Sunday, June 13, 2021

Completed Set: 1990-91 Upper Deck Hockey

Even as a young collector in 1990, I was kind of a traditionalist. I'd mainly collected Topps cards throughout my short existence to that point, and I enjoyed the brand over others like Donruss, Fleer, and Score, right down to the type of cardboard that Topps had always used. 
So, the thing I remember most when I opened those first packs of Upper Deck cards (baseball in 1989 and then hockey in 1990-91) was feeling unimpressed. And a bit critical. 
"The cards feel flimsy", I can almost hear my young self exclaim.  
"There's a hologram on the back, big whoop", I might have also muttered. 
Well, I must have gotten over that initial reaction, because I opened a whole bunch of hockey packs that year and came pretty close to completing the set. And I'm sure soon enough I began to appreciate the other aspects of Upper Deck's first try at hockey. After all, the extra full-length photo on the back of each card was cool. 
And the photography on the front?


The company seemed to understand that hockey was a dynamic, action-packed sport. "Go nuts", they must have told their photographers.


Granted, there are still headshots. (These guys don't look too happy about that.)


And some "standing around during warmups" shots.

And face-off shots. (Two Miracle on Ice teammates are squaring off in that middle card, look.)


But even those seem to be better than standard. Besides, in a set of 550 cards (400 in the low number series and 150 in the high numbers), you need some of those. 
So let's get back to the gems.
Quite a few cards capture the battle for position and fight for every inch of space that's an integral part of the game of hockey.


And Upper Deck managed to sneak some rough stuff into the set, with a bloodied Basil McRae yapping at an opponent across the penalty boxes, and Bob Probert sporting some wounds from a recent battle. Even goalie Rick Tabaracci got into the action!


There are also some great goal celebrations

As well as some interesting camera angles.


Another thing Upper Deck seemed to realize about hockey right from the start is that goalies were separate-but-cool creatures who needed to be captured in their element.

As was fitting for the time, this set also contains numerous subsets. 
There were the All-Stars.


And the Award Winners. (Because who didn't want a few extra cards of superstars in tuxedos, I guess?) 

There was also a nice "Heroes" subset, featuring legends of the game who'd participated in the all-star festivities that season.


Then there were the rookies. 
First, Upper Deck decided to set some of the new guys apart with a "Star Rookie" label. They received a special logo on the bottom right in place of a team logo, along with a little blurb on the card backs.

Next, to show they were really cashing in on the rookie craze, Upper Deck created a separate "All-Rookie Team" subset, with yet another special logo at the bottom right and an even longer write-up on the card backs. There were only six players in this subset: three forwards, two defensemen, and one goalie.

Oh, and don't forget the First-Round Draft Pick cards. The top ten picks were included here.


Then there was a subset commemorating the Canadian National Junior Team, which took the gold medal at the 1991 World Junior Championships.

And perhaps most recognizable, even to modern collectors, the Young Guns.

I'd forgotten that Young Guns were a thing from the very beginning! It's pretty cool that Upper Deck is still running the subset to this day (although they took a few years off here and there). Even more impressive is just how popular the feature has become.
Aside from the studs shown above, the 1990-91 Upper Deck set has a stellar rookie class. Look here:

Along with those three, you've got Alexander Mogilny, Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, Mats Sundin, Scott Niedermayer, and Peter Bondra, to name a few.

Oh, and don't forget the team checklists, which contained some pretty impressive artwork on the front. 

By now you can see that there were many, many great cards in the 1990-91 Upper Deck set. Just imagine being a kid back then, opening a pack, and finding some of the beauties above in your hands.
But wait, there's more!
The full-length images on the card backs weren't just a novelty, meant to take up space or set a trend. Some great photography can be found there, as well.

Just like on the card fronts, there were goal celebrations.


Upper Deck sneaked in some rough stuff on the backs, too.

But they also made sure to let us know that the referees would be there to break it up.


 The horizontal images were great for capturing hockey action.


And more excellent goalie photos.


And finally, here's a victorious, happy team partaking in a high-five, plus a card front featuring Mr. Frank J. Zamboni.


