A pristine Wayne Gretzky trading card, from his rookie NHL season of 1979-80, scored a whopping $3.75 million in a private transaction via Heritage Auctions this past week, not surprisingly a record in the hockey card market.
A big week for the Great One. Turner Sports also announced that No. 99 will be an analyst for the share of games it broadcasts in the United States TV market. The game’s all-time scoring leader reportedly will be paid $3 million a year, or enough for a healthy down payment should one of his cards come up again for bidding.
Life imitates art all the time. When the art inside a pack of bubble gum cards reaches Van Gogh levels, we’ve moved to a new act in the theater of the absurd.
Unknown to most everyone about that Gretzky card is its connection to the Hub of Hockey and to Springfield. It was Steve Babineau, then only 3-4 years on the job as the official Bruins team photographer, who snapped that picture of Gretzky one night in Springfield with the World Hockey Association’s Oilers in town to face the New England Whalers.
Babineau, now 68, can tell you where he was sitting inside the Civic Center (penalty box, no glass), the film he was pushing (35mm), the camera he was using (Topcon Super DM with an 80-200mm lens), and what Gretzky was doing (peeking up at the scoreboard while in the offensive zone), when he popped the picture.
Oh, and of course he recalls what his freelance assignment was that night.
“Mostly I was there to shoot Gordie Howe,” said Babineau, recalling the NHL legend who also happened to be the idol of the then-18-year-old Gretzky. “But, yeah, Wayne was on my list, too, because someone — Hockey News or Topps — had called and said, ‘Hey, there’s this kid Gretzky … he looks pretty good … so try to get some of him, will you?’ ”
While sitting in the penalty box for pregame warm-ups, recalled Babineau, the baby-faced Great One skated over, leading Babineau to blurt out that he was there to take his picture. Gretzky pivoted for a quick cameo shot or two, and later that night Babineau filled up a roll of film on game action. One shot, he recalled, included Gretzky and Howe opposing each other for a faceoff.
“Again, my real intent was to see Howe,” said Babineau, now the Bruins’ photographer for 45 years. “There was no knowing then that Wayne Gretzky was going to be Wayne Gretzky, right? I mean, who knew? I sure as hell didn’t know it, I can tell you that.”
Those who were in the know, including Gretzky himself, would have been lined up from Springfield to Edmonton and on to the Northwest Territories to gobble up his rookie cards, selling them off today whenever the need for another $3.75 million in spare change arose.
Babineau’s compensation for that photo, which he sold to Topps in New York in the spring or summer of ’79, was the going rate: $17. The shot — which Babineau dropped in the mail as a plastic slide transparency — was among 6-10 of his pictures that Topps and its Canadian subsidiary, O-Pee-Chee, purchased for the set of cards in 1979-80, the season that the Oilers, Nordiques, Jets, and Whalers merged with the NHL.
The card auctioned this past week was printed by O-Pee-Chee and was graded as a Gem Mint 10.
Values in the card trade, with prices spiking dramatically since the start of the pandemic, are typically determined mainly by scarcity and condition — as well as whims of the market. One only must recall the insanity of the Beanie Baby market, both its rise and collapse, to know what a force psychology can play in the trade.
As for grade factoring in value, Phil Castinetti, owner of the Sportsworld collectible shop in Saugus, said Friday afternoon that he has the same Gretzky card for sale now for $4,000.
“But it’s only graded a 5,” said Castinetti. “So there you go … imagine the difference between a 5 and Gem Mint 10. Yeah, a 5 is halfway to a 10, but the difference in money is phenomenal.”
A new card, freshly pulled out of the pack, often won’t merit a Gem Mint 10 rating, noted Castinetti. Be it poor printing, or inferior cutting prior to packaging, not all new cards are created equally.
“To get a perfect 10 O-Pee-Chee was very, very tough,” he said. “They had rough cuts. They didn’t do a good job making the cards. There’s always factory things — it could be a factory miscut, it could be cut off-center, or a scuff or a bad corner. Just because it comes out of a pack doesn’t mean it’s a perfect card.”
According to Babineau, currently working on a book to commemorate the WHA’s founding in 1972, Topps/O-Pee-Chee returned his original Gretzky transparency sometime in 1979 or 1980. He’s convinced he has it in storage, tucked away in the bottom of a box, but he has yet to find it. His cut remains whatever’s left of that $17 fee.
