Blast From the Packs: Dipping my toes into hockey with Upper Deck and O-Pee-Chee

To be honest, I haven’t followed hockey for several years. When I was younger, I loved the Red Wings. And I followed hockey pretty closely through college, and then into early adulthood. Sometime in the late aughts, I just stopped watching as closely, and I never picked the habit back up.

So my knowledge of current hockey doesn’t extend much beyond the biggest names: Your Connors McDavid and your Alexanders Ovechkin and your Sidneys Crosby, those types of guys. But I wouldn’t be able to tell you who won the most recent Hart Trophy (until the other day when I looked it up) or even who scored the most points in the league last year. If you’d said the name “Leon Draisaitl” to me last week, I’d have probably stared at you blankly for a few minutes (he’s the guy who won the Hart this season).

But basic hockey sets are among the most affordable purchases right now, generally speaking, and also the most available. I can go to a local Walmart or Target right now and pick up as much current season Upper Deck hockey as I can carry home in my arms; meanwhile all the racks marked for baseball, football, and basketball cards have been empty every time I’ve looked. Of course, if you’re reading this from Toronto or Montreal, this is probably not the case for you, but here in hockey-blind Indiana, hockey cards are not scarce.

On a lark, I’d recently scored a blaster box of 12 packs of 2017-18 Upper Deck hockey on eBay for about $20. I didn’t really care who the rookies were or anything, I just wanted to see what Upper Deck, one of my favorite card manufacturers ever, was doing these days with its lone major league license. But then I noticed the first 2020-21 set of the year, Upper Deck’s O-Pee-Chee, had just released, and I could get a blaster box of 10 packs of that for about the same price. Twenty bucks for a current-season, brand-new blaster box, online? That’s unheard of for other sports’ products. I know $20 is usually the MSRP for these things, even for other sports, but once they wind up on eBay, they normally double or triple in price pretty quickly.

So, blindly, I spent the $20 and had a box of that sent to my door as well. The new NHL season begins Jan. 13, about a week from the date I’m writing this, so I thought it a good time to take a little dip in the waters of hockey card collecting.

2017-18 Upper Deck Series 2

As I mentioned earlier, Upper Deck is my favorite card manufacturer from my youth, so it kind of bummed me out to return to the hobby and find Upper Deck no longer making baseball, basketball, or football cards. But since they do have the NHL license, and since they somehow acquired the classic Canadian card manufacturer O-Pee-Chee, they’re like king of the hockey card mountain. Better than nothing, I suppose!

So what did I find when I opened this cute little box of three-year-old hockey cards? A slideshow follows:

  1. First of all, let me just say, when I opened each of these packs, I was met with the exact same cardstock and gloss-coating scent that I remember from opening packs when I was younger. Delicious. The cards themselves are a pretty standard sort of design, but they’re anchored by really sharp, top-notch photography and a pristine gloss application. Seriously, these are the most evenly shined cards I’ve opened in a while.
  2. The card backs are a bit of a let down, as UD used to be known for its great card-back photography as well, so a little inset crop of the card-front photo is a pretty meh design choice. Other than that, standard stats and a welcome bit of flavor text when room allows.
  3. The Young Guns rookie inserts are the crème de la crème of hockey rookies. I recently bought a Connor McDavid rookie card because I wanted one in my collection, but the Young Guns McDavid was and is FAR out of my financial reach. They’re just super sought-after and fairly rare for the good players. I got crummy Young Guns rookies in my packs, but I don’t mind the design.
  4. I also got two cards from other insert sets: UD Portraits and UD Canvas, both focused on special photography, which obviously speaks to me as a fan of sports photography. The Canvas set is also printed on a textured, canvas-like card stock. The Portraits design is super attractive.
  5. And because UD owns O-Pee-Chee, they apparently decided to use the O-Pee-Chee Marquee Rookies (kind of a second-tier behind Young Guns) as an insert in the base UD set. I was surprised that the card was … well, cardboardy and not at all glossy (this was foreshadowing, it turned out).

