By Arnold Bailey
To help ease the pain among hockey fans locked out of the action by the fourth labor hassle in National Hockey League history, here’s a look back at the good old days brought into focus by one of the sport’s classic trading card sets.
This look brings you back to the 1954-55 season and the first set of hockey cards ever produced by the Topps Gum Co., cards that continue to be admired today because they are so attractively designed with their brilliant colors.
The strategy taken by Topps was to produce a set of 60 cards comprised of players from only the NHL teams based in the U.S. and to present the cards in the English language only.
That might not have been a wise approach since the two teams omitted from what was then a six-team league were based in Canada, where the sport of hockey reigned as the national game. Though four of the six NHL franchises were in the U.S., in the 1950s, hockey hadn’t reached the level of popularity it enjoys in the states today.
And a great many of hockey’s most avid fans were in French-speaking sections of Canada, so the wiser approach would seem to have been to produce bilingual cards. That’s what competitors like O-Pee-Chee and Parkhurst already were doing, and which Topps did the next time out.
That next time turned out to be three years later. It’s likely that, despite their beautiful design, the 1954-55 cards weren’t all that popular when issued. Why else would Topps wait until the 1957-58 season before producing its second hockey set?
The 60 cards in this first Topps set included 15 players from each of the four U.S.-based teams – Detroit, Boston, New York and Chicago. That meant that Montreal and Toronto weren’t included, two of the traditional powers based in Canada, where hockey was that country’s national pastime.
For a “first” set, it contains surprisingly few important rookie cards. Earlier hockey sets by Canada-based Parkhurst beat Topps to the rookie punch, so most of the set’s 10 rookie cards are described as commons, although fans of the Rangers Camille Henry and the Bruins Doug Mohns would disagree with that label.
Henry was the NHL’s Rookie of the Year in 1954 and ranked sixth in the league in goals scored. But after the 1954-55 season, he was sent down to the Rangers American Hockey League affiliate, the Providence Reds. He responded there by scoring a league-leading 50 goals and combining with right-wing Zelio Toppazzini (who led the AHL in total points and assists) and center Paul Larivee (third in assists and sixth in scoring) on the top line of Rhode Island’s Calder Cup champions. (Zelio Toppazzini’s brother, Jerry, is pictured on card No. 21 in the 1954-55 Topps set as a right wing with the Blackhawks.)
The other rookie cards picture Bob Chrystal, Ivan Irwin and Larry Popein of the Rangers; Bucky Hollingsworth, Lou Jankowski and Red Sullivan of the Blackhawks; Doug Mohns and Don McKenney of the Bruins; and Marcel Bonin of the Red Wings.
What the set does have is Hall of Famers – a total of 16 of them, led by the man who has come to be known as “Mr. Hockey,” Gordie Howe. With a little better planning, Topps could have made its first Howe card even more special. Topps pictured Howe on its card No. 8 and put one of his teammates, defenseman Benny Woit, on card No. 9. The latter was Howe’s well-known uniform number, and shuffling its cards to picture him on card No. 9 would have been a nice touch if Topps had thought to do it.
The other honored members are Harry Howell, Gump Worsley, Andy Bathgate, Allan Stanley and Edgar Laprade of New York; Red Kelly, Marcel Pronovos, Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk of Detroit; Bill Gadsby and Bill Mosienko of Chicago; and Fernie Flaman, Bill Quackenbush and Milt Schmidt of Boston.
That’s an impressive group of stars. But if Topps had included players from the two Canada-based teams, the number of Hall of Famers would have almost doubled.
Ten members of Montreal’s second-place team (Detroit won the Stanley Cup in both 1953-54 and 1954-55) eventually would be inducted into the Hall – Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Bert Olmstead, Doug Harvey, Jean Beliveau, Elmer Lach, Tom Johnson, Butch Bouchard, Dickie Moore and Jacques Plante.
And six on the Toronto roster would be similarly honored – Teeder Kennedy, Tim Horton, George Armstrong, Leo Boivin, Harry Watson and Harry Lumley. Defenseman Ken Mortson could have been included, since he often led the NHL in penalty minutes back then. And future Hall of Famer Dick Duff was a rookie in 1954-55, but played in but three games.
Topps would have also strengthened its first set by including four other players on the 1953-54 Bruins and Rangers rosters who also would become Hall of Famers – Woody Dumart of Boston and Doug and Max Bentley and the great goaltender Johnny Bower of New York. Bower, though, was a late bloomer, and although he was the Rangers mainstay in goal in both 1953-54 and 1954-55, he, like Camille Henry, would find himself in Providence a season later where his goaltending also keyed the Reds championship year. Another Bruin who could have been included was Johnny Peirson, a high-scoring wing for about a decade who later went on to a long and distinguished career as radio and television commentator, paired for a while with Hall of Famer Fred Cusick in a popular combo in the broadcasting booth.
