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  • Writer's pictureDave

Chasing Mario

Updated: May 8, 2023

Mario Lemieux's 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee rookie card (RC) was the last major card from my childhood collection that I wanted to upgrade. My original Lemieux was in rough shape, with soft and bent corners, creasing, and poor centering.

I was in the fifth grade in 1985, and it was the first year I collected hockey cards with the goal of completing the entire set. My rubber-banded stack of doubles came to school with me every day for months. Bus rides, recesses, and lunch hours were spent working out deals with other kids, trying to turn my doubles into cards I needed. But lunchtime was the best. That's when we would hit the store for new packs, hoping to rip open the wax wrappers and find cards we had never seen before.

Who knows how much time that Lemieux RC spent at the bottom of my book bag. Or how many games of flips or knock-downs it went through. Either way, it survived. Barely.

The Search

I started my search for an upgrade on eBay. I spent a few weeks tracking every Lemieux RC that was listed, trying to get a sense of how often new cards were posted, what condition they were in, and what they sold for. The first thing I noticed was how few raw cards were posted. When they were, they tended to be in rough shape, not much better than my own. And if one looked too good to be true, I became suspicious of a counterfeit.

The majority of cards I came across were professionally graded. I had never bought a graded card before, but the appeal was obvious. Buying a graded copy would not only give me confidence that the card was authentic, but also that the condition met some third-party standard. You have to be careful with eBay, where the asking price for a raw card is often too high for its condition. Or worse, a seller blatantly overstates a card's condition, describing it as Near Mint when you can tell from the images it's closer to Very Good. Buying a graded card would eliminate that problem.

One evening I came across an auction for a raw Lemieux RC that was in decent shape - okay centering, two dinged corners, and a small crease along the bottom. Somehow, the final bid for that card was higher than the Buy-It-Now prices of two PSA 4s (Very Good) I had on my Watch List that were both in better condition. Why would I ever buy a raw card when I could have the assurance of a graded card at the same price? That clinched it for me. I was going to buy my first graded card.

I had been paying attention to eBay listings for years, so I was familiar with graded cards. And I knew about the different grading companies and the pros and cons of each. I decided to focus on cards graded by PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator), mainly because they have the best reputation among collectors, despite their recent troubles. After close inspection of every PSA graded Lemieux RC I could find, it became clear that a PSA 5 (Excellent) or a PSA 6 (Excellent-Mint) would be a significant upgrade over my original card. And a card at either grade could be found for a reasonable price.

But not every PSA 5 is created equal, nor is every PSA 6. This is where the subjectivity of grading comes into play. Personally, I would rather a well-centered card with soft corners than a sharp card that is drastically off-center. This presented a challenge, since the 1985-86 O-Pee-Chee set is notorious for poor centering. Even a lot of the higher-grade Lemieux RCs I came across (PSA 8s and PSA 9s) had that very problem.

It took about a month, but I finally managed to find a PSA 6 with decent centering. I had my upgrade!

The Wait

I started watching hockey in the mid-1980s, and the two best players from that era - Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux - will be forever linked in my mind. Lemieux was the first player to challenge Gretzky for the title of hockey’s best player. For a few years the rivalry played out brilliantly, with the two vying annually for the NHL scoring title and its MVP award. Even the NHL All-Star game was interesting for a few years when it was Gretzky versus Lemieux.

And, of course, there was the spectacular Canada Cup tournament in 1987 when they played on the same line for the only time in their careers. Lemieux’s tournament winning goal, assisted by Gretzky, is an iconic moment in Canadian sports.

Mail Day

When my new Lemieux RC showed up in the mail, it was the first time I ever held a card graded PSA 6. What immediately struck me was its overall condition. It looked amazing! Far better than I thought a PSA 6 would look, and far better than most cards in my original 1985-86 set.

Here are the details of the PSA 6 Lemieux RC:

Card Front

- Centering: 58/42 LR, 53/47 TB

- Rough top edge

- Corners lightly touched

Card Back

- Centering: 48/52 LR, 50/50 TB

- Rough top edge (same as seen from the front)

- Surface dent near the top edge, 3/4" from the right side

Overall, I’m delighted with this card. It is far superior to my original. My only concern is the surface dent on the back of the card. It is not clear from the published PSA grading standards how much this impacted the overall grade. Without that defect, would this card have graded a PSA 7 or 8 instead? If so, its sharp corners are likely not representative of most PSA 6 copies. But I'm sure there is always some guesswork when it comes to trying to understand the grade a card received.

The only question now is whether I’ll leave the card in its PSA holder or crack it open. More on that in a future post. Either way, I think I made the right decision buying a graded card. It certainly beats the gamble of buying raw.

What about my original?

I briefly considered selling my original Lemieux RC to offset the cost of my upgrade. But I've resisted selling any cards from my childhood collection, and I was hardly going to start with this one.

I keep my original 1985-86 set loose in a box within easy reach. After all, there's nothing like holding these cards in your hands and flipping through them. That box was sitting at 263 cards for a long time, but with the addition of my original Lemieux it is now complete.


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