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The Best and Worst for This Yearís Hockey Sets

by Paul Angilly
June 1, 2004

With the Stanley Cup Finals winding down, now would seem to be a good time to take a look back at the best and worst of the 2003-04 hockey card collecting season.

The current issue (July 2004) of Beckett Hockey Collector includes a "Readers Choice Awards" ballot, so Iíll borrow a few categories from that survey and share my own thoughts. But unlike Beckett, I think itís just as important to note the worst card issues of the year, so Iíll share my thoughts on the negative side too.

So, hereís my take:

Best base set (up to $2.99 suggested retail price per pack): My vote here went to a first-year product, In the Game-Action. With a 600-card base set (20 per team), itís the biggest set of the year -- a major plus in my book. But even more than that, the fronts feature attractive full-bleed action photography, while the backs are nicely designed with notes on each player.

Worst base set (up to $2.99 suggested retail price per pack): I have to say this is a toss-up between Upper Deck MVP and Upper Deck Victory. Both are sets Iíve enjoyed in the past, but this season both issues has unimaginative and unattractive designs, with little in the way of inserts to attract collectors.

Best base set (suggested retail price $3 or more per pack): Well, if youíre going to spend money, In the Game-Used Signature Series probably isnít a bad way to go. Each pack includes one autographed card and one game-used memorabilia card, and all are issued with extremely low print runs. This is one of the few high-end products where you actually stand a chance of getting your moneyís worth out of a pack.

Worst base set (suggested retail price $3 or more per pack): Upper Deck Black Diamond once gained popularity due to including very limited rookie cards at a time when few other sets had them. But this yearís version is simply an ugly set of cards that have, at least so far, not held their value well.

Best photography: I like both In the Game-Action and Topps, but I have to give the nod here to Upper Deck. Looking through my cards, I couldnít help but notice how the photos in Upper Deckís set manage to capture the intensity on the playersí faces.

Worst photography: In Pacific Prism, the players simply look bored. Of course, with the glare coming off all the foil, itís hard to see the pictures anyway.

Best base set design: Upper Deck Bee Hive is a retro-theme set based on several series of photos issued from 1934 through 1967. Specifically, this yearís set is based upon the design used from 1964 to 1967, with player photos inside a simulated wood-grain border. Card backs include the playerís biography and statistics over a ghosted photo. Itís simply a very classy-looking set in an age where gloss and glitter rule.

Worst base set design: I must be missing the point of something -- shouldnít a card set called "Classic Portraits" focus on the picture? Instead, Upper Deckís issue has the tiniest player images of any card set, inside a design that is probably supposed to look ornate but is just simply ugly. Blow up the player images to fill the front of the card and the set would look 10 times better.

Best new brand: In the Game-Action -- any set that includes 20 players per team is OK in my book. The fact that this is also one of the best-looking sets of the year is just an added bonus.

Worst new brand: Upper Deck Trilogy -- autographs on stickers, custom embroidered patches, "Light F/X" rookie cards? All I know is that none of it looks especially good, and the base set is just downright silly-looking.

Best retro-themed/historical brand: Kudos go to Upper Deck Bee Hive once again. This is simply my favorite set of the year, and it doesnít hurt that it includes a short-printed variation card of Gordie "Mr. Hockey" Howe in his Hartford Whalers uniform. Iíd like to also offer an honorable mention to Pacific Exhibit, which is by far that companyís best issue of the past year and one of the most underrated sets of the season.

Worst retro-themed/historical brand: Topps C55 deserves credit for faithfully reproducing all the multiple designs from one of the earliest hockey card issues, but unfortunately the set doesnít stand up well against todayís modern issues.

Most underrated set: The Pacific Complete insert set returns for a second season with 600 cards issued 100 cards each in six different brands. Once again this is a set that will be high on the want lists of team and single-player collectors a few years down the road.

Best card of the year: Purely a sentimental pick -- Topps "Lost Rookie Cards" Ron Francis. It was just great to see a new card of the future Hall-of-Famer in his Whalers uniform.

Best special-issue set: In the Gameís VIP Rookie Debut cards were only available at the companyís web site. The $10 per card price was maybe just a few dollars too high for an initial offering, but only nine of the 111 cards issued were printed in quantities greater than 100 -- from a high of 580 (Marc-Andrť Fleury) down to a low of 27 (Chris Kunitz).

Best memorabilia cards: Anything from In the Game (aka Be a Player). In the Game keeps all its inserts extremely limited -- which is one reason why itís the only company whose memorabilia cards donít drop sharply in value within a few weeks after they are released. The other reason is that nearly all of the companyís memorabilia cards feature both attractive designs and premium memorabilia pieces.

Keep an eye out for: Be a Player Ultimate Memorabilia 4th Edition. For the first time this year, this issue (with a per-pack price approaching $100) will include a base set -- 162 different players, with every card autographed. There will be two cards per pack, one autographed base card and one memorabilia card. Despite the high pack price, this may be the one product thatís actually worth it. No white uniform swatches from little-known players here -- every card has a premium piece of memorabilia from a top player.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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