“A roll of film in those days went for $5,” he recalled. “Then it was maybe another $6 to get the roll developed. OK, so now you’re at $11, for a payout of $17. And don’t forget, you were putting out $11 with no guarantee that you’d sell a single thing. Crazy!”
Decades after shooting the picture used for the coveted card, Babineau met Gretzky again and reminded him he was the guy who took his rookie picture. They were both in Sunrise, Fla., where Jaromir Jagr, then with the Panthers, had moved second to Gretzky on the NHL’s all-time scoring list.
“Really?” said Gretzky, when Babineau informed him he took the picture.
“And then he says, ‘OK, where was I playing?’ ”
Babineau fast forwarded through chapter and verse … WHA … Springfield … season wrapping up … Gordie Howe in the Whalers’ lineup.
“And he just looked at me, smiled,” said Babineau, “stuck out his hand and said, ‘You win.’ ”
Meanwhile, the $3.75 million sales price had Babineau factoring time spent ferreting through storage boxes this Memorial Day weekend. He is certain he still has the original transparency, and hopes maybe there’s a way to claw back a few more bucks from that long ago freelance gig.
“I’ll call the guy who bought the card for $3.75 million and tell him he can have the original for $5.2 million!” kidded Babineau. “I’ll even frame it for him, OK? The problem is, I have to find it first. Trust me, if I find it, you’ll know about it, brother. I’ll grab that microphone from the anthem singer at the Garden and yell, ‘Look what I found!’ ”
Bergeron still controls the dot
Patrice Bergeron again led the NHL in faceoff wins (714) during the regular season, and of the 10 players to take more than 1,000 drops, Patrice The Thief also led in winning percentage (62.3). Blues center Ryan O’Reilly finished second, winning 58.9 percent of his 1,196 faceoffs.
Depending on line matchups against the Islanders, Bergeron likely will be opposed most frequently by fellow Quebecer Jean-Gabriel Pageau or Brock Nelson. Pageau ranked 17th in wins (472), while Nelson slotted in at No. 42 with 349 wins. Another Islander, Casey Cizikas, was 44th with 340 wins.
“They’re great at what they do,” said Bergeron. “The Islanders are a team that they like to put a righthanded faceoff man on the right side, a lefty on the left side. So at any given time you’re always up against a guy that is on his strong side, and that is definitely a challenge of its own.”
As Bergeron noted, winning the draw isn’t just about the center. Wingers fighting for possession off a neutral drop can determine the win and getting possession — the object of the exercise.
“It’s always a great challenge to go up against really good faceoff guys,” he added.
Dating to his rookie season of 2003-04, no one has taken more faceoffs (22,900) in the regular season than Bergeron. Only three others, Sidney Crosby, Anze Kopitar, and Eric Staal, have cracked the 20,000 mark. Bergeron’s 57.4 lifetime win rate is also No. 1 in that group.
With that kind of experience banked, Bergeron doesn’t study video on his opponents’ tendencies at the dot.
“To be honest, it’s kind of in my head,” he said. “I know what’s coming. I know how they like to take their faceoffs. I am sure they think the same way with me. You play against a guy eight times during a season, and beyond … those guys have been around for sometime now … so you kind of know how they go about taking their faceoffs and you try to find ways to counter that.”
The NHL keeps faceoff records only back to the 1997-98 season, which was the year Joe Thornton entered the league as a Bruin. To date, Jumbo Joe has taken 25,364 faceoffs, the lone player in the league to amass more than Bergeron’s 22,900.
Another early exit for Blues
The Blues exited Round 1 with nary a whimper, swept into the Cup dustbin by the Avalanche by a lopsided aggregate score of 20-7, the drubbing complete in a tidy 240:00 minimum.
The Oilers, astonishingly, also bowed out in four to the Jets, but Connor McDavid & Co. at least pushed three of the games into OT, including a triple-OT Game 4 closer.
Colorado’s tour de force was all the more impressive in that it started the series with Nazem Kadri in its lineup and, lo and behold, still prevailed. For all his years in Toronto, the Maple Leafs never could say the same. Kadri, though, lived up to his self-sabotage reputation with a vicious high hit on Justin Faulk in Game 2 , which led to an eight-game suspension for the ex-Leaf.
The Blues now have the summer to figure out why they let captain Alex Pietrangelo beat a UFA path to Vegas in the offseason. More importantly, what to do about it.
