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1954-55 Topps Hockey – Only In Canada You Say, Pity!

The day I realized I was a collector was in 1969 with tearing open my first hockey wax pack, and haven't looked back since. My lifelong journey as a sports collector eventually left me with too many unanswered questions in the hobby, and by the mid-1990s, my transitioned from just being a collector morphed into also becoming a hobby historian. In hindsight, it wasn't really planned out but more like a form of osmosis.

My hobby research efforts started by contacting former O-Pee-Chee employees to see if they had any inside information. This was my first step in the process and quickly happened upon a few workers from back in the day who toiled the old gum plant. The delightful bubblegum card stories helped to strengthen my framework of how things functioned in the gum-card sector, for the most part and from a Canadian perspective, this endeavor did yield considerable dividends. One former O-Pee-Chee employee in particular, regaled an incredible story about being asked to take the company truck from their London, Ontario plant and drive to the train station to load up all the cards, wrappers, and display boxes shipped up from Topps, New York for the 1954–1955 hockey set. The packs would then be put together for the Canadian market on-site at the O-Pee-Chee plant.

Having been in the gum business since 1911 and producing a number of trading card sets in the 1920s and 1930s, O-Pee-Chee was no stranger to the creation of gum cards. An interesting tidbit is that Somerville Gum, a maker of paper boxes and chewing gum, founded in 1888, was the company name prior to it becoming O-Pee-Chee.

The relationship between Topps and O-Pee-Chee commenced as early as 1952 with the Baseball cards being distributed in Canada. Although there was no printing on the box or wax packs that would indicate that O-Pee-Chee had a hand in this venture, other than the plethora of Micky Mantle rookie cards that have come out of Canada in the past decades. Although it has be said that the overproduction of the 1952 Topps baseball cards initiated this relationship. Topps would ship up to Canada, what many suspect, high numbers series to stay the American overflow. However, Topps had overprinted so much of the second series that a literal boatload of 300 to 500 cases was disposed of right into the Atlantic Ocean, as the story goes.

{A 1952 full unopened box of baseball that came from the O-Pee-Chee archives was sold in the Mastro auction in 2004. Price realized: $208,739.95}. The catalog shows how revered this box was, in so far that Mastro's catalog created a 3-page fold-out dedicated to this one box of pure hobby drool.

Parkhurst Gum experienced a similar occurrence in 1951–1952 with their first hockey endeavor, and also produced far too many cards, 25 Million to be exact, that was more than one card for every person in the country given the population of Canada at that time being just over 20 million. Although, Parkhurst did not go the way of Topps and opt to dump the extras, in say, Lake Ontario but they went so far as to using the leftover blank backed uncut sheets to make display boxes and cardboard wrappers for their 1952–1953 hockey card issue, with the players' pictures facing out, nonetheless.

Now let's examine the 1954–1955 Topps hockey set. This is Topps first hockey card effort in their storied history, and it has long been debated, if the wax packs were only available in Canada and not the United States. This all started in 1954 when Topps intervened and made an offer of $15,000 per team, just as George Kennedy, the head of Parkhurst Trading Cards in Canada, was enjoying the hockey card market to himself and only paying $5,000 per team for the licensing rights. At the conclusion of this financial licensing battle, Topps possessed all four of the NHL American clubs while Parkhurst retained the two Canadian NHL teams.

A significant portion of my hobby knowledge is related to the vintage counter display boxes and the wax packs that were sold within. This information will help shore-up the hypothesis poised in the title of this article or at the least, help explain some things you may not have known. From the start, Topps display boxes, whether they were for sports or non-sports, were customarily packaged in 24-count boxes, (I digress to a factual point that Topps also exclusively issued 120 count - 1¢ packs and boxes and were only released through the 1950's and 1960's). This was their regular procedure up until 1974, when Topps decided to raise the pack count to a 36-count box and go to a single series. O-Pee-Chee, on the other hand, started off issuing 36 pack count boxes before upgrading to a 48-count boxes, with no surprise, also being in 1974. On another note; O-Pee-Chee always sealed their boxes with a piece of tape whereas Topps never did.

The 1954-55 Topps hockey box in question, is a 24 count, made in USA display box, although the box front has printed on the bottom left front corner: "Made and distributed by O-Pee-Chee Co. LTD. London, Ontario, Canada under license with Topps Chewing Gum Inc. Brooklyn N.Y. Printed in USA". The edict on the box would certainly reinforce the fact that this was an exclusively Canadian issue, as Topps would not have this printed if it was also released in the USA.

Some of my previous research, brought me to the Net54baseball message boards, where I found some fantastic distribution-related messages and information, thanks to David Kathman's excellent study on vintage sports card dealers and their sell sheets.

Sports card dealers as we've known them for over a half a century didn't really exist before the 1950s. Old sports cards or other collectibles were then only available via antique stores and (paper) ephemera dealers, plus some collectors occasionally offered their individual cards or sets for sale through advertisements in periodicals like Card Collector's Bulletin.

A New York native businessman, Sam Rosen, left the clothing industry in 1951 and went into the card business. Rosen's stepson, Woody Gelman, who was part owner of an art service that created all the Topps sets through the company of Solomon & Gelman although Gelman was later employed by Topps around 1956. Rosen also functioned as the fulfilment center for the Topps Trading Card Guild, through which Topps sold individual cards and sets. Gelman would help facilitate Topps' excess card inventory through Rosen's business, nepotism at its best.

The 1954–55 Topps hockey cards that were sold in the USA, are thought to have come from Rosen's stepson Woody Gelman, although they were only made available in wax packs form in Canada by O-Pee-Chee, under the terms of the Topps licensing arrangement. This USA, back door sales of cards was likely one way to get around any issues that could arise if O-Pee-Chee found out. With many hockey loving States bordering Canada, this might have eaten into O-pee-Chee's potential sales from cross-border card/pack shoppers.

Through one of Rosen's mail-out "Sports Card Price List" (stapled pieces of typewritten paper) in July of 1958, they are also offering the 1954-55 Topps hockey card set of 60 for $1.80. Below that, Sam is also offering the 1957-58 hockey set of 66 cards for $1.98 - "A real buy", and it goes on to state: "These cards are not being sold in the United States or by any other dealer. Have hundreds of sets, but they are going fast, so do not delay and order your set". In addition, an article from the 1962 Hockey Illustrated magazine has a Topps spokesman stating that they one day look forward to hockey cards being sold in the USA.

This confirms that Topps did not sell hockey packs in the USA until at least these periods, and in your writers' opinion, the company did not formally release hockey cards in wax packs in the USA until the 1967 Topps Hockey "Test" issue. However, 1968–69 was the year that Topps' conventional distribution of hockey cards began in the USA.

Sam Rosen passed away unexpectedly on December 31, 1958, sadly many thought this would leave collectors with fewer options to buy card sets in this relatively early hobby surge. Although, Woody Gelman would step up and take over the business, he renamed it the Card Collectors' Company. We can clearly document and see Woody's ads going up and into 1970, advertising hockey card set and sales away from Topps wax pack issues. Thanks Sam and Woody, where would the North American hockey hobby be today without you two.


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