By Richard Mc Adam aka RGM81

The 2008-09 season was a memorable one for fans of the Montreal Canadiens. Sure, by the end it was for all the wrong reasons, but for several months supporters of hockey’s most storied franchise were treated to significant trips down memory lane to recall the greatness and the glory of a century of dominance. Michael Farber of SI famously stated that there are two institutions that do pomp and circumstance better than all others: the House of Windsor and the Montreal Canadiens. No stone was left unturned by the organization to promote the Centennial.

For myself as a hockey card collector, while I grabbed much of the merchandise, nothing comes close to being as fantastic a release as Upper Deck’s Montreal Canadiens Centennial set. From the first moment that I saw it listed in the 2008-09 product listings, I knew that it was going to be something exceptional. For months I searched hobby forums like SCF and UD’s official website for any mention of the product, eagerly anticipating its release. It is still to this day the only time in history that I have actually booked off a day from work so that I could go to my local card shop and buy the product as soon as it became available. I actually arrived at the store before my shop owner and helped him load the 3 cases out of his vehicle and into the store. I left with my 2 pre-ordered boxes that day and could not wait to break them open.

My then-girlfriend (now Mrs. RGM81) and I launched into the boxes as soon as we got home. Our two cats, Orion and Nebula, even sat down peacefully to enjoy the breaks with us. The design of the cards was impeccable: a nice glossy finish, good cardstock, excellent on-ice action photos, the distinctive Centennial logo, and a nice bleu, blanc, et rouge colour scheme on the back with a brief bio and the player’s stats from their time with the Canadiens. If I had my way, the entire then-current roster would have been featured, but considering that over 700 players have donned la Sainte-Flanelle since 1909, with only 176 spots available (cards 177-200 in the base set were reserved for the Canadiens’ 24 Stanley Cups) sometimes you have to make exceptions and pay homage to those who came before them. Overall, the Canadiens and Upper Deck did an excellent job putting together a great set encompassing one hundred years of glory.

It is the extras that make Canadiens Centennial truly exceptional. Some of the subsets, are among the most collectible cards on the market today. There are SP subsets, a parallel set, a memorabilia set, and a number of autograph sets. For the retail tins, Upper Deck even made Stanley Cup banners commemorating the 24 years that the Canadiens hoisted Lord Stanley’s Grail.

The short print sets represent a concise history of the team and the superb players and moments that have come to define the Canadiens. These were inserted at one per pack, and included Captains, Record Holders, Award Winners, Retired Jerseys, and Memorable Moments. With 100 cards in all, this was a good little challenge to put together. I quickly collected a full set and have them, along with one of my complete base sets, stored in a binder for easy viewing. There are cards in the set that bring back some very fond memories, whether it was the 9-minute standing ovation The Rocket received when they closed The Forum or the row of jerseys hanging in the rafters honouring the all-time legends.

The parallel set encompasses all 300 cards from the base and SP sets. The cards are #’d to 100 and have a distinctive silver finish rather than the usual gold foil on the front. I know that a couple of fellow Canadiens fans have attempted to put that set together, and I’ve been happy to help out where possible. I have kept three for my collection: the Carey Price base, a Jean Beliveau Memorable Moments, and a Maurice Richard Retired Jerseys.

Unlike most sets that feature memorabilia cards at a fairly high frequency, the jersey pieces in this set are fairly tough pulls, coming in at one for every two hobby boxes. It’s a smaller set of 21 cards, though it does feature several modern players on more than one card. The pieces are even shaped like the Canadiens logo, and though fairly small there are a number of two-coloured pieces out there. Two of the cards in the set are particularly difficult to come across. Guy Lapointe was a short-print, but nowhere near as short-printed as Jean Beliveau. To date I still need that card to complete my set but at $250-$350, I may be waiting for a while yet!

Finally, we have the autographs. Every card in this product is hard-signed, and the checklist includes a number of players that have not had autographed cards for years, if ever! The Habs Inks set is the staple set. The cards have an amazing array of players, including former captains, Hall of Famers, current roster stars, and even the mascot Youppi! Coming in at two per box, Upper Deck provided a great value incentive for box breakers. Even today, the most common auto will get at least $10. At one point I had accumulated 45 of the autographs from that set, after spending much of the spring and early summer of 2009 tracking down as many as I could possibly afford. I have parted with many of them now but the challenge and the hunt was an amazing amount of fun. The best “steal” I ever got was for a Guy Lapointe short print – I paid $35 for it on eBay. When an opportunity to get a stick for my Carey Price collection arose, I sold the card…for $600. The most difficult of all the autographs to find from the set has been Steve Shutt. While Shutt’s hobby love is notoriously small for a player who put up the numbers he did, the SSP Habs Inks of his sold for $2500 in the only eBay auction that has ever been completed. I still see a number of people attempting to complete this set, and I wish them the best of luck!

The Habs Inks set is just the tip of the iceberg, however. There are dual, triple, and even quad autographs. There are cut autographs featuring deceased legends. There is a set numbered to the year that the player was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There is an AKA set for nicknames of some players. I was fortunate enough to pull a great card for my Carey Price collection: a dual autograph /50 also featuring Andrei Markov. I also pulled a triple autograph featuring three great Canadiens blueliners: Markov, Rod Langway, and Larry Robinson. Some of these cards go for amazing dollars, and they are great to see and enjoy.

I have been a Montreal Canadiens fan for as long as I can possibly remember. For me, this set represents the best product that Upper Deck has ever released. Judging by how quickly it sold out at the hobby level, I think that many would agree with my assessment. My LCS ran out after 3 days and was never able to get more. I do not remember the last time I saw a hobby box break. Even the retail tins dried up after a few months. I often joke that my fellow Habs fans and I are a little crazy when it comes to this hobby, but to not enjoy the Canadiens Centennial set is truly insane. Upper Deck truly captured lightning in a bottle with that release, and I don’t think that there’s any individual team that could replicate the desire, interest, and demand that this set generated. Like the Canadiens on the ice, this is definitely my favourite hockey card product!