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A Close Look at Airbrushed Hockey Cards, Good and (mostly) Bad

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[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.


Too Good for the Ticker

Check this out: Two New Jersey boys’ high school hoops teams — Middle Township and Immaculate Conception — went white vs. white yesterday. Don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the chromatic spectrum, Wisconsin and Northwestern went BFBS vs. GFGS yesterday:

So there you go: black, white, and grey in between.

(Big thanks to Twitter-er @ferac_obama for the high school item.)

Comments (24)

    The Bridgman silver helmet with Devils is the stuff of legendary airbrushing.

    Another infamous airbrush was Derek Sanderson with the Vancouver Canucks. The rink is square for the Stick-in-Rink logo. A blue vs blue game! Can see the St. Louis Blues player in the background in blue.


    All things considered, it’s not that bad of a job. Logo is too square, sure, and the Blues player in the bg is a dead giveaway, but at first glance, you might not even notice.

    Great stuff, John! Thanks for sharing your knowledge on this. Several of those cards really are so terrible that they’re awesome!

    Wisconsin’s BFBS set is eerily similar to the Bull’s 90s BFBS uniforms…as a Chicago/Illinois sports fan this angers me quite a bit.

    How is the Bulls’ uniform BFBS? Black is and always has been one of their colours.

    More of a Frankencard than an airbrush job but also from the 71-72 OPC set, this classic card of Mike Corrigan. Kinda reminds me of Brophy from the opening on-ice scene from Slap Shot:

    “Anybody throws me against the boards…”


    Loved this, thank you.

    If you like these, I recommend both volumes of “Hockey Card Stories: True Tales from Your Favourite Players”.

    The Meloche North Stars card turned into a fictional colour vs. colour game. Fun stuff!

    Good thing didn’t need to airbrush the goal pads back then. Looks like a Cleveland Barons player is in the wrong end during warmups!

    Looks like the white-paneled Spring Training and batting practice caps were fashion caps. New Era announced these today:


    So I actually taped yesterday’s Pro Bowl, and I have a few observations.
    1) The NFC’s black jerseys with blue numbers were a design fail.

    2) The AFC’s red jerseys were nice. Oh, and ballcaps…no no no. Bucket hats…yes yes YES! I’d wear one of those.

    3) While enjoyable, flag football isn’t *foot*ball because there’s no kicking. I’m calling it flagball instead. I know they had their own skills competition, but I’d like to see kickers involved in the flagball game.

    What I’d really like to see is a real game with the early 70s red and white helmets, but I know I’m not getting that. At least yesterday was better than the last two decades of Pro Bowls.

    I caught bits and pieces of it in the background as I was doing other things. So I don’t really have a take on the format and, what seemed like mini games, other than I wished they opened up the flag game a little more. From what little I was paying attention it felt much less like a competitive flag game you’d play in a rec league, and more just like college OT rules lining up the offense to score easily.
    Uni-wise I agree that the NFC black jerseys made no sense. This was the perfect time to line up a red vs blue game and leave it at that.
    It seemed to me like they were mixing in the skills stuff in between the flag games? That was weird, just do the traditional skills stuff and end it with the game. In my youth I remember some of the skills stuff being interesting to watch, whatever format they were using yesterday didn’t grab my attention for the skills contest. People still tune in for the HR derby, so clearly there is a place for all star skills showcases if you do them right.
    Be it powerlifting for lineman, a 100 yard dash for skill guys, catching competitions, or some of the distance target throws for QBs, I think you could entertain a stadium full of people with that stuff.

    They should have just brought back the old Superstars contests from the Wide World of Sports days!

    “I actually taped yesterday’s Pro Bowl”

    Tell me you’re on the Boomer/GenXer cusp without telling me you’re a Boomer/GenXer ;)

    I think the Warren Young Penguins jersey airbrush is my favorite. Just the way it is lined up, it almost looks like the penguin itself is positioned correctly but they didn’t know how to put the triangle behind it. Only after looking at it for a few seconds did I realize that it is the right logo, just horribly aligned.
    The Vachon card literally made me laugh out loud.

    I think the Pens logo was a cut/paste job that might’ve just slipped. What makes it more amazing is that not only did he play for the Penguins in the past, he was wearing a dang Pens uniform on his previous card…

    Re Rogie, if you were an airbrush artist, would YOU want to take a crack at that logo? LOL… the idea to put his head on another player’s body isn’t bad per se, but the difference in skin tone and the looking in the opposite direction of ‘his’ body etc just make this an utterly ridiculous card.

    As a life long Bruins fan, the sight of Bobby Orr in a Chicago uniform makes me physically ill. Alan Eagleson got what was coming to him..

    Great story today. As a kid who collected cards all through the 1970s, almost all of those look familiar and are probably sitting in a box in my basement!

    Doug Favell was my favourite. I’m related to him somehow through my mom and I have all his cards (including that airbrush card) autographed. Uni-related, he was most famous for his weird curved blocker and for wearing the first painted mask in the NHL.

    My favourite Favell mask was the Colorado Rockies one. Before he ended up switching to helmet/cage.


    The Flyers logo looks simple but is very challenging to draw (in my experience), so I´ll give the artist who did the work on ¨Cowboy¨ Bill Flett´s card a pass.

    What a great article. It brought back the joy of collecting cards as a kid in the ’70’s.

    I loved the airbrushed cards….so beautifully imperfect, so ripe for criticism and wonder. How did they do that? Why did they do that. I could have done better. Sports, design, artistry and humanity (and a stick of gum!) all in a 10 cent pack at the local mom and pop store down the street.

    I’m sure there a plenty other out there now, but I ran across his hockey card blog likely around a decade and a half ago and bookmarked it. Has a label for worst hockey cards – some airbrush disasters, some more than questionable choices for photos and illustrations. As far as airbrushing the Randy Cunneyworth one is one that stands out. The Nov 14, 2007 posting of a Manon Rheaume card has to be seem to believed.


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