A hockey card of Wayne Gretzky, never distributed and ordered destroyed because his long, unkempt hair embarrassed him, is a scarce collectible and highly prized. Only a small number of the cards printed for the 1981-82 season have survived, and an Edmonton retiree possesses a strip.
"He had flowing locks like Sir Lancelot," Don Clarke says, perusing a framed strip of the rare cards at his home in Edmonton. "When I saw it, my first thought was that he ought to be in a rock and roll group."
Clarke is 84 and retired, but back then he was the marketing director for Red Rooster convenience stores. For four years, the chain produced special sets of Oilers cards for customers in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Around 7,000 strips of cards with Gretzky with long, unruly locks were printed, and about 6,000 managed to be pulled back and destroyed at the request of Gretzky, then 20, and the Oilers.
"Wayne was a perfect gentleman about it," says Clarke, who was the marketing manager for the Northlands Coliseum until 1980. Through that, he and Gretzky became friends. "There was never a demand or anything, it was more like, 'Could you?'" he says. "To be honest, I was relieved. When I saw them, I didn't like them. The cards looked totally different than the way he was."
Gretzky got his hair styled, and a few days later sat for a do-over taken by the team photographer. Ted Green and Billy Harris, the Oilers' assistant coaches, had their pictures re-shot, too.
"I had to put my foot down or else they all would have done it," Clarke says. "Once it started, maybe half the guys on the team wanted to change their picture. I began to think, 'What did I start here?'"
Clarke kept a small stash of the sheets of cards in which Gretzky looks more like a rock singer than a hockey icon. Later, he discovered that some of his employees did the same. The cards were simply fun keepsakes.
"It never entered any of our minds that they might be valuable," Clarke says. "I never gave it a second thought.
"If I had been smart, I would have kept a lot more. It just didn't seem significant at the time. He wasn't the Great Gretzky then. He was just a member of the team."
More than 6,000 different Gretzky cards were produced by various companies over the years, and some rank among the most highly coveted by collectors for hobbyists, regardless of sport. His 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee rookie card is the most iconic; one sold at auction in 2011 for more than $94,000 (U.S.). Last year, a Norfolk County, Ont., man reported the theft of a Gretzky collection worth more than $200,000 (Canadian) from his home.
This 30-card set was sponsored by Red Rooster in conjunction with SunRype, Jell-O, Maxwell House and Post, and could be obtained at 600 convenience stores across the three provinces.
The front had a colour photo of the player, with the Oilers' logo and player's signature across the bottom. The name, uniform number and a hockey tip were below the photo. The back had a Red Rooster logo in the upper left corner as well as the player's biographical information and statistics from the preceding season. The bottom included logos of the sponsors and an anti-crime message.
The cards that were part of the big-hair caper were pulled before they could be sent out. The cost of printing was paid for by Red Rooster franchisees, with proceeds donated by the parent company to police Crime Stoppers programs.
"Wayne got his hair cut within three or four days of seeing the proof," Clarke says. "When you look at the second picture, you almost wouldn't know it's the same guy."
Wayne Wagner, who has operated a card and collectibles store in Edmonton for 25 years, says those Gretzky cards pop up a few times each year. They are more unusual than they are expensive.
"The value isn't what it used to be," Wagner says. "Years ago, people paid a lot more because they thought fewer cards existed. The number destroyed isn't what it was supposed to be, and because of that, the price has gone down."
Clarke, who came to Edmonton from Vancouver to become a police officer in 1959, says he has been offered as much as $400 for a single long-haired Gretzky card, and $10,000 for his entire stash.
"I've had guys call me and make offers," he says. "They are quite meticulous. They want to know if the corners are curled."
Every now and then, Clarke says he sees them being sold at charity auctions. That's when he wishes he had kept more: "I see some of the sheets, and people are asking $1,200 or more. The most I have ever seen anybody pay is $3,900.
"Mind you, that night they had an open bar."