Even though I had to look up a lot of the players I got, I enjoyed opening these cards. Let’s see how they rated in my system:

Design: 3 of 5 – Clean and sharp, but nothing to really write home about. I appreciate that it leaves enough room for the photography (more on that in a mo’), but I am not a huge fan of the foil logos. They’re not in enough relief for the elements of the logos to show up well, in my opinion. Foil-accented logos would be OK, but the full foil treatment makes them sort of disappear, as opposed to making them stand out.

Card feel: 3 of 5 – For a base set, these cards feel solid in the hand. They’re a standard thickness, but the stock feels sturdy enough, and as I mentioned before, this gloss is really well-applied. No unevenness, no “boogers,” and it’s just … right. The corners and edges all seem fairly well-trimmed, and though I noticed a few cards with visible dings on edges, that’s basically unavoidable when you have images out to the edges. Those dings would be practically invisible if there were a border. But it’s not a premium set, so it can’t quite compete on that front.

Photography: 4 of 5 – Hockey seems like a fairly tough sport to photograph, to me. There are a few iconic hockey photos throughout history, but it feels like there are fewer than in other sports. That said, I think these photos are pretty close to perfect. I love the variety of photography, from that shot of Sidney Crosby lifting the Cup the season before, to practice shots, to candids of players giving interviews, presented horizontally and vertically. They’re all crisp and clear, and I would put the level of photography here on par with the classic UD sets I loved as a kid. One demerit for a lack of distinct card-back photos, though.

Fun factor: 2 of 5 – As a reminder, this is the Andrew Taylor Recommends Excitement ratings for the packs I opened (I rate each pack on a scale of 0 to 5 based on how excited I am about the pack at the moment I open it). Other than the Sidney Crosby card I pulled in pack one, I didn’t get a lot of other players I really recognized, and even after I looked some of them up (the ones who had good stats on the backs of their cards), it seems like I didn’t get a super great selection of top players throughout. My rookies were also kinda meh. The aesthetics are on point, but the paucity of inserts in my packs and the lack of standout players brought the excitement down.

Overall rating: 3 of 5 – This is one of the higher ratings I’ve given to a set so far on this blog, but it feels appropriate. This is a better-than-average set in my eyes; an example of how even “base” sets can be well-done and not tossed off. Speaking of tossed off, though …

2020-21 O-Pee-Chee

Two sets, two years, two different Edmonton Oilers on the box. Weird.

As I mentioned above, I was surprised when I pulled the O-Pee-Chee insert card from the Upper Deck pack by how cardboardy and plain the card was. It felt like a retro card. It didn’t dawn on me until I started opening packs of the 2020-21 set that, oh, this is just what they’re like. And as an aside, I had a bit of buyer’s remorse when the 2020-21 Upper Deck set dropped just a few weeks later for about the same price, featuring the first rookie card of Rangers future star Alexis Lafrenière, whose Young Guns card, of course, has skyrocketed in value. C’est la vie, I guess. Here’s a slideshow of some of what I found in these packs:

  1. The base cards are CARDS. Cardboard-ass cards. No gloss at all on either side (we’ll get to the back in a sec), but at least it’s white cardboard and not the gross-brown kind they used to use until about the early 1990s (though we do see some of that as well, as we’ll see in another mo’). These cards are about as base as they get.
  2. The card backs have NO COLOR. No color! Black ink! Even for the photo (which is another crop of the card-front photos, again)! And none of these cards have flavor text, though in the grand tradition of O-Pee-Chee, these cards are bilingual English/French, so that’s KINDA fun, I guess.
  3. What is a touch more fun are these Premier Tallboys inserts. Every few packs, you pull one of these somewhat skinnier-than-normal cards, and they seem to be mostly better players, including this Quinn Hughes kid who almost won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year last year. As you can see, the Tallboys are available in white or yellow (the more rare variant) borders, as well as short and super-short prints. Variants become a theme with this set, as we’ll see.
  4. The most common variant of the base set is this one with a blue border, as compared to the regular version. It also has blue ink instead of black ink on the back. That’s it. There are also even more rare red border versions. I didn’t get any of those, but, uh, I can guess what they’re like.
  5. Apparently every single card in the set is also available in this retro design, which is also available in a rarer black border variant. A variant of a variant. And it has the yucky retro brown cardboard on the back of the card, which weirdly features a more colorful ink palate than the base cards. I don’t know if this design is based on a specific year of O-Pee-Chee, because none of the reviews I find online mention it, so I’ll just assume it’s a retro-style design. In any case: yawn.
  6. And speaking of variants, this grinds my gears in a way I didn’t know they could be ground: variant checklist cards! Checklist cards are a hallowed tradition of collecting, I’ll grant you that, but the idea that you would create RARE VARIANT VERSIONS of those checklists; versions that, when pulled, take the place of a variant PLAYER card you could have pulled instead, oof. You have limited odds to get variants, so getting a checklist as a variant is … I don’t know, it’s just disappointing. Is anyone out there ripping boxes to complete the set of team checklists in blue border? Who is this for?
  7. And then there’s the short print insert sets, including Marquee Legends, Marquee Rookies, and Season Highlights, all of which use the same design template with different colors. Frankly, that’s lazy. I enjoyed seeing Mark Messier and Peter Forsberg in my packs, but these cards don’t feel special in any way.

