Updated: Nov 12
Originally published March 2020. Updated May 2023. Please see Author's Note at the end.
The modern era of hockey cards began with the 1990-91 season. That year, the market that O-Pee-Chee had held captive for decades was rocked by the arrival of three new companies: Pro Set, Score, and Upper Deck. These newcomers provided hockey card collectors with more options than ever before, forcing O-Pee-Chee to raise its game or be left behind.
These new companies all produced quality sets featuring the game's star players. But they also focused heavily on prospects that had yet to play in the NHL.
Upper Deck and Score included the top picks from the 1990 draft in their sets, using posed photos of players from the draft itself. Score also managed to secure exclusive licensing for Eric Lindros, the game's hottest prospect, and gave him his own Future Superstar card. They also featured an NHL Prospects subset, which included Mats Sundin in his Team Sweden jersey. Similarly, Upper Deck gave us Pavel Bure in his Soviet Union jersey as part of its inaugural Young Guns subset.
All three cards are considered rookie cards. While Sundin actually was a rookie in the NHL in 1990-91, Bure would not debut until 1991-92, and Lindros not until 1992-93. Seemingly overnight, the hockey card world shifted. Instead of collectors simply trying to complete sets, the hobby became fixated on rookie cards, and driven by speculation over which players would become the game's next superstars.
Upping Their Game
O-Pee-Chee responded to the changing market in January of 1991 with the release of Premier. After a forgettable standard release a few months before, expectations among collectors were low. It seemed unlikely that O-Pee-Chee could produce a set to rival Upper Deck, the standout set of the newcomers. But it soon became clear that Premier was different.
A true mid-season update set, Premier featured players and photos from the current NHL season. That meant rookies making their NHL debuts in 1990-91, as well as recently traded veterans in action with their new teams. In the past, collectors would have had to wait until the following year for those cards.
O-Pee-Chee likely knew that their competitors would introduce their own mid-season update sets, and Premier was their effort to keep pace. It was the company's first update set since 1974, but unlike their 1970s approach where "Series 2" cards followed the same design as cards from earlier in the season, O-Pee-Chee used a completely new design for Premier, allowing it to stand on its own as a unique brand.
As part of that brand, Premier went beyond a normal update set by including the game's superstars. This gave collectors new cards of players such as Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Steve Yzerman, adding to the overall appeal of the set.
The design of Premier was simple, yet far more attractive than O-Pee-Chee's standard release. The photos were crisper and better framed, and the cardboard stock was of higher quality. (Unlike the near-plastic feel of cards from Pro Set and Upper Deck, Premier cards still felt like they were made of cardboard.) To meet the new standard set by the competition, a second photo of the player was included on the back of the card.
In an effort to make Premier seem like a more premium product, O-Pee-Chee switched from wax to foil packs, and removed the stick of gum collectors were used to. Also worth noting is that Premier was an O-Pee-Chee exclusive. Standard O-Pee-Chee sets had been Topps clones since 1968, but there was no Topps version of Premier.
Double the Rookies
The return of mid-season update sets was a key development for the hockey card market. As a result, Premier actually contain two years worth of rookie cards.
Players that debuted in the NHL in 1990-91 with rookie cards in Premier include Sergei Fedorov, Mats Sundin, and Jaromir Jagr. In fact, each of the top five picks from the 1990 draft appeared in the set: Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau, Mike Ricci, and Jagr. But no draft day photos were used here. Instead, players were featured in action with their NHL clubs.
With a clear focus on the game's young stars, Premier also featured players from the 1989-90 rookie class, including Jeremy Roenick, Mike Modano, and Alexander Mogilny. All three players already had rookie cards in the standard O-Pee-Chee release, but because Premier was considered a standalone brand, their Premier cards are also considered rookie cards.
Hockey collectors love goal scorers, and when Premier was released everyone was chasing Sergei Fedorov, the most dynamic rookie scorer that season.
Fedorov, who was featured on the Premier display box, would finish his first NHL season with 79 points (31 G, 48 A), twenty more than any other rookie.
Premier's only significant omission was Ed Belfour. A glaring miss, considering the Chicago goaltender went on to win the 1990-91 Calder Trophy as top rookie, after leading the league in wins, goal-against-average, and save percentage.
A few weeks after its release, fuelled by rumours of limited availability, Premier exploded in popularity and price. Packs vanished from retail stores, and card shop owners were quick to increase the price of their remaining stock.
