My Gretzky Rookie Card
Made possible through a chain of historical events.
June 12, 1978
The NHL did not allow signing players under age 20. The WHA did not have this rule and on this date, Indianapolis Racers owner Nelson Skalbania signed 17-year-old Wayne Gretzky.
November 2, 1978
The Racers ran into financial trouble and eight games into the season, team owner Nelson Skalbania sold the contracts of Gretzky, Mio and Driscoll to the WHA Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington. On the back of the card you will see the notation: ACQ: Purchased From Ind. 11-2-78.
November 3, 1978
Wayne's first game with the WHA Edmonton Oilers was against the Winnipeg Jets.
March 22, 1979
NHL Board of Governors meet in Chicago and voted in favour to "expand" the league by four teams from the financially struggling WHA. Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, New England (Hartford) Whalers would become NHL franchises the next season.
March 30, 1979
The Topps Company had the NHL rights to print hockey cards in the U.S. and an agreement with O-Pee-Chee to produce them in Canada. With the NHL expansion announcement, Topps only had a couple of weeks left in the WHA regular season to get player photographs for the 1979-80 release of NHL hockey cards.
On this date, Edmonton played New England at the Springfield Civic Center (The Whalers had to relocate here from the Hartford Civic Center due to a roof collapse early in 1978). Photographer Steve Babineau was deployed by Topps to the game. In a video interview done by Hockey Docs, he expresses his excitement that he would be taking pictures of Gordie Howe on the Whalers team. He also captured that iconic image of Wayne Gretzky on the ice somewhere between the crease and blue line gazing up at the score board that would be used for this now popular and valuable hockey card.
June 22, 1979
The Edmonton Oilers officially become an NHL franchise.
At age 13, I would make regular trips to the local convenience store to buy more packs of 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee hockey cards to add to my collection. The smell of the gum stick included in the pack, its brittleness and taste still resonates to this day.
The packs were opened and after a quick shuffle, the cards ended up in the shoe box shared with the 1976, '77 & '78 collection of hockey cards. They were later transferred to a binder with plastic sheets organized by team for each season. Amongst the mix sat a Gretzky rookie card.
April 8, 2021
41 years later, this Gretzky card managed its life through five moves between Markham, Aurora, Toronto and Newmarket to finally getting graded at KSA in Elmira, ON.
On this sunny and warm spring day, I knew it was the right journey for this card when I rolled into the town and saw an elderly man jogging on the main street in a Chicago Black Hawks jersey.
Coincidently, the WHA Edmonton Oilers played the Birmingham Bulls in the regular season on this date in 1979. Ironically, it has been noted that Bulls owner John F. Bassett had an interest in signing Gretzky to the team prior to the start of the WHA 1978-79 season.
April 18, 2021
On this date, Sprunger Originals mints it's first Sprunger NFT and possibly the first NFT for a graded Gretzky rookie card in the world. Wayne played his last WHA regular season game with the Edmonton Oilers on this date 42 years ago.
The card characteristics:
A few things stand out about this card and the cutting method. There is a noticeable yellow dot on the left shoulder of Gretzky’s jersey. This only appears on the O-Pee-Chee run of cards. I turned to the expert. My dad, "Steamer", had a career in the printing business. This mark was likely caused by a blemish or hickey on the yellow film that transferred to the plate and picked up on the roller blanket. Yellow is either the first or last cylinder in the printing press. This blob remained dominant as it either ran through the cyan, magenta and black cylinders or finished this way with the yellow roller at the end.
This card has a signature feature of many of the cards in the set. When the sheets were cut, they left a torn or frayed edge. Most pro collectors claim this is from a method using airplane wire and not blades. There's not much information on this technique online or from printing experts. It's possible the edge feature could be from a calendaring or rotary blade process at the end of the press.
Wayne played 8 games with Indianapolis and 72 with Edmonton. His card indicates only 60 games in total. That error would continue until it was corrected in the 1984-85 season packs.
Who printed the card?
O-Pee-Chee was a candy company and there's no readily available documentation about their printing capabilities. It is believed that the printing of the cards was contracted to printing company Lawson and Jones in London, Ontario and then packaged by O-Pee-Chee.
- Dean Sprung