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With 2019-20 Upper Deck NHL® Series One and Two having such a positive response with collectors, let’s pause to acknowledge some of the incredible imagery the sets feature. Now in its 30th season, the annual flagship set has always been appreciated by fans of hockey photography. The choices made by photo editors rarely disappoint and they capture the essence of the game perfectly.
I examined thousands of cards from 30 legendary sets and came up with a subjective list of 20 which stand out among the crowd – but the fun doesn’t end there as we ask you, the collector, to suggest your favorites which do not appear on this list. Share your favorite images with us on Instagram or Twitter by tagging @UpperDeckSports and using the hashtag #UD30 to make your case for cards you believe should be added to the Top 30 list. Right now is the perfect time to go through your sets to take your mind off the worries of the day and appreciate some of the incredible imagery from over the years. Upper Deck’s photo editors will review your submissions and add ten fan suggestions to this list!
1990-91 #91 Mario Gosselin
The first Upper Deck hockey card release was loaded up with incredible game action photography – the likes of which had never been fully experienced before. Immediately upon the 1990-91 set’s arrival on store shelves, collectors were buzzing about the overhead shot used for the Mario Gosselin card – along with many others.
While many fans may recall his days with the Quebec Nordiques, the former Canadian Olympian joined the Kings in time for the 1989-90 to serve as a dependable backup for starter Kelly Hrudey. The photo was taken as the Winnipeg Jets paid a visit to Los Angeles on either February 8 or March 29, 1990. Since this card initially created a buzz, overhead shots have been utilized in the flagship set on an occasional basis. However, the first one continues to hold up as it brought a concept which had simply had not been utilized on hockey cards before.
1990-91 #520 Rick Tabaracci
Since overhead shots were new and exciting for hockey card collectors in 1990-91, they were in for an even greater treat once the high number series was released. Hugely popular among collectors even to this day, the 150-card effort included a loaded subset of Team Canada players that had captured the 1991 World Junior Championship and marked the debut of Young Guns – a hobby institution which has been part of most Upper Deck flagship releases since that time.
Like the low numbers, there were some fantastic action shots and one stands above the rest in the form of Winnipeg Jets goaltender Rick Tabaracci’s rookie card. Shown on the front laying out an unidentified St. Louis Blues player who ventured a bit too close to his crease, this was some intense action collectors were not necessarily expecting. Over time, some have wondered who the poor Blues player was, so your humble author reached out to the @STLBlueshistory Twitter feed for some answers. Since Tabaracci was in net for Winnipeg’s first two visits to St. Louis that year, there was some debate about the actual date the photo was taken. Luckily for hockey card historians, he believes that the photographer captured the moment on November 20, 1990 and the unfortunate player was Rich Sutter.
1991-92 #54 Pavel Bure
Easily one of the most beloved cards among those of us that collected when the hobby experienced a major boom in the early 1990s, the 1991-92 Upper Deck base card of Pavel Bure is practically a piece of art.
With an Upper Deck photographer taking to the beach and snapping Bure sitting atop a railing while wearing roller blades – could this card encapsulate the early 1990s more than any other? It is so adored that even one collector decided to build a Halloween costume that paid tribute to the card!
The photo session also included Bure’s younger brother, Valeri, and the pair appeared on a Bloodlines subset card in high numbers on this memorable set.
1991-92 #221 Tim Hunter
Cards showing a player in profile have been around for decades, but is there any better one than this? Hunter, who was one of the toughest and grittiest players of his generation, had the scars to show for his efforts on the ice and the photographer’s lens caught him briefly in a moment of calm. The card’s designer also cropped the image perfectly, resulting in a mini masterpiece.
1991-92 #464 Brett Hull
Upper Deck’s early sets in all sports featured the occasional multiple exposure shot on a card and the concept was brought to the hockey card world in 1991-92. At the time, Hull was a true hobby superstar following an 86-point campaign the previous year and Upper Deck highlighted him heavily in its sophomore release. He was the star of the Hockey Heroes inserts which appeared in packs along with Upper Deck’s first certified autographed hockey card.
This base card, though, is a thing of beauty. Taken during a special photo session, he is shown in the process of unleashing his rocket of a shot. Sure, Wayne Gretzky had a similar card in that year’s set, but the sentimentality toward Hull’s prime years give it only a slight edge.
1991-92 #617 Jaromir Jagr
There are countless cards of Jaromir Jagr that have been produced over the past 30 seasons, and many of them feature him with flowing locks that were not matched by any of his peers. In his sophomore season, he was coming off his first Stanley Cup championship and showing the offensive skills that are one day taking him to the Hockey Hall-of-Fame.
Chosen to play for the Wales Conference at the 1992 NHL All-Star Game, he was fresh from a visit with a hair stylist when he sat down for his official portrait. The power of the mullet is strong here and while it would continue to grow in strength and get curlier throughout the decade, this is a card that makes most people happy when they see it.
