Collectors will find more than a century's worth of cards to pursue when it comes to the best hockey cards to buy. Not only can high quality vintage cards be an investment but they’re a lot more fun to own than stocks. A graded card featuring a player from the Renfrew Millionaires or Montreal Maroons, even the Hartford Whalers, displayed on a shelf is a great conversation starter. The search for vintage hockey cards with high grades or from scarce sets is also something that will keep a collector busy and when that card is finally found and acquired it’s a great feeling.
Rookie cards of past greats tend to be among the best investments but ultra-high grade cards of Hall of Fame players should also be part of your buying strategy. The more popular the player, the more demand for his cards. Think older cards of great players in near mint or better condition when buying for the long haul or just to have a nice collection to enjoy. If you can’t swing near mint, simply buy the best you can afford at the most reasonable price.
If you truly love the very beginning of organized hockey, the 1910 C56 set is the place to start. Any of the 36 cards in the set will be hard to find, and any player with a card that grades better than most others will be worth plenty. There are some stars to look for, like Newsy Lalonde. And while prices are nothing to sneeze at, when you can own a respectable example of a 105-year-old card of a hockey legend for a mortgage payment or two, you’ve got a fairly economical hobby. Only about a dozen Lalonde cards from that series grade above a VG-EX ‘4’ so it does offer the potential for long term growth. There's also a very rare #37 card of Lalonde. Only three exist. One was listed on eBay at nearly $180,000. Paddy Moran was another hockey hero in those times. A PSA 5 Moran recently sold at $1,113.
A much bigger star was available the following year, card 1911 C55 #38 is Georges Vezina. He was the first superstar goalie and it’s his name on the award that honors the NHL’s top netminder today. Considered one of hockey’s ‘holy grail’ cards, the Vezina is a must if you're looking to chronicle the sport's history with your collection. You can usually find one or two on eBay.
A small number of hockey cards were produced in the 1920s and 1930s. Among the legends to look for is Howie Morenz, the Montreal Canadiens’ legend who was part of the first group of players to enter the Hockey Hall of Fame. Morenz appears on several sets in the Depression era including candy and tobacco cards as well as the 1933 Goudey Sport Kings set, which also includes Babe Ruth.
1951-52 Parkhurst is the set that many hockey collectors can possibly consider to be the most important in the hobby. It was loaded with rookie cards of Hall of Fame players, ones that even today are considered to be among the very best to take to the ice. Montreal won a lot of games due to the goals of Maurice Richard, whose rookie card is in this set. There are 105 cards in the 1951-52 Parkhurst set, and the biggest is Gordie Howe's rookie, clearly one of the best hockey cards of all-time.
A collector could spend a long time searching for all of Howe’s cards, as he played with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and was still on the ice in 1979-80 with the Hartford Whalers. Howe’s 1954-55 Topps card is a beauty. During these years, the card sets would have fewer cards as Topps and Parkhurst split the NHL teams, with Parkhurst making cards for the two teams from Canada and later adding the Red Wings to their brand while Topps had Bruins, Rangers and Black Hawks.
Jean Beliveau is another on the long list of Hall of Fame Montreal Canadiens with superb graded cards to find. His rookie is 1953-54 Parkhurst #27.
The last card in the 1958-59 Topps set of 66 cards is the Bobby Hull rookie card. Often difficult to find in high grade, it remains one of the iconic cards of the post-War era.
Vintage collectors know that sometimes a great player isn't needed to make a valuable card, and that even a player picture isn't required. Graded checklist cards can be surprisingly valuable, due to their rarity. Back in the day, many collectors didn't want them as they traded their cards for their favorite players, and those who kept them often got a pen and checked off the cards on the list. A 1964-65 Topps Hockey #55 checklist with a grade of PSA 7.5 recently sold for $1,369.
By the mid-1960s, it was all about Bobby Orr for youngsters buying hockey cards. An electrifying player still revered by Bruins fans and anyone who watched him skate, Orr's 1966-67 Topps rookie card joins Howe and Wayne Gretzky on the Mt. Rushmore of post-War cards. A PSA 5 Orr sold recently for $2,100 and $2,099 was paid for a PSA 4. When putting together your list, the Orr rookie card is certainly one of the best hockey cards to collect.
Goaltender Bernie Parent's rookie card was #89 in 1968-69 Topps and is very difficult to find in high-grade. In fact, many rookie cards of famous players can be found in cards of the 1960s, including those of two famous brothers. One scored lots of goals, the other guarded the net. Center Phil Esposito’s 1965-66 Topps is one to keep on your list. Brother Tony's rookie card came out a few years later.
A rookie card from a Maple Leafs legend became famous thanks to a Canadian television show. An entire episode of Corner Gas was about a Darryl Sittler card and who owned it. Sittler also appeared on the show, hitting his thumb with a hammer. Of course, Sittler’s skills on the ice have more to do with the popularity of 1970-71 O-Pee-Chee cards. The set also featured rookie cards of Brad Park and Bobby Clarke.
The most important hockey card ever is probably the first NHL card of the sport's best player. Wayne Gretzky appears in both the Topps and OPC sets, with the printed in Canada OPC version being harder to obtain. A PSA 9 sold on eBay recently for $30,000. There is only one PSA 10 Gretzky rookie, which has proven to be quite an investment. The last time it sold, in 2011, the price was $94,162. PSA 8 Gretzkys have been selling for around $2,000. A BVG 8.5 Gretzky sold on eBay for $2,149.77.
The Topps Gretzky rookie card is also very desirable and more affordable. A PSA 8 will run about $800 while a 9 can currently be found for around $5,500.
In later years, you’ll find cards of players like Mario LeMieux, Brett Hull, Patrick Roy and Sidney Crosby as targets for investment and while high grade examples are more plentiful, they’re in larger supply than those mentioned above.