Despite a few misses, the first Topps set has several highlights in addition to its Hall of Fame collection, including cards of one of hockey’s classic brother acts – Johnny Wilson of Detroit and Larry Wilson of Chicago. What are the chances that, in a 60-card set, two of the cards would picture members of just one family?
Beyond player selection, it’s the design that makes this Topps set special. Red, white and blue dominate the card fronts, which contain full-color player images, team logos and the player’s name, position and team. The white backgrounds set an attractive tone, and the colors are clear and vivid. About the only thing that gets in the way is Topps’ attempt to add the appearance of ice chips sent flying by players’ skates on 10 of the cards. The snowy chips were painted in by Topps’ artists, and they look it.
The cards are slightly oversized, measuring 2-5/8-by-3-3/4 inches instead of what has become the standard 2-1/2-by-3-1/2 inches. The difference makes storing and preserving them more than a little awkward, as was the case with the company’s earliest baseball cards.
The wrappers are very plain, especially by today’s standards – simply a drawing of a hockey player in red, white and black against a light blue background, the word “hockey” in red diagonally across with a promo for Bazooka gum and comics.
Card backs have the player’s full (first, middle and last) name, 1953-54 statistics, weight, height, place of birth and residence, a brief bio, the card number and a section of hockey facts accompanied by an illustrative drawing.
It is the card backs, especially the “hockey facts,” that offer a little extra fun and a bit of education. Some are simply interesting facts, such as: The average player skates 2.7 miles per game; Camille Henry was then the lightest player in the NHL, weighing in at only 141 pounds; the ice surface on NHL rinks is only 1/2-inch thick and a brine solution helps keep it frozen; Rangers’ goalie Gump Worsley also is well-known around Montreal as a soccer star; Rangers’ defenseman Harry Howell was a good enough athlete that he had to choose hockey over baseball as a career; the Rangers’ Larry Popein had never seen an NHL game until he played in one; and the Red Wings were paying forward Bill Dineen’s tuition at the University of Ontario during the summer while he took courses in civil engineering.
Other facts illustrate how much the game has changed over the close to six decades since the cards were produced. Some tell how much the game’s equipment has changed. For instance, helmets were seldom worn back then, except when a player was trying to protect himself after a recent head injury; each player’s equipment weighed about 18 pounds and his skates about 5 pounds; the hockey sticks were made of fine ash wood, a team will break about 600 of them during a season and some sticks then cost “as much as” $3.75; the winners of the NHL’s individual awards (top scorer, top defenseman, top goaltender, top rookie, sportsmanship, etc.) received $1,000 each; players had offseason jobs like the Bruins’ Hal Laycoe, who was a car salesman and the Boston’s Doug Mohns, who worked at a hydro-electric plant; and that New York defenseman Ivan Irwin was the only player among the 60 who was born in the U.S.
That last “fact” represents perhaps the most dramatic change. Of the 60 players Topps pictured, 58 were born in Canada (31 of them from 21 different cities and towns in Ontario, and the remaining 17 from other Canadian provinces). The only non-Canadians were Irwin – who was born in Chicago – and another Rangers’ defenseman, Jack Evans. He was born in Garnant, South Wales in Great Britain, but grew up in Canada after his family moved to Alberta. It would still be several years before that demographic would change and the game would go truly international, especially with an influx of players from Russia and other European countries.
And during the offseason, most pro hockey players returned to Canada. Topps lists the places of residence for each of the players it pictures, and only eight of them – including six members of the Boston Bruins – remained in the U.S. once the NHL season ended.
Hockey cards became an annual offering by Topps following the company’s second set in 1957.
Someone at Topps stubbornly kept thinking that its hockey sets didn’t really need to be presented in two languages. In fact, in 1966, Topps produced a USA version of its regular set, with information in English only.
Some veteran collectors of vintage materials will recall that Topps actually produced a hockey card prior to the first full set in 1954. That was card No. 3 in Series “T” of a series called Magic Photos in 1948. It’s a generic hockey card easily overlooked among the 252 tiny “self developing” cards that comprise this strange set.
Perhaps an indication of how low hockey then ranked on Topps’ sports-card priority list is that, along with that single hockey card, the same Magic Photos contain a subset of 25 cards devoted entirely to wrestling, and another 17 picturing dogs.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.