1995-96 #413 Tommy Salo
Until the NHL started to seriously crack down on fans throwing random items onto the ice, fans would occasionally stir up some fun or, in some cases, trouble during a game. The game’s lore includes such innocuous things such as the rubber rats in Florida or an octopus on the ice in Detroit, but there were also occasionally dangerous things happening like Hall-of-Famer Gump Worsley being knocked out when an egg hit him in the head. Even today, a disgruntled fan may throw a jersey in frustration – or even a mysterious waffle as Toronto Maple Leafs fans witnessed a few years ago.
In the case of Tommy Salo’s 1995-96 Upper Deck card, we can spot an errant beach ball which landed on the ice near his crease. While it is unknown as to if some fans were having fun or somebody was commenting on his ability to keep the puck out of the net, the image is unforgettable and brings a smile to most collectors that discover it.
1996-97 #80 Craig Johnson
In 1995-96, several NHL teams decided to start wearing alternate jerseys for a few games due to advances with clothing technology and to even generate a bit more interest from fans. Looking back, the designs produced revulsion more than anything else from followers of the Bruins, Ducks (then the Mighty Ducks), and Canucks. The Blues thankfully shelved a horrifying design, but also recall that this was the same season where the Islanders debuted their infamous “Fisherman” sweater.
However, there is one which stands out above them all – the “Burger King” jersey worn by the Los Angeles Kings. While even “The Great One” himself had to wear it, no other card gives such a clear look at this abomination than Johnson’s from the 1996-97 Upper Deck set. Thankfully, the Kings abandoned the look quickly, but game-used jerseys with this design are highly coveted by collectors today.
1997-98 #63 Vladimir Konstantinov
Capturing a memorable moment has often been the goal of Upper Deck’s photo editors and in 1996-97, the set subtly tied a photo into an achievement. The concept was welcomed by collectors, but it was taken to a new level a year later as several cards had a banner added to the front which tied it all together. These cards also have tough-to-find parallels which are still on many want lists.
While it is had to pick a specific Game Dated Moment from 1997-98 Upper Deck, especially when there are options like Todd Marchant’s goal which helped the Edmonton Oilers eliminate the Dallas Stars and Curtis Joseph’s incredible save from the same series.
The one which stands out above them all, though, is Vladimir Konstantinov hoisting the Stanley Cup. The talented defender played a crucial role as part of the Russian Five in Detroit, but in the aftermath of celebrating the team’s first championship since 1955, he was paralyzed in a horrifying auto accident. A year later, the Red Wings won a second straight title and Konstantinov was brought back out to the ice as part of the celebration in one of the most touching moments the game has ever seen.
2003-04 #184 Ed Belfour
A horizontal action shot often captures the eyes of collectors, but when that card has something no one was expecting, the result is something memorable many years later. In the case of Ed Belfour’s card in 2003-04 Upper Deck truly stood out thanks to a great pose which had never been used in the flagship set before.
Taken on home ice, the netcam shot was taken by Dave Sandford for Getty Images. It was perfectly cropped by Upper Deck’s design team and showed him stretching before a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on November 5, 2002. The Maple Leafs player in the background above his stick is Mikael Renberg. Belfour made 34 saves that evening as Toronto won 4-3 thanks in part to a hat trick from Alexander Mogilny.
2003-04 #473 Jose Theodore
A last-minute addition to the second series of 2003-04 Upper Deck, this slightly short-printed card shows Montreal Canadiens netminder Jose Theodore during the 2003 Heritage Classic – the league’s first outdoor regular season game which saw the Habs defeat the host Edmonton Oilers on November 22, 2003.
With bitter cold and an even harsher wind chill which dipped to as low as -30 degrees Celsius, Theodore needed to stay as warm as possible. He put a toque on top of his mask, and as he exhaled at one point, Jeff Vinnick caught a perfect moment. Naturally, it was only natural that this had to appear on a hockey card and it is easily one of the most visually appealing cards to be part of an Upper Deck flagship set.
2011-12 #214 Ryan Nugent-Hopkins
The photos for many Young Guns cards traditionally tend to focus on isolating an individual player from the action, so when the excitement of a player’s first goal is captured, the results can be magical. This was entirely evident when it came to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins in 2011-12 and you see him celebrating after scoring on Pittsburgh’s Brent Johnson during his NHL debut on October 9, 2011. Scoring at 15:05 of the third period, it helped the Oilers tie things up and the season-opening victory was sealed in the shootout by Ales Hemsky.
The photo, which was taken by Dale MacMillan was cropped in tightly as the card was designed. For those wanting to check out the historic moment, check it out:
2011-12 #426 Curtis Glencross
Being the fastest game on earth, hockey is full of action that gets captured by photographers with each passing game. There are little moments, though, which are more visually striking than others and the simple act of a player sending some pucks to the ice for the warm-up always looks great on camera.
