Traded to Kings 8-9-88
Updated: May 16
The trade that changed hockey forever happened on August 9th, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky, fresh off a fourth Stanley Cup victory in five years with the Edmonton Oilers, was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It was The Day Canada Stood Still. Gretzky, hockey's best player, and the pride of Canada, was heading south.
During their tenure, Topps and O-Pee-Chee (OPC) handled off-season trades and free-agent signings in a variety of ways. Since Topps usually released its hockey product in the fall of the year, the photos used were from the previous season. (OPC would use the same photos for its release.) If a player had been traded since their most recent Topps photo, a limited window existed during production to update their card.
This was usually done in one of three ways, though often some combination of the three was used. First, a line of text was added to the card saying something like "Now with Kings" or "Traded to Kings 8-9-88" or "Signed with Kings 8-9-88." Second, the card template was updated to reflect a player's new team, even though the player image would still show them in the jersey of their old team. Third, and most extreme, was when Topps or OPC broke out its infamous airbrush to update the player photo to show them with their new team, the results of which ranged from convincing to laughable.
Jimmy Carson, who went to Edmonton in the Gretzky trade, was given the airbrush treatment, as shown below. Of course, Edmonton wore white helmets with their home white uniforms at the time, but Topps and OPC never seemed to care too much about such details.
Mike Krushelnyski, also part of the trade to Los Angeles, was given the full treatment - caption, team template, and airbrush - for his 1988-89 OPC card, as shown below. Now that's a classic airbrush!
So, how would Topps and OPC handle Gretzky? Surely they wouldn't break out the airbrush for hockey's best player, would they? Let's take a look.
During the 1980s, a key difference between Topps and OPC releases was timing. Topps typically issued its hockey cards in the fall, while OPC waited until January. (Notice in the images below how the 1988-89 Topps wax box shows the year 1988, while the OPC shows 1989.)
This gave OPC more time to update their cards to reflect trades, which they would take advantage of for hockey's biggest trade. But when wax boxes rolled off the production line at OPC, they were essentially identical to those from Topps, and included a preview of the Wayne Gretzky card on the box's side panel.
This card has come to be known as The Sweater card, for obvious reasons. The image was taken at the press conference in Los Angeles introducing Gretzky to his new team and new city. But, despite the image on the box, OPC never produced The Sweater card.
Thankfully, both Topps and OPC avoided adding the "Traded to Kings 8-9-88" caption on their Gretzky cards. And, just as important, no airbrush was used in the production of these cards. A great decision, given Gretzky's stature in the game.
OPC used their additional production time to capture a photo of Gretzky in full equipment, on ice, in his new Los Angeles Kings uniform. I completely understand why they did this, and while I'm generally not a fan of cards featuring off-ice images, the Gretzky trade was so monumental that the image of him holding up his new Kings jersey was well worth preserving on cardboard. The Sweater Card from Topps captured that moment perfectly, which is why I prefer the Topps card over the OPC. (Not sure I'm allowed to say that, being from Canada, but I just did!)
Let's take a look at the other cards and inserts that Topps and OPC issued for Gretzky as part of their 1988-89 releases.
1988-89 wax boxes included a four-card panel on the bottom. There were four different panels, for sixteen different cards, one of which was Gretzky. This box-bottom card depicts him with the Oilers, and follows the Oilers card design. That means one in every four wax boxes features two images of Gretzky: a preview of The Sweater card with the Kings, and a game-action shot with the Oilers!
Keen observers will likely notice another change made by OPC between the production of the wax boxes and the cards themselves. Both the preview of The Sweater card on the wax box and the box bottom card use a black oval around the O-Pee-Chee logo. This was removed from the design before the cards were printed.
Topps Sticker Inserts
Topps included a 33-card sticker insert set in 1988-89, featuring the 12 post-season All-Stars (First and Second Teams) from the 1987-88 season, along with 21 team logos. Gretzky was named a Second Team All-Star in his last season as an Oiler, and the sticker features him in his Oilers uniform. Side note: These insert sets are very underrated!
OPC also released a high-gloss, mini-card "Stars" set in 1988-89, which features Gretzky in his Kings jersey, likely taken at that same press-conference as The Sweater card. This is a neat, alternate version from OPC.
The Gretzky trade was a watershed moment for hockey. Rarely did superstar players switch teams in that era. But, on that August afternoon in 1988, we learned that any player in hockey could be traded. Even the greatest.
Here is the only hand-cut portion of a wax box to make its way into my collection. It got there for good reason!