Last week, a mint condition 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card was sold for at auction for a record $1.29 million.
Of course, news of the sale has led many people of a certain age to wax eloquent about what could have been had they simply better cared for their rookie Gretzky card.
If you went to elementary school in Canada in 1979 and 1980 and you were a hockey fan, chances are great you, too, owned that very Gretzky rookie card. Chances are even greater that card had no chance to fund your retirement due to lappsies, farthies, toppsies, flippsies, leansies, tradesies, closest to the wall and the almighty scramble.
If you are of a certain vintage, playing hockey cards in the schoolyard at recess and lunch was the defining memory of the intermediate grades at elementary school. That clock on the wall could not count down to the bell fast enough as you and your pals salivated at the prospect of winning a Marcel Dionne in a one-on-one flippsies battle or perhaps capturing Cliff Koroll, Don Lever and Mike Palmateer in a dominant lappsies triumph.
Farthies was my favourite game, since I had the peculiar talent for creating a ferocious whip-like motion in my skinny wrist that sent the card flying dozens of feet through the air before flapping to the ground. The goal was simple. You flicked your card and your opponent flicked his card; if your card went farther, you won your opponent’s card. To reduce the amount of distance disputes, I usually recruited a primary-age kid to be official measurer — and paid him with the drek of the hockey card world, perhaps Greg Joly of the dreadful Detroit Red Wings or Jim Rutherford of the woeful Washington Capitals.
Nobody wanted those cards.
Back in my elementary school prime, Gretzky was indeed a popular card, but no more so than Billy Smith, Darryl Sittler, Guy Lafleur or Gilbert Perrault. Gretzky was becoming a big deal, but he still had to compete with the veterans of the card world.
Yes, hockey cards of NHL superstars were generally worth more, in terms of matching up with other cards. For example, if you wanted to challenge a kid to a game of flippsies and you were eyeing his Bryan Trottier card, you’d have to put up the cards of two or three lesser players — maybe Wilf Paiement of the Colorado Rockies and a couple of bland Atlanta Flames — to even the field.
But it was the action shots of the players on the cards that also helped define the value. In that respect, there was no more valuable card through my childhood than that of Tony Esposito as the great Chicago Blackhawk goaltender always had the coolest action photo.
Of course, amid the legit contests taking place across the schoolyard — farthies on that stretch of gravel, lappsies in that corner where the two walls meet, flippsies in front of the gym door — there would always be that one kid who likely grew up to be sanctioned by the BC Securities Commission. That kid would find his way to the school roof (in itself a serious crime), walk to the edge and shout to get the attention of all the card players below.
He would then announce the name of the card in his hand and it was always a very valuable card — perhaps Steve Shutt or Borje Salming or that red-hot rookie, Ray Bourque. He would then yell, “Scramble!!!” and flick the card from the roof, where it would fly through the air, with a pack of kids fighting each other to get to it.
Then the card would land on the gravel and a bloodied and scraped-up kid would emerge from the pile of battered bodies clutching his prize — and it almost always ended up being a fourth-line winger from an expansion team and not the card claimed by the kid on the roof, who, incidentally, would be doubled over in laughter as he surveyed the mayhem below. If you were the bloodied kid who risked his life in a fraudulent scramble, the taste in your mouth was worse than that emitted by that hard stick of pasty gum that accompanied the packs of cards.
There was a time when hockey cards were played, not merely collected. At some point after my Grade 7 year, it all changed and the schoolyards were no longer home to farthies, lappsies and toppsies.
Kids were no longer risking a visit to the principal’s office to run down to the nearby corner store and buy a pack of O-Pee-Chees, wondering what treasures awaited the unwrapping. Somehow, somewhere along the line, all that vanished.
Back in my day, the cards were tools to win other cards, tools mean to be creased and bent and dimged as they were used in non-stop battle from fall to spring — not future investments destined to lie ramrod straight, encased in a sterile protective plastic sleeve inside a crease-proof binder, forbidden to be touched, much less flicked by the skinny wrist of a hockey-mad kid in a schoolyard.