Best. Design. Ever.
Updated: May 16
What's your favourite hockey set of all time? Even though it was released a few years before I was born, 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee (OPC) is mine.
The first time I saw cards from this set was in the mid-1980s. A childhood friend had a rubber-banded stack of them that had belonged to his father. I remember flipping through them and thinking how old they seemed, though at the time they had been around less than 15 years. The only names I recognized were Henri Richard and Gilbert Perreault, mainly because there were few stars included in the stack. I was confused by Pittsburgh's blue jerseys and Vancouver's hockey stick logo. And who were the Golden Seals? Had that really been an NHL team?
My collection includes a run of complete OPC sets from 1976-77 to 1992-93, and I've been reluctant to add more because of the space required to store them properly. But the 2020 COVID lockdown got the better of me. I had always loved the design of the 1971-72 set, and since I already owned the set's key rookie cards (RCs), I figured it was time to add one more set to my collection.
Anatomy of a Design
The 1971-72 set is instantly recognizable by the oval background used in its design. Add to that the cartoon-like font used for the team nickname and this set just screams vintage.
Most card designs allow as much room as possible for the player image, which means adhering to the typical rectangular layout. But since this set relies on posed photos almost exclusively, sacrificing space to accommodate the oval is less of a concern. The other design elements fill the extra space around the oval nicely, as can be seen on the Bobby Clarke card above.
The edges of the oval define the top and side borders of the card, while the team nickname further defines the top and side borders. The bottom and side borders are framed by the player name on the left and the combination of team logo and player position on the right. This is useful to know when trying to determine the centering of a card from this set.
This set would be worth owning based on the design alone. When you consider the three key RCs included, it becomes clear why it's considered one of the best hockey sets ever produced. Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, and Marcel Dionne – three legends of the game – all make their cardboard debut in 1971-72 OPC.
The set was issued in two 132-card series. Dryden, who had backstopped Montreal to a surprise Stanley Cup victory in 1971, appeared in the first series. Lafleur and Dionne, drafted first and second overall in the 1971 draft, were featured in the second.
Note: The 1971-72 Topps set was issued in one 132-card series, which is why there is a Topps version of the Dryden RC. However, there is no Topps version of either the Lafleur RC or the Dionne RC.
Ken Dryden RC
Ken Dryden remains the only player in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe Trophy (1970-71 season) as playoff MVP the year before winning the Calder Trophy (1971-72 season) as rookie of the year. Dryden played in Montreal's final six regular season games in 1970-71, before playing all 20 playoff games. He became an instant legend for the storied franchise. He would go on to win a total of six Stanley Cups with Montreal in just eight seasons, including four consecutive from 1975-76 to 1978-79.
Like other vintage hockey cards, prices for graded copies of the Dryden RC have skyrocketed over the past year. Recently, PSA 8 (NM-MT) copies have been selling for about $2,000 CDN and PSA 9 (Mint) copies for roughly $7,500 CDN.
Guy Lafleur RC
Guy Lafleur was the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals and 100 points in six consecutive seasons, which he did from 1974-75 to 1979-80. During that span he won the Art Ross Trophy as league scoring leader (3x), the Lester B. Pearson Trophy as players' MVP (3x), the Hart Trophy as MVP (2x), and the Conn Smythe Trophy (1x). Lafleur won five Stanley Cups with Montreal and was their main offensive weapon during their run of four straight from 1975-76 to 1978-79.
Prices for the Lafleur RC are not far behind the Dryden RC, with a PSA 9 copy selling earlier this month for over $5,500 CDN.
Marcel Dionne RC
Amazingly, Hall of Famer Marcel Dionne is a distant third when it comes to sought-after RCs from this set. His remarkable career included six 50-goal seasons and eight 100-point seasons, and his astonishing 1,771 career points remains sixth best all-time. The knock against Dionne has always – perhaps unfairly – been a lack of championships, having played most of his career on lacklustre teams in Los Angeles.
Number Four, Bobby Orr
After the rookie cards, the most popular cards in the set are of Bobby Orr. Like Wayne Gretzky in 1980s OPC releases, Bobby Orr was hockey's best player at the time of this set's release, and he is featured on three different cards. In addition to his highly collectable regular card, the Bruins defenseman also appears in two subsets - Trophy Winners and All-Stars.
