This is a little project I’ve been wanting to tackle for a while. I just needed to build up a better scan library and get through the ranking process in my head. I’ve seen a number of different attempts to rank sets of the 80s, determine which sets give the best value for money, etc. I wanted to take a kick at the 1970s because it often seems underrepresented to me.
There are 17 different sets that I decided to include. OPC made 10 NHL sets and four WHA sets, plus there were three food issues I thought merited discussion. I left out the sticker and stamp issues and Topps sets that basically mirrored the OPC sets but were simply smaller. 1971-72 Topps is different enough to probably warrant inclusion, but I don’t have enough of it (read any) to make any real assessment.
The ranking process was tougher than I thought. The top four or five are pretty easy, but sorting out the balance was pretty nasty. I weighed things like number of significant cards, design, photography, rookie class, etc. Ultimately, if I couldn’t make a call, I went with “If I could only buy one of these, which would it be?”
One thing I notice is that the sets that are “better” also tend to be the most expensive. I couldn’t really work “value for money” into the equation in more than one or two instances. The sets near the bottom all offer pretty good value if you’re into vintage cards of hall-of-fame players. They just aren’t rookie-laden sets.
It pains me to put 1977-78 OPC at the bottom of the list because I have a real soft spot for this set. It was the first hockey set I ever had cards from. My first favourite cards came from this set, as did my first favourite players. I’d love to put it higher just on nostalgia alone. If you were looking at a comparatively inexpensive set to jump into the 1970s with, this isn’t a bad one at all. It’s relatively easy to find and there aren’t any really expensive cards in it. Unfortunately, that lack of big cards helped put it where it is in this ranking.
1977-78 is one of a number of ’70s sets that would most charitably be described as “minimalist.” There really isn’t much of a design to the front. You have a square image dominating the whole front over top of a scripted team name and a logo in the corner. It’s a slightly-updated version of 1970-71. Still, a page of them looks not half bad when they’re in good shape.
The trend by this point in the 70s was toward more action shots, though more than half of this set is still made up of posed portraits. Many of the action shots aren’t cropped all that well. Too many are at a distance.
The back isn’t half bad either, though the text that landed on the blue sections can be a bit hard to read. There are full stats, a little design in terms of the stick, a cartoon and a blurb – typical 1970s fare.
1977-78 was a season dominated by Montreal, who were in the middle of their last big dynasty. All the big names are there. There’s an ascendant Islanders team, the Roger Neilson Leafs, strong teams in New York and Boston. This set has the last cards of Hall-of-Famers Johnny Bucyk, Rod Gilbert and Ed Giacomin. The last player card of Bobby Orr has him airbrushed into a Chicago uniform for the second year in a row. Topps/OPC never got him playing for Chicago. He’d have a retirement card in 1978-79, pictured in the Team Canada uniform from the 1976 Canada Cup.
Other things that aren’t really significant but are nonetheless interesting/fun about this set include some nifty action shots of goalies in kickin’ 70s masks,
the first picture of a player in a visor,
team logo cards with team records on the back
and a pair of insert sets that featured the same players but existed in two different formats. I have no idea whether one was Topps and the other OPC or it was a mid-season change. They’re both represented as OPC glossy inserts. There were 22 star players represented.
What really hurts this set is the rookie class. It’s one of the weakest of the decade. Willi Plett (who I actually quite liked) was the Calder winner. The rest of the bunch includes the RCs of Mike Milbury, Don Edwards (above) and Mike Palmateer. It’s kind of interesting to see them and the Plett shot from inside the penalty box is pretty neat, but there isn’t a single “must-have” card in this set, and that’s the biggest reason it rates where it does.
Come for the cards but stay for the:
Cleveland Barons. This is really the only set where the Barons are represented as a proper team in their actual uniforms. In 1976-77, the players are either airbrushed Seals or non-airbrushed Seals tagged “team transferred to Cleveland.” By 1978-79, the Barons are gone – merged with the Minnesota North stars. There are still a number of painted Seals in this set, but the only time you ever get to see Barons as Barons is 1977-78.
From the day the team joined the league, Washington was the stop where Topps/OPC got their action photos. This was true throughout most of the 1980s, as well. One result of this is that there were a lot more opportunities to photograph Capitals players and you can generally expect at least one interesting Capitals card in each set. For 1977-78, that was popular defenseman Yvon Labre – he of the flying hair and generous moustache. In this card, he’s darting between Bryan Watson and a Capital I don’t recognize. That appears to be Marcel Dionne in the background, which means this picture was about three years old at the time. Dionne left Detroit after 1974-75. Still, it’s a pretty remarkable shot for this set.
In terms of overall esthetics, I really don’t mind this set. There are at least three sets I can think of that will be part of this series that I think are significantly less visually appealing than 1977-78. What does it in is that weak rookie class and lack of really significant other cards. As an introductory set for the 1970s, it’s relatively inexpensive and a good way to pick up a card of basically every significant 70s star.