Remembering Hockey’s First Jersey Cards
It’s a brisk, early morning in September of 1997. I’m sitting at a picnic table at an elementary school playground, just north of Pittsburgh. My nine-year old self is huddled up with a few friends, rummaging through the new cards we had acquired over the summer. We were all in awe over Jeffy’s Joe Thornton rookie card, when a boy with a Sidney Crosby-esque pencil mustache approached us.
“Pfft, you guys think that’s cool?” asked eighth grader Joey M. “Check this out.”
He laid something out on the table that blew our pre-pubescent minds: a Mike Modano 1996-97 Upper Deck Game Jersey card. We stared in amazement, like it was a winning lottery ticket.
Joey glared at us like we were mere peasants in his newfound collectors kingdom. He then slowly picked up the card and walked away, without another word, leaving us in utter disbelief.
Trading my Upper Deck Collectors Choice Stick’Ums seemed pointless after what we had just seen. We packed up our cards and hung our heads until the recess bell rang.
Youngsters today will never get to experience how cool seeing that card was to us. Nowadays, jersey cards are usually just tossed aside; they are borderline commons these days. but in the late 1990s, these cards made you the king of the playground cardboard hustlers.
When Upper Deck released the first Game Jersey cards in 1996-97 Upper Deck Series One and Series Two, they were next-to-impossible to find. Seeded 1 in every 2,500 packs, it was like trying to find a real tooth in Bobby Clarke’s mouth. The first five cards inserted in Series One packs were Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Doug Gilmour, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Bourque. When Series Two was later released, it featured Mario Lemieux, John Vanbiesbrouck, Eric Lindros, Mike Modano, Pavel Bure, Mark Messier, Theo Fleury and Mats Sundin. That’s a rather stacked checklist!
When these insert cards first came out, it was not just a gimmick; it was an honest attempt to make collectors feel closer to the superstars they were collecting. As a kid, having a piece of game-used Mario Lemieux jersey was like having a piece of Superman’s cape. Hell, I still feel the same way! It’s owning something connects you directly to your hero.
To this day, these cards are still heavily sought after. Even though the value has dropped a good bit since their release — taking into account how many jersey cards have hit the market in the past 20-plus years — they have still held pretty solid.
Here is what the cards were priced at in the July 1997 Beckett Hockey price guide:
And here are the prices from Beckett’s Hockey Guide 2018 Annual:
You will see that Joey’s Mike Modano Game Jersey card went from $200 in 1997 to $100 in 2018. Keep in mind that multi-colored swatches may also bump up the value a little.
Sure, I know what you’re thinking: the card lost half of it’s value. Okay, fair. But it was the 90s! It’s hard to find anything from that decade that hasn’t taken a loss like that in value. (Go ahead and fire away in the comments if you can prove me wrong.)
We all know now that jersey cards went on to be a common practice in the trading card world, which was expanded to patches, sticks, skate books, leg pads, blockers, gloves, etc. But love it or hate it, this is the set that started it all. Now every time I see a 90’s jersey card, it always takes me pack to that picnic table on the playground in fourth grade. That to me is worth more than any dollar amount you can put on a card. ■
Travis Shaw is a blue collar steel plant worker from Pittsburgh who is borderline obsessed with everything hockey and is married to a woman who is waaayyyy out of his league. Follow him on Twitter @Tshaw311