His double trophy card - Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player and Norris Trophy as its best defenseman - might be the most popular trophy card ever produced.
The 1970-71 season marked the end of two of the most distinguished careers in NHL history, those of Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau. OPC honoured both players with "Special Collector's Cards" in the 1971-72 set. It's interesting that Topps chose to include a regular card for Howe but not for Beliveau. More on that below.
OPC/Topps Master Set
Though hard to imagine, the 1971-72 OPC set could have been even better. When I decided to build this set, there were two cards from the Topps version that I knew I had to include. In fact, I was shocked that OPC chose to leave them out.
The first was the regular card of Gordie Howe. Presumably, OPC chose not include this because they planned to issue the special retirement card for Howe instead.
If they were going to include a regular card of Howe, you would think that Topps would have included one of Beliveau as well. Since they didn't, I created a mock-up to show what that card might have looked like.
The second Topps card that was a must-have was the Scoring Leaders card featuring Bobby Orr. I love the look of this card, which continued the oval theme from the main set. Topps actually featured a six-card League Leaders subset, two of which featured Orr: Scoring Leaders and Assist Leaders. Why OPC chose not to include these – especially given the ample room of a 264-card set – is a mystery.
The Scoring Leaders card might be mistaken for a Boston Bruins team leaders card. Remarkably, seven of the league's top eleven point producers during the 1970-71 season were from the Bruins.
Since I wanted to include the Howe card and the Scoring Leaders card from the Topps set anyway, I figured it was just as well to put together an OPC/Topps master set. I started with the 264-card OPC set, then added the 11 Topps cards that do not have an equivalent in the OPC set. Those 11 cards are listed below.
1. NHL Goal Leaders
2. NHL Assists Leaders
3. NHL Scoring Leaders
4. NHL Goalies Wins Leaders
5. NHL Shutouts Leaders
6. NHL GAA Leaders
70. Gordie Howe (Detroit)
83. Doug Roberts (California)
106. Tony Featherstone (California)
124. Gary Smith (California)
132. Dunc McCallum (Pittsburgh)
Scoring Champ... in Slacks?
The majority of cards in this set feature posed photos, but there's no excuse for a player as important as Phil Esposito to appear in slacks. Worse, Topps had used a similar shot the year before for Esposito's 1970-71 card. That's right, two cards came from the slacks photo shoot! Surely they could have done better for one of the best scorers in the game.
Note: Esposito's teammate, Ken Hodge, is also wearing slacks on his card. To top it off, both players are wearing teammate Fred Stanfield's #17 gloves!
Esposito led the league in scoring in 1970-71, and his 152 points established a new record for points in a season, breaking his own mark of 126 from two seasons before. He also set a new standard for goals in a season in 1970-71 with 76, shattering Bobby Hull's previous mark of 58. People often forget that before Wayne Gretzky came along, most of the league's scoring records belonged to Esposito.
This is not a cheap set to build. As I mentioned, I already owned low-grade copies of the Dryden RC, the Lafleur RC, and the regular Bobby Orr card, so I was not starting from scratch. To get going on the rest of the set, I acquired a couple of bulk lots at an average cost of $2-3 per card. I tried to stick with cards in Good (G) or Very Good (VG) condition as a way to keep the cost reasonable. I was, however, looking to build a clean set, so I avoided cards with pens marks or paper loss. After acquiring those initial bulk lots, it took a few more months to fill out the set.
The last two cards I acquired were the checklists, though I could not justify buying unmarked copies. The Series 1 checklist (#111), in particular, can be pricey. An unmarked, raw copy can sell for between $800 and 1,000 CDN in VG condition. I paid $30 for my copy, which is heavily marked.
1971-72 OPC is one of hockey's most iconic sets. It combines a spectacular group of rookie cards with a design that is both recognizable and unforgettable. It's easy to see why this set is a favourite of so many collectors, whether they opened packs in their childhood or – like me – discovered the set long after its original release. I only wish I had added this set to my collection sooner.