Updated: May 16
Most collections, no matter how large or small, vintage or modern, are built around a handful of key pieces. Depending on what you collect, those key pieces might be single cards, complete sets, or unopened wax boxes.
For me, there are six cards at the core of my collection. If someone told me I had to get rid of every other card, that would be okay. As long as I could keep these six.
To understand how I managed to boil down an entire collection to just six cards, let me provide some context. Like a lot of collections, mine is heavily influenced by the era in which I grew up. I opened my first pack of cards when I was five years old, near the beginning of the Wayne Gretzky era, also known as the 1980s. I was a Montreal Canadiens fan, and was lucky enough to watch them play in the Stanley Cup final three times, winning twice (1986 and 1993) thanks to Patrick Roy.
I've always paid particular attention the league's top scorers. After all, they tend to create the excitement in the game. During my prime collecting years, Mario Lemieux was challenging Gretzky for the title of hockey's best player. (I still believe Lemieux was robbed of the 1989 Hart Trophy as league MVP!)
I was fifteen in the fall of 1990, when the hockey card world got turned on its head. That was also the season Lemieux won his first Stanley Cup, with some help from a nineteen-year-old rookie named Jaromir Jagr.
Finally, I've always been interested in two teams that I missed out on seeing: the Montreal dynasty of the 1970s - backstopped by Ken Dryden - that claimed the Stanley Cup each of the first four years I was alive; and the Boston teams of the early 1970s that were led by Bobby Orr, a player I wish I could have seen live.
With all that in mind, here are the six cards I consider the cornerstones of my collection. Spoiler alert! They are all legends of the game.
1966-67 Topps #35
Bobby Orr RC
The debate over hockey's greatest player should always include the name Bobby Orr. The only defenseman to ever lead the NHL in scoring (which he did twice, in 1970 and 1975), Orr dominated the game like no player had before. He led the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP on both occasions.
It is almost unheard of for a defenseman to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. In the 77 years from the beginning of the Original Six Era (1942-43) to last season (2018-19), the Hart trophy has been awarded to a defenseman just four times. Three of those went to Bobby Orr!
In a truly meteoric career, Orr played just nine full seasons before his knees finally quit. In addition to his three MVP awards, Orr was also named the league's top rookie in 1966-67, before earning top defenseman honours for the next eight seasons.
Orr's rookie card is from the iconic 1966-67 Topps "television" set, one of the most recognizable designs ever. I was lucky enough to acquire a copy in the mid-1990s. During the early days of the internet, I struck a deal with another collector on a newsgroup, trading away a pile of early 1990s Upper Deck cards for the Orr shown above. If you look closely, you will notice an indentation on Orr's right cheek where someone decided to shove a thumbtack through the card. Still, there's no doubt who won that trade.
1971-72 OPC #45
Ken Dryden RC
Montreal was not favoured to win the Stanley Cup in 1971. Not until rookie goaltender Ken Dryden stopped 46 of 48 shots in Game 7 of their opening round series, helping to upset the defending champion Boston Bruins.
After a late-season call-up, Dryden played well enough in six regular season games to get the nod as the starting goaltender for the playoffs. He would go on to play all 20 playoff games for the Canadiens that spring, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP. He remains the only player to win the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year (1971-72) after winning the Conn Smythe the previous season. (His six regular season games in 1970-71 were not enough to lose his rookie status.)
A key part of that late-1970s Montreal dynasty, Dryden would win six Stanley Cups in just eight NHL seasons, all with the Canadiens. In his 2019 book, Scotty, Dryden gives a very honest assessment of how his role on the team had changed by 1976: "... earlier in my career, sometimes, not often, I was needed to win games for the team. Now my job was not to lose them."
Dryden's rookie card is part of the 1971-72 OPC set, arguably the most-loved OPC design ever.
1979-80 OPC #18
Wayne Gretzky RC
Hockey's greatest player of all time is Wayne Gretzky. It's fun to make a case for Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, or Mario Lemieux, but they would all be challengers to Gretzky's throne. Like Bobby Orr before him, Gretzky played a different game and came to dominate his opponents.
The centrepiece of the 1980s Edmonton dynasty that captured four Stanley Cups in five years (1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988), Gretzky won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP twice (1985 and 1988).
Some of his career accomplishments will never be matched, including eight consecutive Hart Trophies as league MVP (nine overall) and seven consecutive Art Ross Trophies as the league's leading scorer (ten overall). His astronomical 2,857 career regular season points are 936 more than second-leading scorer Jaromir Jagr's 1,921. That's a whopping 48.7% more points than anyone else in history.