My local shop went from charging $0.50 for a 7-card pack to a whopping $21. As a 15-year-old collector, I could no longer afford to buy packs. Or, more accurately, I no longer wanted to buy packs at that price. As a result, my Premier set remained 14 cards short of complete for a number of years.
For months, Beckett Hockey Monthly showed the set increasing in value. The May 1991 and June 1991 issues listed every single card in the set with an up-arrow, indicating an increase in price from the month before. The message was clear: Premier was hot!
The following excerpts, taken from a June 1991 Beckett article titled "Too Hot to Handle," back up this claim.
Premiere's [sic] most alluring quality is availability. The cards were issued only in foil packs - no factory sets.
... a mad scramble for Premiere [sic] began after dealers learned that there was only one printing. OPC regional sales manager Ken Norman put it best by saying, "What's out there, is what's out there."
Things clearly changed along the way. Factory sets were indeed issued, and based on the existence of two variations of the Jagr RC, there were likely multiple print runs. It seems that once O-Pee-Chee realized the demand for the product, they couldn't help themselves from producing more.
It took nearly two decades, but the illusion of scarcity finally faded, leaving Premier valued only marginally higher than other sets from 1990-91. For anyone that paid close attention to the secondary market, this was hardly a surprise. After all, if Premier was really that scarce, why were there so many factory sets and unopened boxes available for purchase?
I managed to complete my own set in 1999, when the price of a pack had fallen to about $5 CDN. Today, you can pick up the entire set in Near Mint condition for $20-30, a sealed factory set for $75-100, or an unopened box of 36 packs for $120-150.
Modern, but kind of Vintage
Nearly thirty years later, Premier still holds up better than any other set from 1990-91. The reason is simple: Nothing about the set immediately screams 1990s hockey cards.
No draft day or junior hockey photos were used in Premier. Instead, all players were featured in action with their NHL teams, something likely dictated by the Topps license at the time. Also, Premier did not draw attention to rookie cards in any way. Instead, all cards in the set used the same design. The result is a simple, but consistent, 132-card set without the gimmicky subsets that plagued other sets from this period.
Though widely considered a modern set, everything about Premier screams vintage.
Premier gave us what is arguably O-Pee-Chee's last great rookie card, that of second all-time leading scorer and future Hall-of-Famer, Jaromir Jagr. This card is a constant on the secondary market, with a graded PSA 10 (Gem Mint) copy typically selling for about $100 CDN.
That modest price is a result of the sheer number of cards available. PSA currently shows 2,673 Gem Mint 10 copies in their population. That high number speaks to the popularity of the card, but it also reflects just how many Premier cards were produced at a time when collectors did their best to preserve cards, often placing them directly from the pack into plastic binder pages or top-loaders.
Jagr's Premier rookie card is a must-have for any hockey card collection. That alone will keep Premier alive for future generations of collectors.
Premier's legacy in the hobby, however, goes beyond any single card. In a year when O-Pee-Chee could have been left behind by the competition, Premier kept the revered Canadian company at the top of the hockey card world. For one more year, at least.
By 1993, with even more companies and more premium brands in the market, O-Pee-Chee was forced to close its production facility in London, Ontario. The company never printed another hockey card.
And while the O-Pee-Chee name has lived on (through Topps until 2004, and through Upper Deck since 2006), it has never regained its former status in the hobby.
As it turned out, Premier was O-Pee-Chee's last significant contribution to the hobby. Though a few more sets followed, none came close to creating the same level of excitement among collectors. None of us knew it at the time, but Premier was O-Pee-Chee's true swan song.
I recently decided to update this article to highlight Sergei Fedorov's RC, which was the set's main attraction during the craze of 1990-91, and to expand on why I think Premier should be significant for all O-Pee-Chee collectors. Hopefully, I've done both.
Upon revisiting my original article, the pricing information was obviously stale, so here's a look at current prices. These are my own rough estimates based on the secondary market.
Jagr RC (PSA 10): $225 - 275 CDN
Set (Near Mint): $60 - 80 CDN
Factory Set: $120 - 150 CDN
Unopened Box: $225 - 275 CDN
After the peak of the inflated COVID market, when a PSA 10 Jagr RC regularly sold for more than $500 (see related article: Jagr Premier on Fire!), these numbers seem a bit disappointing. But keep in mind that from March 2020 to May 2023, the card has more than doubled in value.
Dave (May 2023)