We’re officially in the NHL offseason. While the league goes into hibernation mode until a new season starts on October 11, there’s still plenty of hockey out there for everyone to enjoy this summer.
The new 3-on-3 league, known as 3ICE, just launched, while card and memorabilia collecting never stops as many of you out there prepare to attend The National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City at the end of the month.
The dog days of summer get into high gear with the Fourth of July and everything that goes with it such as pool parties, cookouts and fireworks. Of course, America’s birthday is also a great excuse for me at my very first “Clemente’s Corner” to write about some of my favorite hockey cards featuring players in their USA uniforms.
It could be because I am also a big soccer fan, but I do love international hockey competition. I miss seeing NHLers play at the Olympics. It’s for that reason that I am going to rundown my favorite cards featuring U.S. players just in time for Independence Day.
Some of these cards are true gems. Indeed, they are cardboard miracles when you consider how infrequently players have appeared in past sets wearing their national team colors. Here are a few of my favorites:
Jim Craig: 1980-81 Topps
Mention USA Hockey and the first thing that comes to my mind is Mike Eruzione and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team that captured Olympic gold in Lake Placid. Some of the players on that team would make their first cardboard appearances in the 1980-81 Topps Hockey set. Yes, that’s the one with the blackened sections that served as scratch-off pucks to reveal the players’ name. It was an experimental concept that never caught on. Many dislike this set to this day because of it.
Players on the U.S. Olympic team who were included in the 1980-81 Topps set are denoted by a USA Hockey logo at the top of their cards. Although he doesn’t appear in a U.S. jersey, my favorite of the cards is the one of goaltender Jim Craig, who appears as a member of the Bruins. (The photo originally showed Craig as a member of the Atlanta Flames but was airbrushed to reflect his offseason trade to Boston.)
It was Craig who made 36 of 39 saves in the upset against the Soviet Union at those epic Winter Games. Craig would go on to play in the NHL for the Flames, Bruins and Minnesota North Stars in just 30 games before retiring in 1984.
Mike Eruzione: 1983 History’s Greatest Olympians & M&M’s Olympic Heroes
As for Mike Eruzione, the team captain and scorer of the winning goal in that legendary 4-3 win against the Soviets, he never did play in the NHL. As a result, Eruzione was never issued either a Topps or O-Pee-Chee card at the time.
In 1983, however, Finder Image International released a special multi-sport, 99-card set called “History’s Greatest Olympians” that featured an Eruzione card that is considered his rookie. The set was printed by Topps, but marketed and sold by Finder Image.
A smaller, 44-card set released the same year (known as the “M&M’s Olympic Heroes” set) featured the same photo of Eruzione. He would go on to be a fixture at the Olympics, working as a color commentator at five Winter Games for ABC and CBS.
The “Miracle on Ice” Team: 1991 Impel U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame
In 1991, another set called the “Impel U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame” featured plenty of 1980 “Miracle on Ice” cards. The 90-card set, in fact, featured 10 cards from that ‘80 team and an 11th of coach Herb Brooks, who was the last player cut from the 1960 Olympic team that won the gold in Squaw Valley. The photo on the card is from his playing days.
Impel, short for Impel Marketing, was a trading-card company that was founded in 1989 and known for putting out Marvel and DC cards. Like the “Greatest Olympians” and “Olympic Heroes” sets, raw Impel cards are relatively cheap (although high grades can sometimes sell for three figures) and can be found at shows for a few dollars as collated sets or individually in quarter boxes.
Canada Cup: 1991-92 Upper Deck
The 1991-92 Upper Deck set, one of my favorites because it was released when I was at my collecting zenith back in high school, also featured players in their national team uniforms who participated in the 1991 Canada Cup. The Canada Cup was an invitational tournament held on five occasions between 1976 and 1991, created to meet demand for a world hockey championship regardless whether one was a pro or amateur. It was replaced in 1996 by the World Cup of Hockey, which will next be contested in 2024.
There were six Americans as part of the initial 1991-92 Upper Deck Hockey set: Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios. Later that season, another six American players were included in the High Number Series: Tony Granato, Eric Weinrich, Gary Suter, Kevin Hatcher, Craig Janney, and Darren Turcotte, who actually did not play due to a wrist injury in a pre-tournament game.
I love to get these cards signed – either through the mail or at shows – because they’re different than regular base cards that show players in their NHL uniforms. Since these cards were released during the “Junk Wax Era,” they are also cheap. In addition, they also always elicit a response from players who sign them.
“I really loved to play for the U.S.,” Richter, who won the Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994, told me during a signing at the White Plains Sports Card Show in suburban New York back in November 2019. “It’s a shame NHLers aren’t in the Olympics.”
It is a shame, but they used to be. The NHL and NHL Players’ Association even reached an agreement with the IIHF last year for players to return for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing for the first time since the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The plan, however, fell through because of the logistics tied to COVID-19 quarantines that would have delayed this past season even further.
Cindy Curley: 1994-95 Classic Women of Hockey
Imagine a hockey legend with only one card! That’s the case of Cindy Curley, a pioneer of the women’s game. Curley played in the inaugural IIHF Women’s World Championship in 1990 – with her 11 goals and 12 assists in just five games still a single-tournament records at a Women’s World Championship.
Although the U.S. captured a silver at that tournament, Curley is immortalized in the 1994 Classic set “Women of Hockey.” The 40-card set 19 U.S. women’s players – the rest being from Canada – and does include other American standouts such as superstar Cammi Granato.
It was last month that Title IX turned 50. The law, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal assistance, ensured that millions upon millions of American girls could enjoy the same opportunities in school sports as boys. This helped players like Curley, Granato and countless others over the years.
Cammi Granato: 2004-05 Upper Deck
One of the most successful USA Hockey players ever was Cammi Granato. She also made hobby history by becoming the first woman to appear on a Upper Deck “Young Guns” card. The 2004-05 release, featuring a smiling Granato clutching her gold medal, remains a hockey icon.
This card is a must for anyone who collects “Young Guns” cards. Granato, sister of NHLer Tony, won gold at the 1998 Nagano Games, followed by a silver four years later in Salt Lake City. Granato was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.
There are many other cards and sets tied to USA Hockey, but the sampling of the ones mentioned in this post may inspire you to go out and grab them the next time you’re at a show or scrolling through eBay. These cards are a must for any American fan proud of this country’s hockey heritage.
Clemente Lisi is a lifelong Rangers fan who first started collecting cards in 1986. He collects both vintage and modern with a focus on rookie cards. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.