Even though this card is just over 40 years old, it is the most sought after in the hobby. It is hockey's equivalent of the 1952 Topps Mantle in baseball. No other hockey card commands the price that Gretzky's rookie card does in top condition, with a PSA 10 (Gem Mint) most recently selling for $465,000 US back in 2016. Given there are only two OPC Gretzky RCs in that condition, one would likely fetch a lot more today.
1985-86 OPC #9
Mario Lemieux RC
Mario Lemieux challenged Gretzky for the title of hockey's best player in the late 1980s. By the early 1990s, he had overtaken him. He started by winning the 1987-88 scoring title (168 points to 149), snapping Gretzky's streak of seven straight Art Ross Trophies, and also being named league MVP that same season, bringing an end to Gretzky's eight straight Hart Trophies as well.
Lemieux would lead his Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992, both times capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Like Orr, Lemieux's career would be marred by injury. For Lemieux it was chronic back problems. Even a bout of cancer could not keep Lemieux from winning his fourth Art Ross Trophy in 1992-93, scoring 160 points in just 60 games, along with his second Hart Trophy.
In just 915 career games, Lemieux scored 1,723 points, good enough for eighth all-time. With a career points-per-game average of 1.883, only Gretzky's is higher at 1.921. Among the top 20 all-time scorers, the next closest belongs to Marcel Dionne at 1.314. Even among the game's great scorers, Gretzky and Lemieux are in a category of their own.
Though I had collected cards in prior years, 1985-86 OPC were the first cards I collected with the goal of completing the entire set. By that point, everyone knew who Mario Lemieux was, and I made sure I had a copy of his first card. It remains one of my favourites.
1986-87 OPC #53
Patrick Roy RC
Like Dryden before him, Patrick Roy led Montreal to the Stanley Cup in his rookie season, winning the 1985-86 Conn Smythe Trophy as Playoff MVP. While Dryden backstopped powerhouse offensive teams in the 1970s, Roy was the Canadiens' only true superstar during his tenure.
He would be named Playoff MVP again in 1993, setting a record with 10 consecutive playoff overtime wins, and leading an underdog Canadiens team to the franchise's 24th - and most improbable - Stanley Cup.
After being traded to Colorado in December of 1995 (a trade that never would have happened had that franchise remained in Quebec City), Roy would go on to win two more Cups with the Avalanche (1996 and 2001). He would win his record third Conn Smythe Trophy in 2001. Fitting, for a player that always played his best when it mattered most.
This is one of my all-time favourite cards. Partly because the design and the photo are both spectacular, but mainly because 1986 was the first year I was allowed to watch every game of the playoffs. Allowed, only because the second television in our house was in my room, and that's where my father was banished to watch the games. That was the first time I saw my team win the Stanley Cup, and it was Roy who led the way.
1990-91 OPC-P #50
Jaromir Jagr RC
I have been a Jagr fan since the first round of the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs. I remember sitting on my friend's couch and watching him score a spectacular overtime goal in Game 2 of the opening round against New Jersey. Carrying the puck into the Devils zone, Jagr broke free from forward John MacLean (who was literally mauling him from behind), swept across the front of the net, then waited for goaltender Chris Terreri to go down before lifting the puck over him. Not bad for his first career playoff goal. Of course, Pittsburgh would go on to win its first Cup that year.
Watch the goal here. This video is from TSN in Canada, with play-by-play by Jim Hughson.
Jagr played an even bigger role for the Penguins in the 1992 playoffs, picking up the offensive slack when Mario Lemieux was forced out of the lineup due to injury. He always seemed to come up with the big play when the team needed it, finishing with four game-winning goals that spring. But his biggest moment was his game-tying effort in Game 1 of the finals against Chicago. Down 4-3 with five minutes to go, Jagr intercepted the puck inside the Chicago blue line, then undressed three Black Hawks players before sliding the puck past goaltender Ed Belfour. That sent the Civic Arena crowd in Pittsburgh into a frenzy and set the stage for Lemieux's last-minute, game-winning heroics.
Watch the goal here. This video is from Hockey Night in Canada, with play-by-play by the legendary Bob Cole. His broadcast partner and colour commentator, Harry Neale, had the best line when describing Jagr's solo effort: "There's only four people in the whole rink he didn't deke, and three of them are ushers."
Of course, Jagr would go on to have an outstanding career, leading the league in scoring five times, and finishing second all-time in career scoring, behind only Wayne Gretzky. His rookie card from the 1990-91 OPC Premier set is arguably O-Pee-Chee's last great rookie card.