The half-million dollar hockey card that ties together Wayne Gretzky and the Bruins team photographer
By Joe McDonald
Jan 29, 2020
Uploaded by: Martin Arnold
Steve Babineau walked into the press room, shaking his head in disappointment.
“I blew it,” the Bruins’ team photographer said, the regret clear in his voice. “I don’t have it, and he’s here.”
The “it” was Wayne Gretzky’s 1979 O-Pee-Chee rookie card. The “he” was No. 99 himself.
Gretzky was in attendance when the Bruins hosted the Edmonton Oilers on Jan. 4. Unfortunately for Babineau, he didn’t have the hockey card, which today is worth $1,000 ungraded. A higher grade is worth much more; pristine versions have sold for six figures in recent years.
“I keep telling him every time I see him to bring the picture in and I’ll sign it for you and he’s yet to bring the picture,” Gretzky told The Athletic. “One of these days we’ll get it done.”
But believe it or not, Babineau doesn’t want the card signed, like so many other collectors. What he wants is a photograph of him and Gretzky together, holding the card.
Babineau is the photographer who took the picture that was originally used for Gretzky’s iconic rookie card, the most valuable hockey card ever made.
In January 1978, the roof of the Hartford Civic Center collapsed, and the then-New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association were forced to relocate north, to the Springfield Civic Center in Massachusetts. The team was still playing there in the spring of 1979 when the 18-year-old Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers arrived for a pair of games on March 30 and April 1.
Babineau, who has been the Bruins’ team photog for 43 years, was asked to photograph one of the games and he accepted the assignment based on the opportunity to shoot Gordie Howe, who was playing for the Whalers. Babineau also knew Gretzky, then wrapping up a 110-point debut season, would be there.
Babineau remembers that the arena was dark, and that he actually took a picture of Howe and Gretzky together during a faceoff. The money shot, however, the one that was used for Gretzky’s rookie card, featured No. 99 skating between the top of the crease and blue line, looking up at the scoreboard. At that moment, Babineau snapped the photo from the penalty box.
Stu Cowan✔@StuCowan1Happy birthday to The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who turns 59 today. Here's his 1979-80 rookie card:
11:10 AM - Jan 26, 2020
At the time, Babineau didn’t know Gretzky — who would migrate to the NHL with the Oilers the next season — would eventually smash records and become perhaps the greatest hockey player of all time, while winning four Stanley Cups.
“I didn’t realize the first time shooting him what he was going to develop into and become the player that he became,” Babineau said. “He added a different dimension to the game, just like Bobby Orr did. (Gretzky) was an unbelievable player and he proved with his numbers and winning the Stanley Cup a few times.”
Even though Babineau certainly remembered taking the photo used for Gretzky’s rookie card, the photographer didn’t really think much about it until he heard that one Mint-10 version of the card sold at auction for $465,000 in 2016 to an anonymous buyer.
At one point during the 2016 season, Babineau was with the Bruins in Florida and Gretzky was in attendance. Babineau introduced himself and explained he was the photographer of that rookie card. Gretzky recognized Babineau, but still wanted to test his knowledge about the card.
“Where was it taken?” Gretzky asked.
Babineau quickly responded with the correct answer: Springfield.
“Maybe he was trying to catch me and prove I was wrong, but I proved I was right,” Babineau said.
On the day Gretzky was in Boston earlier this month, he explained how a person could tell the photo used for his NHL rookie card was taken during his WHA days because of the Edmonton sweater, and the way he taped his socks.
In the photo, the Oiler crest is white with orange letters, which was not used once the team joined the NHL for the 1979-80 season. Plus, Gretzky used white tape on his dark socks in his WHA days, which was a no-no in the NHL.
“When we (were in the WHA), and I didn’t even realize this, the Oilers had two crests – one with the blue and one with the white,” Gretzky said. “When we went into the NHL, the league said you could only have one logo, so it got changed to all blue and no orange letters.”
Gretzky’s connection to Babineau is only one of his many ties to the Bruins. Gretzky was extremely close with Garnet “Ace” Bailey, who played for the Bruins in the early ’70s and won a Stanley Cup in Boston. The two were teammates with the Oilers in 1978-79 and the veteran became a mentor for the young superstar. Bailey later worked as a scout for the Oilers and Kings before his death on Sept. 11, 2001, on board United 175 from Boston to Los Angeles, the plane that struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center in New York as part of a terrorist plot against the United States.
Gretzky would spend a week every summer with Ace and his wife, Kathy, at the couple’s home in Lynnfield, Mass.
“I loved coming here,” Gretzky said.
He explained those days with Ace were spent talking hockey, especially about those Bruins Stanley Cup teams in the early ’70s that featured Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Wayne Cashman.
“Ace and I used to sit around and he would tell me stories about the Bruins and Bobby Orr. I had such fond memories and respect for those guys,” Gretzky said. “I think Ace used to get tired of me asking him questions about Bobby and Phil Esposito.”
Of course, Bruins fans of a certain age might ruefully remember “The Great One” for his performance in the 1988 Stanley Cup final. The Oilers won that series in five games against the Bruins.
“It used to be always fun coming into the Boston Garden, but I never played good in the Boston Garden,” Gretzky said. “I never really had a good game in nine years.”
Well, except one.
“I played one really good game, which was Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals in ’88. I used to get so excited to play in here because I was a huge Bobby Orr fan.”
Gretzky produced a four-point game (four assists) to lead the Oilers to a 6-3 win over the Bruins that night.
When Gretzky was in Boston earlier this month, current Oilers captain Connor McDavid scored an impressive goal against the Bruins — so good that Gretzky talked about it for days. The goal also made Gretzky recall what it was like during his playing days when the Bruins would send Cam Neely, Ray Bourque and Steve Kasper out onto the ice against him.
“Try to shadow Connor McDavid and you’ll be about two blue lines behind,” Gretzky said with a laugh.
Whenever there’s an opportunity to talk hockey with Gretzky, one has to take advantage of it. So, The Athletic asked No. 99 what it would have been like to play against Patrice Bergeron, who is considered the best two-way centerman of his generation.
“Listen, I love watching players who love to play the game and when you see Bergeron, (Brad) Marchand and (David) Pastrnak, yeah they’re good – very good and talented. My point of view as an ex-player, I love how they play with passion and how hard they play, and they’re unselfish,” Gretzky said.
Entering the recent All-Star break, Pastrnak was leading the NHL with 37 goals and he’s on pace to reach 50 for the first time in his career.
“I think what Pastrnak is doing is really incredible,” Gretzky said.
Gretzky also believes Bergeron is in a class of his own in today’s game, and that he’s making those players around him better.
“Bergeron has been great. He’s the new Bob Gainey of this era, maybe even closer to a Bobby Clarke because (Bergeron’s) a little more of a threat offensively than Bob Gainey was,” Gretzky said. “As far as being a team player and unselfish, that’s what the game is about and to me I enjoy watching players who love to play and aren’t selfish, and that’s what Bergeron brings to the table every game.”
After the Oilers defeated the Bruins earlier this month, Gretzky walked from his suite on level 5 to the visitors’ dressing room on level 3. On the way he ran into Keith Babineau, who is an assistant equipment manager for the Bruins, the visitors’ locker room attendant and Steve’s son. Gretzky had a message for the younger Babineau.
“Remind your dad to bring the photo next time,” Gretzky told Keith.