Topps for the Win
Updated: Apr 28
I grew up in Canada collecting O-Pee-Chee (OPC) hockey cards, and had no idea they were a Topps clone until 1990, when I got my first Beckett Hockey magazine. (So sheltered, I know.) Since then I've mostly regarded the Topps versions of those cards as weird, awkward cousins from an alternate universe. A universe where the 1976-77 set has 264 cards instead of 396, and where Steve Yzerman's 1984-85 RC is #49 in the set instead of #67.
Over the years, however, I've come to appreciate those instances when Topps had things right from the start, only to have OPC come along later and mess things up.
Here's a look at a few examples from the Topps/OPC "clone" years (1968-69 to 1994-95) when OPC should have just stuck with what Topps had already done.
It's hard to imagine the 1971-72 OPC set being any better. After all, it's iconic design and trifecta of Hall of Fame rookies (Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, and Marcel Dionne) make it a favourite among collectors of all ages. But it could have been even better, had OPC decided to include cards from the Topps set.
1971-72 Topps #3
NHL Scoring Leaders
This card might be confused for the Boston Bruins scoring leaders card, but seven of the top eleven scorers in the 1970-71 season came from the Bruins. For some reason, OPC decided not to include the NHL Leaders subset from Topps. A strange decision when it would have meant two more cards featuring Bobby Orr (#2 Assists Leaders and #3 Scoring Leaders). These leaders cards fit the 1971-72 design perfectly, continuing the "oval" theme of the base cards.
1971-72 Topps #70
Even though Gordie Howe retired after the 1971 season, Topps still included him in its base set. OPC, however, chose not to include this card, instead creating a special "retirement" card for him instead. While that OPC card is great, why not include the base card too? I mean, this is Mr. Hockey we're talking about. Why not include both?
Related: Best. Set. Ever.
1973-74 Topps #10
I've never been a huge fan of this set, particularly with the decision for All-Star players to have their own theme. It's like having an All-Star subset but not giving those players their own base cards. Either way, at least Topps included a card of Ken Dryden. OPC decided not to. Yes, Dryden had made it known he would not be playing in the 1973-74 season, but he had just backstopped Montreal to their second Stanley Cup in three years. Besides, this is just a great card of Dryden!
Well, this is awkward. Instead of using the perfectly acceptable Topps design for players on the First and Second All-Star Teams, OPC decided on another approach. They removed the "All-Star" designation from, well, the all-stars in order to create a separate subset. Sounds good in theory. After all, it meant an additional cards of the all-star players. But the execution was dreadful, and the result cringe-worthy. The base cards of some of the game's biggest stars were left with a strange dead space, like something was missing from the card. (Because it was!) It not only looked odd, but probably created a lot of confusion for collectors.
1980s Topps Sticker Inserts
Topps and OPC sets from 1985-86 to 1989-90 did not include any All-Star subsets. To fill the void, Topps included All-Star Sticker inserts in wax packs. OPC did the same for the 1985-86 set, but not for the following years. Too bad, as these Topps sets feature Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux at the height of their powers, and at the height of their rivalry. The designs of the 1986-87 All-Star stickers, in particular, are exceptional!
Related: Topps All-Stars: Gretzky vs. Lemieux
1988-89 Topps #120
The "Sweater" Card
In general, I'm not a fan of cards that feature players off the ice. But the trade - or, perhaps more accurately, sale - of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1989 was such a monumental event that it was worth preserving on cardboard. Topps did just that, preserving a moment from Gretzky's press conference in Los Angeles, his new team jersey in hand.
OPC, with a bit more time before going to production, opted for the on-ice, staged pose in full equipment instead. It's not a bad card, but it certainly lacks the historical significance of the Topps card. Oh well...
Interestingly enough, if you ever come across a wax box of 1988-89 OPC, you'll notice a small image of the OPC version of the "Sweater" card on one side. Unfortunately, it never made it into production.
Related: "Now with Kings"
To celebrate their 25th anniversary, O-Pee-Chee decided to use its own design for their 1992-93 set, instead of simply cloning the Topps design as they had for the previous 24 years. The result was a less than average set that used an uninspired design and below average photography. Not a great way to celebrate a milestone year.
In hindsight, OPC should have stuck with the Topps design. They still could have included their 25th anniversary inserts, which featured reproductions of key rookie cards from OPC's first 24 years, and are the highlight of the set.