A few days back, Night Owl brought up the notion of a fitting final card for a player. The first thing that jumped to my mind was this – the 1979-80 OPC Gordie Howe. I love this card. I saw it for the first time in about 1982. A kid from my school had the whole ’79-80 set stashed away in one of the old cardboard lockers OPC used to sell. I’d only really started into hockey in ’80-81, so this set was still delightfully foreign to me. I’d never seen that many of them in one place.
Nowadays, of course, a kid given access to a box of ’79-80 would head straight for the Oilers and the Gretzky RC. Not in 1982. For me it was Gordie and only Gordie. I remember seeing it for the first time with a sense of wonder like Indiana Jones finding some sacred relic and actually holding it in his hand.
Gordie Howe. On a card. And it was real.
1979-80 is a neat set for a number of reasons. Design aside, it’s the year of the NHL/WHA merger, so you have the addition of four new teams. There was no WHA set in 1978-79, and the pictures used for Hartford, Quebec, Winnipeg and Edmonton represent the last images from the old league. It has the last cards of the old Atlanta Flames. It has the Gretzky, plus the rookie cards of Charlie Simmer and Bobby Smith in what is otherwise a really weak rookie crop. Dale McCourt is airbrushed into the uniform of an LA Kings team he never played for, then given a “Now with Red Wings” tag for the team he never left – not yet, anyway.
For all that, it’s the final cards that make the set. Aside from Gordie, this set has the last cards of Bobby Hull, Ken Dryden, Stan Mikita and Gerry Cheevers. There are others. That era was part of a huge generational transition from the Hulls, Orrs and Howes to the Gretzkys, Bossys and Messiers. The brief window where a number of them are together is really something to see.
Gordie’s last card shows him in a home game against Gretzky’s Oilers (presumably) from the last WHA season. The Whalers would cease being “New England” in 1979 and become “Hartford” and the crest on the sweater would change to reflect this. (The logo at bottom right shows the new look.)
Gordie’s cruising after a whistle and fixing his left glove. His number 9 is visible on both his sleeve and his skate. He’s 50 years old (at least) and would retire at 52 in the spring of 1980. His hair is mostly white, but he was still a force to be reckoned with.
In the mid-70s, his son Mark (Gordie played long enough to take the ice with two of his sons) somehow got into it with WHA penalty king and wrecking machine Steve Durbano. Steve had young Mark down on the ice and was wailing away when Gordie came up. Gordie suggested it was time to leave the boy alone. Durbano told Gordie where he could stick it. Gordie responded by removing one glove, sticking a finger up each of Durbano’s nostrils and hoisting him to his feet. Again, he said it was time to leave the boy alone. “Yes, sir,” Durbano replied.
Brett Callighen is the Oiler in the background. He had a couple great seasons on Gretzky’s wing before the arrival of Jari Kurri. Playing with Wayne made for a very successful transition to the NHL.
Exiting Stage Right is #19, Johnny McKenzie. He wouldn’t return for 1979-80 and one last NHL season. He’s glancing back over his shoulder as he skates away from his own twenty-plus year career. Johnny would briefly become the answer to an odd trivia question, as he was one of two players to have his number retired by an NHL team (Hartford) he never played for. (JC Tremblay of Quebec was the other.) Ottawa would add a third in Frank Finnigan and the league would retire Gretzky’s #99 throughout hockey. Hartford would move to Carolina and do away with the retirement of #19.
The thing that really makes this card for me is on the back. I always found the skate motif a little annoying as it limited the space available for things like stats. Given the number of years they’d have shown for Gordie, maybe it makes some sense.
This is the first year that NHL cards ever showed WHA stats merged with NHL stats. Previously, if a player went to the WHA and then returned, it was like he’d dropped off the face of the earth. For the next few seasons, if a player played in both leagues, the summary line would read “major totals” rather than “NHL totals.” By ’84-85, there would be two totals lines, one for the NHL, one for the WHA. When Upper Deck started making cards, any mention of the WHA was done away with. By the time Mark Messier, the last of the WHA players, retired, nobody had seen the stats of his rookie season in over a decade.
Gordie’s totals are staggering. 960 career goals, 2317 points. A mention of his 1000th goal (including playoffs) from 1977. That’s not what makes the back, though.
Look at the cartoon.
“Gordie is a grandfather.”
It’s probably not the only time it has been true of a professional athlete, but my nickel says this is the only time that particular line has appeared on that athlete’s card.
It’s a truly fitting last card for the grand old man of hockey.