Looking at the back of the pack itself, I see there are rare inserts out to 1 in more than 92,000 packs. In a set like this, that feels like putting diamond-encrusted gold inlays on the dashboard of a 1989 Honda Civic. Why? On the one hand, I sort of appreciate the effort to put premium cards in a set that’s clearly aimed at the most entry-level collector (i.e. kids without as much money to burn), but at those odds, that doesn’t really help anyone in that tier. As much as I’m bellyaching about the border variants, those are at least the kinds of things kids can chase. Just cut the variant checklists out! OK, on to the ratings!

Design: 2 of 5 – It’s a clean enough design, but talk about uninspired. It’s not aggressively ugly, in fact it’s fairly pleasant, which is the only thing keeping it from a 1 rating here. Definite demerits for repeating the front photo on the back and no color on the card back, and more demerits for recycling the same design on all the insert sets that I saw. The simple Tallboys design is probably the highlight here.

Card feel: 1 of 5 – Even for a base, entry-level set, I don’t think this level of cheapness is necessary. It starts right at the beginning: While basically every other pack I’ve opened recently is either foil or a somewhat sturdy plastic, these packs are a thin, filmy plastic, just a couple steps up from plain cellophane. I think the lack of structure to the packs lead to some card damage, as several packs I opened featured first and last cards with bent corners as a result of the cards being able to move around inside the packs, knocking around more than the cheap card stock could stand up to. And yeah, the card stock is cheap, with only the bare minimum amount of coating. The cards are cut competently, and they seem to be mostly centered, and the ink registration is good, but now I’m damning with faint praise. The quality of these cards would be considered pretty average in 1992, so it’s kind of crazy they released these as new product in 2020.

Photography: 2 of 5 – I’ll take what I said about the Upper Deck set above, the demerit for using the same photos on front and back, and apply it to this photography as well, which is decidedly more pedestrian. This is average photography, deployed in a forgettable way.

Fun factor: 2.1 of 5 – This rating is a bit weird, because I got actually quite a few more recognizable players in these packs than I did in the Upper Deck packs, which rated only one tenth of a point lower. I think the problem here is while I had a few packs that were more exciting, the rest of the packs were still very duddy. There were a few packs where I didn’t recognize a single player, and none of the players even seemed to be very key on their teams. So while I’m excited I got a Leon Draisaitl and a Quinn Hughes, I wasn’t very excited for most of the cards I saw, including those damned variant checklists.

Overall: 1.78 of 5 – My rating system must be fairly dialed in, because I’m finding it accurately reflects my feelings about the sets I’m rating. If you are a starting collector interested in hockey, and you’re buying cards in those first few weeks of the new hockey calendar when O-Pee-Chee is the first set on the shelves, and you know what you’re getting into, go ahead and buy some. But when there are any alternatives, at anywhere near the same price point, go with them instead.

3 thoughts on “Blast From the Packs: Dipping my toes into hockey with Upper Deck and O-Pee-Chee

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