NHL

Wayne Gretzky rookie card 1st in hockey to break $1M US milestone

A mint condition 1979 O-Pee-Chee Wayne Gretzky rookie card became hockey's first to cost more than $1 million US.

More than 2 decades after retiring, Great One sets another high-water mark

More than two decades after retiring, Wayne Gretzky set another high-water mark early Friday morning, after his 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card became hockey's first to cost more than $1 million US at auction. (HO-Heritage Auctions/The Canadian Press)

Wayne Gretzky's name appears at No. 1 an astounding 60 times in the NHL's record book.

More than two decades after retiring, The Great One set another high-water mark Friday.

A mint condition 1979 O-Pee-Chee Gretzky rookie card became hockey's first to cost more than $1 million US when it fetched $1.29 million at auction.

"Gretzky is the greatest of all time," said Chris Ivy of Heritage Auctions, which handled the sale. "This is his rookie card, and then add onto all that it's O-Pee-Chee, which is the Canadian version, and is highly sought after."

The online auction house said the trading card, which features Gretzky in his Edmonton Oilers uniform during the team's final WHA season before the franchise joined the NHL, is just one of two with No. 99 from O-Pee-Chee's 1979 run to receive a perfect "gem mint" score from the Professional Sports Authenticator grading service.

That's out of the 5,711 Gretzky cards the PSA evaluated. By comparison, there are more than 300 rookie cards of NBA great Michael Jordan by Fleer with the same "gem mint" rating.

Ivy said it's extremely rare to find a Gretzky rookie card from O-Pee-Chee, which was essentially the Canadian arm of U.S.-based Topps, in perfect condition because of production issues in the late 1970s.

"Ninety per cent of the cards as they came out of the factory wouldn't be considered 'gem mint' by today's grading standards," Ivy, Heritage's director of sports auctions, said in a phone interview with The Canadian Press from Dallas. "They were using recycled cardboard that chipped easily, they were off-centre, and there were a lot of print defects.

"That this card survived 40-plus years in this perfect condition ... the desirability of it for collectors is to have the best of the best, and that's what this is."

Mount Rushmore of greats

A Topps 1979 Gretzky rookie card using the identical picture and classified with the same "gem mint" designation also sold for $720,000 during the same Heritage auction. PSA has examined 6,048 Gretzky cards from that 1979 run, and again deemed only two worthy of its highest grade.

Ivy said although the Topps card is slightly more rare, O-Pee-Chee sits atop of the heap for collectors.

"O-Pee-Chee has always outperformed Topps in hockey simply because they're the Canadian brand," he said. "They're the same cards, essentially, but hockey is the national sport of Canada.

"If you're collecting hockey [cards], the collectors want O-Pee-Chee."

The $1.29-million price tag includes a buyer's premium of 20 per cent, which goes to the auction house for marketing costs and handling the sale.

A four-time Stanley Cup winner, Gretzky retired from the NHL in 1999 with a record 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points.

"Baseball has a much longer history and has a lion's of the sports collectors market as a whole, but hockey has its place, and Gretzky definitely goes on the Mount Rushmore of greatest of all time," Ivy said. "He's right up there with Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan."

Alternate investment strategy

Ivy added that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a boost to the sports collectors market as a number of people returned to old hobbies while stuck at home.

"A lot of the people who grew up in the 1980s going to sports collectible shows and watching Gretzky, watching Michael Jordan, they're at ages now where they have careers," he said. "A lot of them are successful and have some expendable income."

And instead of real estate or the stock market, Ivy also believes those with the means are looking to invest their money differently.

"They want hard assets to hedge against potential future inflation," he said. "That's exactly what we're offering here, and it's more fun. You can't put IBM stock on the wall.

"It's a good conversation piece, it's fun and it's an alternative investment people really enjoy."

A number of bidders were interested in the Gretzky O-Pee-Chee — the card previously sold for $465,000 in 2016 — which the auction house expected would snag at least $1 million.

"We're very excited and glad it got to (almost) $1.3 million," he said. "It very easily could have sold for $1.1 million and it just as easily could have sold for $1.6 million. It comes down to who's willing to cut the cheque. It set a record ... one more record to add to Wayne Gretzky's tally.

"He deserves to have the highest-selling hockey card of all time."

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