[Editor’s Note: Today we have a guest entry from John Geoffrion, who’s going to share some entertaining hockey card history with us. Enjoy! — PL]
By John Geoffrion
What’s a hockey card manufacturer to do when the photos are already picked, the cards are designed, the player selection is done, but then there’s a late-season or offseason trade? Or if a player gets selected by an incoming expansion team? Or if a team moves and changes its identity? The new season’s about to start, print deadlines are looming, and there’s no time or budget to fly your staff photographer off to training camp to snap replacement pics of the players in their new uniforms — so what do you do?
In the pre-Photoshop days, Topps had a small art department mainly devoted to photo selection, card design, and the little cartoons on the back. When the above-mentioned situations occurred, freelance airbrush artists would be called in to apply their craft, so that a wayward player would be featured in the proper uniform — or at least not in his old uniform. With hockey cards having smaller set sizes and no supplemental “traded” mini-sets like baseball, these rush-job airbrushings often led to memorable results, if not always for the right reasons.
Usually, Topps would try to use close-up shots to avoid or minimize the need for post-production, or would simply airbrush out the previous team’s logo. The latter option was best for the expansion teams, who still had barely begun playing when that year’s card sets hit the shops. (When O-Pee-Chee put out their own expanded versions of the Topps sets for the Canadian market a few months later, they frequently used photos of the additional players in their new unis since they had the extra time and opportunity to get them.) Occasionally, though, they’d airbrush out the player’s old uniform without adding a new one, leaving the player wearing a blank uni. It’s hard to tell if these were intended to be the finished product, or if time just ran out before proper uniform colors could be applied:
There are also a few notable instances of players being airbrushed into uniforms they’d never actually wear on the ice. For example, Jacques Lemaire’s rumored trade to the Sabres never materialized — except on his 1974-75 card. In 1979, arbitrators ruled that the Red Wings had to send Dale McCourt to the Kings as compensation for signing Rogie Vachon as a restricted free agent. McCourt refused, sued, and ultimately remained a Wing, wasting a fantastic airbrush job.
Similarly, when the struggling Cleveland Barons were folded into the Minnesota North Stars, the Barons players slotted for the 1978-79 Topps set were presumptively airbrushed into Minnesota unis, but two of them would later be signed by other teams in the offseason and another would be dealt to the Caps after two games. These next pics are the OPC versions — they kept the Minnesota-ized Topps photos but reallocated the players to their proper teams:
When four WHA teams were folded into the NHL in 1979, Chicago reclaimed their superstar Bobby Hull from the Winnipeg Jets, but left him unprotected for the Jets to ultimately re-draft. Unfortunately, Topps had already airbrushed him into Chicago colors for the 1979-80 set, alas. The OPC version returned him to the Jets — at least in name, if not in image:
By the mid-1970s and through the ’80s, as cameras improved and player photos evolved from static poses to action shots, the airbrushing process would pose greater challenges for the artists. Sometimes, between the design of the cards and the photo selection, any shortcomings in the airbrush job could be conveniently obscured:
When the set’s design didn’t allow for that type of fig leaf, the airbrushing had to stand on its own. The results ranged from the reasonably good…
… to pretty bad…
… to the “so awful they almost circle all the way back to awesome”:
I’ve been saving the best — or, really, the worst — for last, because the all-time champion of bad airbrush jobs has to be this one:
But it could have been worse. Before airbrushing became the go-to solution, player’s heads were often cut and pasted over other players’ bodies. The most infamous example was Rogie Vachon’s 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee card, with Vachon’s head grafted onto Ross Lonsberry’s body — a design that’s on the short list of the Worst Hockey Cards Ever:
By 1990, when the hockey card market was flooded with new competitors and larger sets, the need for airbrushing had largely disappeared. Budgets swelled, cameras got better and cheaper, photographers could actually fly out to grab new pics of players when they changed teams — the scene had changed. Within another decade, digital cameras and Photoshop were ubiquitous and airbrushing was on its way to becoming a lost art. Fortunately, the evidence lives on in these classic vintage cards.
Paul here. I love this stuff! Big thanks to John for sharing it with us. If you want to see more, check out his Twitter feed, which is devoted to hockey airbrush jobs.