For those who did not collect hockey cards in the 1990s, please allow me to first explain one of the strangest aspects from that time; an incorrect mindset, if you will, that led to the production of many thousands of useless, worthless hockey cards.
Back then, and even today, a player’s “rookie card” — that is, the first card to show him with his NHL team — is usually the most desirable, and thus usually the most valuable.
“Well then,” thought several trading card companies, “we should make cards of players BEFORE they play in the NHL, because those would be even MORE valuable, so people will buy them. It would be like printing money!”
But instead of printing money, it was more like they printed junk bonds for a failed startup company. During the 1991-92 season, four different companies issued trading card sets of the players who were selected in the 1991 NHL Draft.
But like a first round dud — such as Brent Bilodeau (sorry, Habs fans) — these draft picks sets fizzled at retail. Here’s a look at these four sets, along with why they bombed.
#1 – Classic 1991 Hockey Draft Picks
What’s the Deal? Classic Games was the most prolific producer of draft picks and prospects sets during the 1990s, releasing hockey sets from 1991-92 to 1995-96. This was the company’s first hockey set, and by far the best of the draft pick sets released in 1991.
Number of Cards: 50 cards, sold as a complete set. Some sets came with a checklist card that had a “Certification of Limited Edition” on the other side, as well as a surprise bonus card. Some sets were printed in French instead of English for collectors in Quebec — but really for English-speaking speculators who thought the “French Version” of the set would be “worth more.”
What Is Good About This Set: Classic was the only company savvy enough to get Eric Lindros to be in their set. Lindros was the first overall pick in that June’s draft, and the main reason why anyone would buy these cards is to bank on Lindros’ card as an investment. Plus, with a few exceptions, all of the players are shown playing in their junior, collegiate or European team uniforms.
Why This Set Sucks: Classic printed so many of these darn things that they are not worth the cardboard they were printed on. The company released 360,000 sets to card shops, another 175,000 sets to retail outlets like Toys R’ Us and another 75,000 sets printed with French text.
Best Card In This Set: Eric Lindros, if only because he was the most hyped prospect in 1991, yet only Classic was able to include him in their draft picks set.
Worst Card In This Set: Martin Hamrlik. All you see is the back of his helmet.
Strangest Card In This Set: The 360,000 English-text sets and 75,000 French-text sets sold in card shops came with a surprise bonus card of Raghib “Rocket” Ishmail, dressed as a hockey player. Rocket Ishmail famously bypassed the NFL for the first few seasons of his career to play in the Canadian Football League for the Toronto Argonauts, who were owned by Wayne Gretzky and L.A. Kings owner Bruce McNall. I guess that’s enough of an excuse to dress up like a hockey player.
Why Classic is #1: As far as draft pick sets go, this one has the nicest design — assuming you can look past those garish green borders — and the best photography, and is the only draft pick set to include first overall pick Lindros.
#2 – Star Pics 1991 Pro Prospect Hockey CardArt
What’s the Deal? Star Pics was a company that made sports trading cards of prospects, as well as several non-sports card sets based on shows like “Twin Peaks,” “All My Children,” and “Saturday Night Live.” They put out a set of hockey cards that focused on 1991 draft picks, which also included cards of current and retired NHL stars. Oh, and they referred to their trading cards as “CardArt,” as pretentious as that may be.
Number of Cards: 72 cards, sold as a complete boxed set. Cards were available only in English.
What is Good About this Set: The text on the back of the cards is written by veteran hockey writer Al Morganti, who was a columnist for The Hockey News at the time.
Why This Set Sucks: The players were photographed wearing approximations of the uniforms of the teams that drafted them, or of the junior teams they were drafted from. In other words, they are wearing the colors, but their jerseys are logo-free. Nothing screams “UNLICENSED GARBAGE” more than photos where the team logos are absent.
Best Card In This Set: Gotta go with Al Morganti here. It isn’t every day that a hockey writer appears on a trading card, and Mr. Morganti has been around long enough to cover the Atlanta Flames. Mad respect.
Worst Card In This Set: Justin Morrison, who was drafted in the fourth round, 80th overall, by the Washington Capitals. It is hard to get excited about a fourth round draft pick, and needless to say, the closest Morrison got to playing for the Caps is wearing a generic red jersey on this card.
Strangest Card In This Set: Some cards in this set show players who were NHL stars in 1991, but with the team logos removed from their jerseys. However, an approximation of the team logo is shown next to the player, in case we forgot what team they are on. Here, a “streaking” Jaromir Jagr is shown next to a janky, avant-guard looking penguin, who is fleeing off the edge of the card.
Why Star Pics is Ranked #2: Although the photographs aren’t from games, Star Pics still used action shots and mixed in a few cards of then-current stars and retired legends. Some boxed sets even came with an autographed card randomly inserted. Plus, Star Pics was the only company who didn’t foolishly bother to produce a French version of their set.