With this Curtis Glencross card, we see the pile of pucks in mid-air just before the Calgary Flames hit the ice against the Detroit Red Wings at old Joe Louis Arena on November 3, 2011. The wide-angle shot, taken by Dave Reginek, worked perfectly for a hockey card and is a bit of a forgotten treasure which deserves a second look from the hobby. We have seen some similar photos since, but this one is outstanding.
2012-13 #131 Chris Neil
One of the most beloved players in the history of the Ottawa Senators, Chris Neil was feared throughout the NHL for his physical play. Even though fighting in hockey is such a divisive topic, the appearance of the buildup to a clash between Neil and New Jersey’s Eric Boulton on January 2, 2012 was worthy of being shown on a card. The intensity on Neil’s face speaks volumes and was caught by the lens of Andre Ringuette at Scotiabank Place just after play stopped at 14:20 of the second period.
2012-13 #279 Taylor Hall
With the 2012-13 campaign being shortened due to a labour disruption, Upper Deck only released packs for a single flagship series and put a small 50-card update set into that year’s edition of SP Authentic. Featuring a checklist loaded up with stars, one card stood out ahead of the pack due to a fantastically composed photo.
Taylor Hall is not really the focal point on the card as what draws you in is “THIS IS OIL COUNTRY” running above the private boxes. The shot was taken by Andy Devlin during the signing of the national anthems as the Colorado Avalanche visited Rexall Place on February 16, 2013. He posted three assists that night as Edmonton rolled to a 6-4 victory.
2014-15 #127 Martin St. Louis
Toward the end of his career, Hall-of-Famer Martin St. Louis found himself being traded away to the New York Rangers and he sparked his new teammates to an appearance in the 2014 Stanley Cup Final. During Game 6 of Eastern Conference Final action against the Montreal Canadiens, the action on the ice was intense and required overtime before the Rangers could claim victory.
This dazzling netcam shot shows St. Louis kicking up some snow after breaking in on Dustin Toskarski, who had filled in for the injured Carey Price. An examination of the scoreboard shows the time as 12:27 and based on the number of shots on goal shown, it appears to be from the second period. The photo was taken by the dean of hockey photographers, Bruce Bennett.
2014-15 #351 P.K. Subban
The idea of passing the torch is deeply rooted in the lore of the Montreal Canadiens and stems back to the fact that their dressing room is adorned with the famous line from John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields”, which states “To you from failing hand we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.” It’s a powerful motto for the club and a lit torch often comes out for important game-opening ceremonies.
In this case, we see former Canadiens defender and Norris Trophy winner Subban after accepting the torch from Andrei Markov before a game against Boston on October 16, 2014. Capturing a moment like this on cardboard works on so many levels – especially since the shot is perfect. While he ultimately moved on to Nashville and New Jersey, Subban’s legacy in Montreal will not be forgotten – especially after making a large charitable commitment to the Montreal Children’s Hospital.
2015-16 #104 Eric Nystrom
Released during Nystrom’s final NHL campaign, this unique shot is something you wouldn’t expect to see on a hockey card. Sure, Upper Deck has included plenty of great through-the-glass images in sets over the past three decades, but there was nothing like this! It’s unconventional, it stands out, and it was a brave (and fun) choice by the photo editor.
So, when did this photo get taken? The Nashville Predators paid a visit to the United Center to face the Chicago Blackhawks on December 29, 2014. Photographer Bill Smith was shooting and Nystrom put his hand up to glass while covering Brad Richards.
2016-17 #131 Bobby Ryan
When a fan sign goes viral, the hockey world goes wild online for a day or two and then you rarely hear about it again. However, seeing that moment captured on a hockey card is something special and there may be no better example on Bobby Ryan’s 2016-17 base card.
To recap why this story is so memorable, the Jansen family was at the front row on an Ottawa Senators games against the New York Rangers on January 24, 2016. With a sign meant to motivate Ryan to score so that young Cole could get a puppy, he took notice and delivered a goal – which also proved to be the winner at 19:40 of the second period.
Appropriately, the puppy was named Bobby!
2018-19 #184 Marc-Andre Fleury
The fairy tale expansion season for the Vegas Golden Knights saw the players out to win for their city following a tragic mass shooting which took place days before the team was to hit the ice for the first time.
With Vegas Strong being a consistent theme throughout 2017-18, this card serves as a permanent reminder of not only Fleury’s tremendous year, but also of a time where a city in mourning had something to rally around as it attempted to heal.
I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane. Again, we’d love to hear some of your favorite card images from the last 30 years as well. Shoot them our way and we will add them to this story! Interested in more about sports photography? Check out this new webseries from our friend Nick Wosika!