfect black.
To share my angst about this awful set (yes, I have issues), I’ve “blacked out” all of the player and team names in this review. To see them, you must click and drag your mouse over the blacked out text to highlight it so you can read it. Have fun.
Player Selection – 4 out of 5
The 1980-81 Topps Hockey set has 264 cards: 218 are player cards, and the rest are checklists or subset cards. The most notable cards in the set is the rookie card of Ray Bourque and the second card of Wayne Gretzky. There are also RCs of Hall of Fame players Mike Gartner and Michel Goulet. A few other decent players from the 1980s make their cardboard debuts too, such as Mike Liut, Brian Propp, Stan Smyl, Al Secord, Mike Foligno and Rick Vaive.
But like every Topps set until 1991-92, the 1980-81 Topps Hockey set has less cards than its O-Pee-Chee counterpart, which had 132 more cards for a total of 396.Thus, the Topps sets does not have rookie cards of 1980s stalwarts Brad Marsh, Pete Peeters and Rod Langway. Most importantly, Mark Messier — the guy who would be second only to Gretzky in NHL career scoring — is also found only in the O-Pee-Chee set. Topps missed the boat by excluding him.
There are two interesting notes about the players included in this set. The seven players who entered the NHL immediately after playing for the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team have a Team USA logo on the front of their cards, denoting their accomplishment.
Also noteworthy is that in 1980-81, the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary, thus all cards of Flames’ players use portraits as a means to obscure the old team logo.
Front Design – 2 out of 5
It’s not that these cards look that terrible. Yes, a puck is an overused trope on a hockey card, but making that puck a scratch-off area really mars an otherwise decent-looking set. Leave the card alone, and you forever have a card that does not identify its player. Scratch the black gunk off, and you’ve devalued the card. Plus, it is difficult to scrape off all of the black stuff — especially on the Team Leaders cards.
Stats & Info / Back Design – 4 out of 5
Topps cards from the previous year only had one line of stats. For 1980-81, complete year-by-year statistics returned. What is odd here is that NHL and WHA stats are combined in the totals line as “Major Totals.”
If a card company combined NHL and WHA stats into “Major Totals” nowadays, they’d probably get their license revoked by the NHL.
As usual, the other personal data (height, weight, etc.) is there, as well as a fact or two about the player, if space allows.
But the player’s name — again, which is pretty damn important — is left off the back of the cards, which probably made many kids want to scratch off that little black disc. Another black mark (pun) against this set is that the little cartoon on the back isn’t specific to the pictured player, but instead depicts a fact about the team.
Subset Quality – 5 out of 5
There are a few different subsets in the 1980-91 Topps Hockey set that add some variety and help recap what happened during the 1979-80 season.
Record Breakers (5)
Five different cards highlight records from the 1979-80 season, including goaltender Billy Smith’s goal and the Philadelphia Flyers 35-game unbeaten streak.
Team Leaders (21)
The lower third of the Team Leaders cards are covered in black gunk. So, if you want to know who led each team in goals, assists, power play goals and game-winning goals, have a nickel ready.
Problem is, these cards look equally terrible no matter what you do with them.
The back of these cards have a team checklist.
Twelve cards highlight the six First-Team and six Second-Team All-Stars.
These horizontal cards feature the top three players in each statistical category, except for the Power Play Goal Leaders card, which shows five.
These three cards, which recap the two semifinals series and the Stanley Cup Finals, are without the black scratch-off area.
The two checklist cards are also devoid of the scratch-off areas. Wouldn’t have been funny if Topps put the black stuff over the names on the checklists too?
Normally, I advocate collecting both the Topps and O-Pee-Chee versions of vintage hockey sets, as there is usually enough difference between the two to own both. Plus, vintage is vintage — even if the OPC set is (almost) always better. But the “black marks” on these cards give them a black mark in my book. Instead of using your pennies to scratch off the pucks, save them for buying the OPC version of this set instead.
Five cards from this set that I like for one reason or another.
100 – Phil Esposito The last card made of the Hall of Fame center during his playing career. (back)
67 – Michel Goulet Perhaps the greatest left wing during the 1980s, he actually started his career with the WHA’s Birmingham Bulls as a 17-year old. (back)
87 – Wayne Gretzky, 2nd Team All-Star It looks like The Great One is trying to suck on his thumb. (back)
242 – Rick Vaive Topps painted over his Canucks jersey to look like a Maple Leafs jersey, but it looks like they painted on his hair, too. (back)
77 – John Garrett A green Whalers jersey, brown goalie pads and a “Jason-style” fiberglass mask; this card just SCREAMS eighties hockey. (back)
264 card set
Card size: 2 1/2″ wide x 3 1/2″ tall
Click here to download a printable checklist
9 thoughts on “Review: 1980-81 Topps Hockey”
I knew Topps blacked out the names, but never really realized how annoying it was for collectors. 1980-81 OPC is the first hockey set I really collected and even without the scratch-off, it’s still a bit of an ugly duckling.
There are a bunch of Flames that have shots taken at a greater distance, though they must all have been OPC. The old crest is painted over, so the players appear to be wearing blank red sweaters.
As an American hockey card collector, I feel the need to apologize to you — a Canadian card collector — for the horrible design that Topps foisted on you Canadians.
No apologies needed. I was almost 5 when these cards came out so they were the first hockey cards I ever collected. And they will (hopefully) ALWAYS be my favourite OPC design.
Great write-up Sal, I love what you did with blacking out the names in the post, perfect!
Great post and I agree it was a sad year for hockey. Shame too because lots of rookies I like could have been much cooler with a better design.
What makes the Topps even more tragic was the use of nothing but pronouns on the back of most cards not even giving you a first name to associate with the player on the front.
I always prefer OPC to Topps but I do find this Topps issue fascinating. I can’t think of any other main stream set for a main stream sport that has ever done this.
I actually love this set. First hockey packs I ever opened. The packs came with a folded team poster that was almost always miscut too.
Nothing beats your first set in any sport. For that reason, I will always be fond of 1985 Topps Baseball, 1986 Topps Football, 1988-89 Topps Hockey, and 1989-90 Hoops Basketball.
And thank you for reading and commenting!