Professional ice hockey leagues formed in the U.S. and Canada in the early 20th century, with the National Hockey League getting its start in Montreal in 1910. Like baseball and football, cards associated with the sport were there from the beginning.
The first hockey cards were issued for the 1910/1911 season by Imperial Tobacco. There were 36 vertical cards in the set, each featuring an illustration of a player on the front and a handful of details about him on the back—you can’t even call them stats.
For the 1911/1912 season, Imperial got a bit fancier, framing each of the 45 players on the fronts of its second, and last, set of cards with hockey sticks. The information on the backs of the cards was also given a more ornate graphic treatment. Collectible cards from this series include Georges Vézina of the Montreal Canadiens—Vézina is one of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s original 12 members.
Ice hockey then went without player cards for two full decades until 1933, when Canadian chewing gum companies O-Pee-Chee and Ice Kings issued separate sets of vintage hockey cards. The Ice Kings set featured black-and-white photos of players, with stats and descriptions on the backs of the cards in English only.
The O-Pee-Chee cards also had black-and-white photos of players on their fronts, but the images were placed against a colored background (red, blue, orange, or green), in the center of which was a large six-pointed star surrounded by smaller stars. Importantly, the backs of these cards were in both English and French, which may have been one reason why the OPC cards, as they are known, continued to be printed throughout the rest of the decade.
Other OPC cards from the 1930s and early 1940s included a diecut series, which allowed the owner to bend the card in the middle so that it could stand up on its own. An unfolded copy of legendary Boston Bruins defenseman Eddie Shore is highly collectible. OPC also produced a black-and-white set of 100 larger 5-by-7-inch cards for the 1939-1940 season and a similarly sized 50-card set the following year.
After World War II, a card company called Parkhurst turned its attention to hockey. Its first-season cards, from 1951-1952, consisted of a tinted photograph of the player on the ...
Parkhurst made cards through 1964, but its license limited the number of teams and players it could feature on its cards—in some years, it only made cards depicting players on the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.
Meanwhile, in 1954, Topps got into the hockey act, producing cards for players such as Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. Interestingly, vintage Topps hockey cards from 1954 for Howe, even ones in mediocre condition, are valued more highly by collectors than vintage Parkhurst Howe hockey cards from the same year in better shape. By the late 1960s, OPC got back into hockey cards by distributing Topps cards with its name on it. Of these, most of the collectible ones are the checklists, which most kids simply threw away.
One curious set of cards from the 1970-1971 season is the one distributed by Dad’s Cookies. This series of 144 vertically shaped cards featured stars like Bobby Orr, Tony Esposito, Jacques Plante, and Jean Beliveau, but the cards are a bit of a curiosity since each player posed for his photo wearing an NHL Players uniform rather than his team colors.
Checklist cards from the 1970s for both Topps and OPC remain highly prized, but in 1979, a player entered the NHL who turned ice hockey and the world of ice-hockey collectibles upside down. That player, of course, was Wayne Gretzky. For collectors of vintage hockey cards, The Great One’s NHL rookie card is among the most desirable cards in the sport. Topps and OPC Gretzky rookie cards are equally collectible, mostly because they are the exact same card, except for the branding.