It's hard to believe 30 years have gone by since Upper Deck jumped into hockey. But taking a look back at it now—having finally completed the entire set of low and high numbers—has been a lot of fun. Maybe I'll buy a couple of foil-wrapped packs and open them to recreate the full experience.
Do any of you hockey collectors have memories of this set and the buzz it generated back in 1990? 
Share in the comment section, and thanks for reading!


  1. My favorite memory regarding this set was watching people pay crazy money for the French High #'s packs in hopes of pulling the Federov and Bure. Can't remember how much the packs were, but I was thinking I wish I had that kind of money.

    This set is one of my all-time favorite hockey sets. Actually... I love the 90/91 OPC Premier, Score, and Pro Set hockey sets too. Solid inaugural releases from all of these guys. And the great rookie crop was a nice bonus.

    That Falloon also brought stirred up memories. He was a very big deal here in San Jose. Awesome post! Thanks for the memories.

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories, Fuji! I remember Falloon being a pretty big deal back then, too.

  2. I wasn't collecting hockey cards in 1990. Bought a bunch of packs of this set from my dealer a couple years ago though. Pulled most of those team checklist art cards, then traded for the last 3 or 4.

    1. That's a nice little subset to have completed, Elliptical Man. Good going!

  3. I absolutely loved this set at the time, and this post is a nice reminder of all the elements that made it stand out. 1990 was the first year I had any exposure to hockey cards, so I didnt have as much history with typical Topps/OPC cardstock. Perhaps that's why I was more open to it at the time.

    The photos and player selection are fantastic, but my favorite part of the set is the team-colored marble borders. So sharp and colorful at the time, and they don't look dated even 30 years later. Also, how cool is that Canucks checklist? That does look dated, but in a good way :D

    1. Agreed on the Canucks checklist!

      And good observation on the team-colored marble borders and the overall design. It really has held up well.

  4. I'm in the process of cataloguing my extras on tcdb. I wish I weren't so... Err... specific because this is yet another UD set with hologram variations. Nooooooo!

    1. Ugh. Agreed, Derek. Those emails from TCDB that say "we've discovered a variation in such-and-such set" are never fun to open.

  5. Although I only began collecting the sport in 2017, I'm getting close to completing this one myself...less than 10 cards left!

    1. Nice work, Billy! Let me know which cards you need. I might be able to help you finish the set.

  6. I don't collect hockey but there's some great photos in there. And I like the art cards painted by Vernon Wells Sr.

    1. Right? I guess you might say he's the Dick Perez of hockey card art.

  7. Such a great set, and your breakdown of it was spot on. Excellent work as always, can tell you put a ton of effort into hand-selecting and scanning the cards. 1990 was such an epic year, between this set, the Pro Set and Score releases and that great rookie crop. I love the later buybacks from this set (as you saw on my YouTube this morning), and have a couple of pretty significant ones I'll be showing at some point.

    A thoroughly enjoyable look back at a classic set, well done sir!

    1. Thanks very much, shoebox! You're right, 1990 really was a big year for hockey cards. Suddenly there were so many options for collectors. (And the next year there'd be even more. Sheesh.)

      Looking forward to seeing those significant Upper Deck buybacks!

  8. I have really strong memories of this set. My dad and I started our own little card shop in early 1991 in Canada and I remember this set being what every one in Canada was collecting that year (though the Score hockey set was also a big seller since it had Eric Lindros in it). I wasn't into hockey too much myself, being more of a baseball guy, but this set was really just a beauty to behold for all the reasons you mention and I remember opening quite a few packs (partly for the purpose of getting singles to sell in our store). The Jagr and Belfour rookies would be bought in a second whenever we would pull one. If I recall correctly the Fedorov wasn't in the regular set but in the update set (or whatever Upper Deck called it) which came out later in the year.

    Seeing that set reminds me a lot of being a high school student in 1991 at that shop!

    1. Wow, I can only imagine the excitement that came along with operating a card shop in the early 1990s. Thanks for sharing some memories here, Sean!

  9. People might disagree with me, but early 1990s UD hockey does not suck. Congrats!

    1. Thanks Sumo! You'll get no disagreement from me.