#3 – Ultimate 1991 Hockey Draft
What’s the Deal? Smokey’s Sportscards was a sports memorabilia store in Las Vegas that branched out and produced this set of trading cards of players selected in the 1991 NHL Draft. Smokey’s could not use photos of players wearing the jerseys of the teams that drafted them. So instead, they had 53 draft picks participate in a scrimmage — wearing jerseys with the “Smokey’s Sportscards” logo on the front — that was photographed and then used those photos for the Ultimate Draft Picks card set.
Number of Cards: 90 cards, which were sold in complete sets and in six-card packs. There are both English and French versions of these cards. Reportedly, there were 120,000 English-text complete sets and 15,000 French-text complete sets produced, plus 50,000 boxes of English-text cards and 15,000 boxes of French-text cards. Each box contains 36 six-card packs, which means there’s another 10.8 million English cards and 3.24 million French cards. Oh, and another 500 sets that were autographed by the players. Like I said before, these companies thought they were printing money.
What is Good About this Set: Picking what’s good about this set is like having all of your teeth forceably removed, then being asked which tooth pull hurt the least.
Why This Set Sucks: All the players, in their generic uniforms, look like Washington Capitals players. Many of the photographs, though action-oriented, are not that good.
Best Card In This Set: Picking a best card in this set is like having all of your teeth..oh…I said that already? OK, well then I guess I’ll pick this card of Scott Niedermayer, where he is doing a hockey stop and sticking out his tongue while his hockey hair is billowing beyond the edge of the photo and onto the border. How reckless!
Worst Card In This Set: Alek Stojanov, who looks like a fool on his own card. You can’t see his face, which he is about to fall on. Apparently, Kerry Toporowski took this photo shoot way too seriously, and decided to smash into Stojanov and flip him. Coincidentally, you can’t see Toporowski’s face on his card, either.
Strangest Card In This Set: Shirtless Scott Niedermayer. OK, he is wearing a towel around his neck, and his hockey pants come up to his nipples. But the Ultimate Draft Picks set has a few, ahem, artistic shots like this one for some strange reason. Considering the fact that Niedermayer was 17 at the time this photo was taken, this card creeps me out a little.
Why Ultimate is #3: Calling this set garbage would be unkind to garbage. Plus, the owners of Smokey’s Sportscards, David “Doc” Scheinman and Phillip A. Scheinman — who were actual garbage — were arrested and sentenced to prison in 2006 for forging autographs of popular athletes.
#4 – Arena 1991 Draft Picks
What’s the Deal? Like Star Pics and Ultimate, Arena was another fly-by-night company that was looking to cash in on the increased popularity of hockey cards in the early 1990s. But to really stand out in the increasingly-crowded marketplace, Arena opted to dress the drafted players in their set in tuxedos instead of generic hockey uniforms. Because hockey players in tuxedos make us think of the NHL Awards Show, and nothing is more exciting than that.
Number of Cards: 33 card, a “Certificate of Authenticity,” and one hologram sold as a boxed set. There were 198,000 English-text sets and 99,000 French-text sets produced, because why not? Approximately one in every ten boxed sets had a random card autographed.
What is Good About this Set: Nothing. Really, nothing.
Why This Set Sucks: Other than the idea of dressing up drafted players in tuxedos, and passing it off as “hockey cards?”
Best Card In This Set: The hologram of
Fat Balloon Pat Falloon is the best card in the set since it shows him in a hockey uniform. Plus, holograms are rad. Or at least they were rad in the 1990s when it was rad to say “rad.”
Worst Card In This Set: Yanic Perreault, who was drafted in the third round. While Perreault had a decent NHL career, it is hard to get excited about a third-round pick, and putting that giant “3” in the lower-right corner doesn’t help. I wonder how much this card will be worth, thought no one, ever.
Strangest Card In This Set: Considering that all of the players are dressed for prom, pretty much any card in this set could qualify as the strangest. But card #32 shows Pat Falloon and Scott Lachance together, who were drafted second and fourth overall, respectively. They look like they should be holding hors d’oeuvre trays instead of hockey sticks.
Why Arena is Dead Last: The whole concept of dressing up draft picks — not even established players — in tuxedos and then expecting people to spend real money on these cards is beyond ridiculous. Arena proved, without a doubt, that just because you make cards does not mean people will buy them.
Card shops eventually sold these four card sets for next-to-nothing to get rid of them, with sets even ending up in dollar stores; that’s where I found my Arena set in 1992 for a buck. Today, these sets are the stuff of rummage boxes and dollar bins at card shows and hobby shops. The card companies thought they were printing money, but it turned out they were minting pennies instead of twenties. ■