NHL Free Agency Frenzy: Don’t Expect Updated Hockey Cards Anytime Soon

It Will Be a While Before Cards Reflect New Teams

Since NHL Free Agency started last week, over 40 NHL players have signed free agency contracts with new teams. Notable signings include Steven Stamkos with the Predators, Jake Guentzel with the Lightning, Ilya Samsonov with the Golden Knights, Elias Lindholm with the Bruins, Sean Monohan with the Blue Jackets, and Vladamir Tarasenko with the Red Wings. 

There were some trades too, such as the deal that sent Bruins’ goalie Linus Ullmark to the Senators. 

Nearly all of the players changing teams over this summer are NHL regulars who will appear on one or more hockey cards this upcoming season.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take some time before we can expect to see cards picturing these players in their new threads. 

The next few cards of Steven Stamkos that we find in packs will still show him in his Lightning jersey. Sorry, Predators’ fans. You’ll just have to wait a little longer. 

Of course, part of that reason is because Upper Deck is still releasing sets from the 2023-24 season over the summer, as well as the 2022-23 Premier set coming out this week. 

And even sets released prior to the start of the season, like 2024-25 MVP, will use photos from before March’s trade deadline. Other sets like Upper Deck Series One and Artifacts will be released in October – still too soon to see any of the summer signings or trades reflected. 

But it wasn’t always that way. Card companies used to go through great lengths to picture players in their new uniforms after a trade or free agent singing. 

From the late 1960s until the 1989-90 season, card companies like Topps and O-Pee-Chee would repaint photos of players that changed teams over the summer months. 

As you can see on this 1986-87 O-Pee-Chee card of Gary Nylund, the results were usually…not great. 

Or the card company would cut and paste one player’s head on another player’s body.

Also…not great. In fact, this Rogatien Vachon card is so awful that it was inducted into the Puck Junk Bad Hockey Card Hall of Fame in 2017.

When Eric Lindros made his NHL debut in fall of 1992, packs of 1992-93 Upper Deck Hockey cards that fall pictured Lindros in a Flyers uniform.

How? They did a digital “head swap,” putting the Big E’s noggin on a teammate’s body.

I guess that practice is frowned upon nowadays, as it almost never used on trading cards – even though it would be easier to do so now with technology like Photoshop than it was 30 years ago with actual paint on a photograph. 

Sometimes, card companies would just use photos of players in their street clothes and in a non-hockey setting when they changed teams in the offseason. When Jeremy Roenick was traded to the Coyotes in 1996, Leaf decided to picture JR on a motorcycle for its 1996-97 Leaf Limited set.

When Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings in August 1988 – two months before the start of the season – Topps used a photo of The Great One at a press conference for his card in the 1988-89 Topps Hockey set.

There was no way Topps was going to “head swap” The Great One with a lesser one – or crudely repaint his uniform like O-Pee-Chee did to his teammate, Mike Krushelnyski.

Using a press conference photo became an accepted practice in the trading card industry after that – but it didn’t always look good. For the 2003-04 In the Game Action set, the company used a photo of Teemu Selanne at a press conference.

Or rather, a photo of the Pepsi Center jumbotron that was broadcasting a press conference from Finland. Teemu looks like he is in a giant fish tank. Hands down, this is Selanne’s worst hockey card.

Upper Deck used several press conference photos for its 2006-07 Fleer Hockey set, which was released in November 2006, just as hockey season was less than a month old.

2006-07 Fleer #187 - Roberto Luongo

Doing so really made the set feel more up to date, as there were a lot of prominent free agent signings in the offseason, including Roberto Luongo, Zdeno Chara, Rob Blake, and Martin Havlat. 

2006-07 Fleer #18 - Zdeno Chara

Personally, I didn’t mind this, as I like a variety of photos in my hockey card sets, and not just on-ice action pictures.

When I met Martin Havlat at an autograph signing in November 2006, I got a copy of the above card signed by him. He did a double take and told me how surprised he was that there were already cards of him in a Blackhawks uniform. The picture was actually from a Blackhawks photo shoot from the summer to promote Havlat signing with the team.

Two years later, when Marian Hossa signed with the Red Wings in 2008, Panini used a photo of Hoss from a preseason practice for its 2008-09 sticker set. This was the biggest free agent signing that summer, so Panini was sure to reflect that in its annual sticker set. 

I understand that it takes longer to produce cards these days, as the quality is much higher now than it was 30 years ago. Production times take anywhere from six months to over a year, so it is impossible to expect cards that use “fresh” photos until at least after the new year. 

So, until then, we will just have to put up with a few more cards that picture Jake Guentzel with the Hurricanes…or even the Penguins.

Note: This article is an updated version of an editorial that originally appeared in Volume 2 – Issue 27 of the Puck Junk Newsletter. For stories like these, plus news and updates about hockey cards and collectibles, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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Author: Sal Barry

Sal Barry is the editor and webmaster of Puck Junk. He is a freelance hockey writer, college professor and terrible hockey player. Follow him on Twitter @puckjunk

One thought on “NHL Free Agency Frenzy: Don’t Expect Updated Hockey Cards Anytime Soon”

  1. I don’t think I have ever seen 2006-07 Fleer Hockey Before but I like that design and those photos.

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