Yes, the price for Pietrangelo ran very high ($8.8 million annually over seven years), especially for a guy then about to turn 31, but such is the market for a 6-foot-3-inch franchise defenseman with a captain’s pedigree and a recent Cup title. A backline led by downsizers Torey Krug and Faulk (combined cap hit of $13 million) didn’t come close to patching the hole.
Meanwhile, the Blues are just 2-10-1 (last year’s seeding round included) in the playoffs since clipping the Cup from the Bruins in Game 7 at the Garden in June 2019. Jordan Binnington, superb in net for the Blues in the clincher that night, especially in the first period, has recorded nine straight playoff defeats.
Only three goalies in NHL history have endured longer losing streaks: Chicago’s Tony Esposito’s 16-game skid from 1975-79; Atlanta’s Dan Bouchard lost 10 from 1974-80; and Toronto’s Harry Lumley matched Bouchard’s streak from 1954-56.
Bouchard, by the way, was chosen No. 27 in the 1970 draft by the Bruins, only to be lost to the Flames in the ’72 expansion — less than four weeks after the Bruins beat the Rangers for the Cup.
By the start of training camp in September, Gerry Cheevers had bolted for WHA Cleveland, and his partner, Eddie Johnston, played one more season in Boston with fellow stoppers Ross Brooks, John Adams, and Jacques Plante.
Bouchard finished his career with 655 games in net, the most ever by a Bruins draftee.
Pastrnak has been prolific
As noted here late in the week, David Pastrnak finished up the Washington series as one of only a handful of players in today’s league averaging better than a point per game over his playoff career.
Pastrnak headed into Round 2 vs. the Islanders with a 22-37—59 (1.035 ppg) line in 57 games.
Entering weekend play, Pastrnak stood as one of only 35 NHLers all time with a career playoff sheet above the 1.00 ppg mark.
Wayne Gretzky (1.837) and Mario Lemieux (1.607) top the chart, followed by ex-Bruin/NESN commentator Barry Pederson (1.432).
Of the 35 players on the list, Pastrnak was one of only six active this season. Their ranking: 4. Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado, 44 games, 63 points, 1.432 points per game; 12. Brayden Point, Tampa Bay, 50 games, 56 points, 1.120; 14. Nikita Kucherov, Tampa Bay, 96 games, 106 points, 1.104; 15. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh, 174 games, 191 points, 1.098; 26. Pastrnak, Boston, 57 games, 59 points, 1.035; 30. Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh, 170 games, 174 points, 1.024.
And because no career list in a Boston-based paper can leave him off: 6. Bobby Orr, Boston, 74 games, 92 points, 1.243.
Two other Bruins draftees who logged heavy game totals in net: Bill Ranford (647) and Ken Dryden (397). Unlike Bouchard and Dryden, Ranford played some of those games (52 plus eight more in the playoffs) in the Boston net … It could be a Herculean task for the Turner Sports anchor to tease interesting information out of Gretzky beyond his play analysis. He retired in the spring of 1999, so there has been about a 99 percent turnover in playing personnel, not to mention a dramatic way in the way the game is played. Also, much like Orr, Gretzky is very reserved and humble, traits that typically don’t project well on TV … With a new arena being built next to Belmont Park for the start of next season, the Islanders are down to their final few games at Nassau Coliseum. Years into his retirement, ex-New York baseball writer Barney Kremenko worked as a greeter/press box steward during Islanders home games. He was a sweetheart of a man, his likes no longer to be found in any of the league’s press boxes. Kremenko, by the way, coined the nickname “The Say Hey Kid” for Willie Mays, soon after the brilliant outfielder broke in with the Giants in 1951 … Reminder, the NHL for this season abandoned conference play, so the Cup Final will not be decided between the East and West. Instead, the four teams to win Round 2 will be seeded 1-4 according to the points they accrued during the regular season … Only Bruins fans of sharp memory, and some age, will remember there was another Taylor Hall to play for the Bruins. The first one, who suited up for only seven games with Boston in 1987-88, was originally a Canucks draft pick and signed on here after only seeing limited action in Vancouver over three seasons. The right winger, who played briefly with Cam Neely on the Canucks, never played in the NHL again after his seven-game stint … Ex-Bruins great Jean Ratelle, now 80 and living south of the city, recently made a three-hour signing appearance at Sportsworld, where some of his signed pieces remain for sale. “One of the two or three best days we’ve ever had here,” said Castinetti. “I tried for years to get him to come, and he was great. Signed everything, enjoyed his time talking to people. Everybody loves Jean.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.