The role of the enforcer in the NHL was at a crossroads starting with the 2005-06 season. Fighting and physicality were being legislated out of the NHL, as the league was putting an increasing emphasis on speed and skill. But one card company saw fit to put out a set of trading cards — the first, really — that celebrated the enforcer’s role in hockey. Tough Customers, released in 2005-06, showcases 25 of hockey’s most popular — or notorious — tough guys. It’s a neat set for collectors who like cards of “enforcers,” “goons,” and/or “policemen.”
Tough Customers was sold as boxed set which contained all 25 “base cards” plus two random insert cards — either autographed cards or game-used jersey cards.
Player Selection (5 out of 5)
The lineup of players in this set does not disappoint. The set is called “Tough Customers,” and indeed, all 25 of these cards are of tough customers. There are the NHL heavyweights, like Bob Probert, Dave Schultz and Tiger Williams; minor league legends Frank Bialowas and Bill Goldthorpe; and star players who were also tough, such as Cam Neely, Ted Lindsay and Wendel Clark. True, this set could easily have been 100 cards, but In The Game, knowing a good thing, would return to this idea with its Enforcers (2011-12) and Enforcers II (2013-14) hockey card sets.
Worth noting is that, at the time, all of the players in this set were retired except for Donald Brashear, who was still plying his trade with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Front Design (3 out of 5)
The front of each card has a large head shot (no pun intended) of each player. Since In The Game did not have any league licenses, the company could not show team logos. But that’s OK, as these pictures are, more or less, meant to look like mugshots — with a bit of blood splattered at the bottom for good measure. Surrounding the cards is some stitched-up flesh, more blood, and some guy getting his face punched in. This is by far the most grotesque hockey card design ever.
Stats & Info / Back Design (3 out of 5)
First and foremost, the back of each player’s card highlights their career penalty minute totals — as it should — as well as games played, goals, assists and points. (For NHL players, the stats are regular season totals; for career minor-league players, it appears to be a combination of stats from the various minor leagues they played in.)
The worst thing about these cards is that text on the back. It’s like a cross between bad handwriting and Comic Sans that doesn’t look very tough — but it is sure tough to read.
The 2005-06 Tough Customers boxed set had a wholesale price of around $70, so the set originally retailed for above that amount (probably in the $100-$120 range). Today, you can find the set sealed for around $30, or much less if opened and without the inserts.
Tough Customers is a fun little niche set for those who like hockey’s rough-and-tumble players. And if you collected the Enforcers and Enforcers II sets, Tough Customers is sort of like the prequel. Of course, if you don’t care for enforcer and those who played with an edge — or flat-out hate fighting in hockey — then you can definitely skip this one.
Here are my five favorite cards from this set.
TC-BG – Bill Goldthorpe – This guy was the inspiration for the character Ogie Oglethorpe in the movie Slap Shot. Fittingly, one of the teams he played for was the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA. (view back)
TC-FB – Frank Bialowas – “The Animal” played four games for the Maple Leafs, but otherwise kicked it — er, punched it — in the minors for 11 seasons. (view back)
Follow Sal Barry on Twitter @PuckJunk.