(250) 862-2737


Upper Deck Authorized Internet Retailer

Discussion – 


Discussion – 


What is a True Rookie Card?

A true rookie card collage.

What is a True Rookie Card?

by Oct 23, 2019Trading Cards2 comments

Richard McAdam

Richard is on the Okanagan College team of employees. When he is not volunteering his time to non-profits around Kelowna, you might find him at Players Choice Sports. On Twitter: https://twitter.com/realrgm81

One of the most common questions we get has to do with rookie cards. Because rookies are so collectible and so desirable for fans, the card companies will produce all sorts of cards in a player’s first season on the ice—usually a player will have more cards made in his rookie year than in any other season of his career. This is a long way from how things used to be back in the day, when a player would have only a small handful of cards in their first year and then as they got more and more successful they’d see a big increase in cards produced.


The phrase “true rookie card” can therefore be pretty difficult to understand when there are literally hundreds of cards made for a first year player. In recent years, we’ve seen some parallel overload from certain releases that have caused great confusion and debate among even the most seasoned veteran collectors. With RC’s usually being the most wanted cards for team and player collectors, we wanted to share “the rules” as to what makes certain cards stand out and earn that designation. This doesn’t make any parallels or insert cards less valuable, but since there are collectors who want only the “true RC” of their favourite players, we came up with this helpful guide:    


Rules for Rookie Cards:


  1. The card must come from a fully licensed product–i.e. both the NHL and the NHLPA have approved the card.
  2. The card must available on a national release level.
  3. The player must have played* in at least one NHL game.
  4. The first card featuring the player in the standard sequentially numbered set gets the designation of RC.


* For goalies, if the player dresses as the backup, he qualifies for rookie cards, even if he doesn’t play during the actual game. Example: former Kelowna Rockets goalie Kelly Guard has a number of Upper Deck Rookie Cards from the 2006-07 season. Guard was called up to the Ottawa Senators as an emergency backup, and even though he didn’t get any on-ice action he does have some cards made, which are pretty nice for local collectors here in Kelowna.


Those are the basic rules, but let’s discuss them in a little bit more detail:




For the past ten years, this means that the product must be from Upper Deck, or if it was from 2010-11 to 2013-14, Upper Deck or Panini. Cards from non-licensed producers such as In The Game and, more recently, Leaf, do not qualify. This allows a measure of control from the NHL and the Players Association to ensure that the supply of cards, especially Rookie Cards, is controlled and that we don’t see the glut of cards on the market that we had throughout the 1990’s.


National Releases 


Because many NHL teams will produce their own card sets for fans as arena giveaways or for sale in their official stores, those cards can’t be counted as rookie cards because they’re not available to everybody. They can still be highly valued since they are usually only printed in small quantities for the local market. As always, there are exceptions to every rule—for years McDonald’s released hockey cards in Canada, and in 2005-06 they included then-rookie sensation Sidney Crosby in their set. Initially the card was considered an “oddball” release but due to the overwhelming pressure from fans across Canada (and the availability of the card) people came to accept this card as another legitimate Rookie Card.


 Must Have NHL Experience


Cards are produced of players as early as their first season in the Canadian Hockey League. For many years, In The Game produced the very popular Heroes & Prospects set, where collectors could collect cards of junior league stars before they were drafted to the NHL. The first hockey cards of Sidney Crosby, Carey Price, and Steven Stamkos were all in these releases, but their Rookie Cards didn’t come until much later. These cards are often called “pre-Rookie Cards” and some are quite collectible. Also, now that Upper Deck has the Hockey Canada license, they can produce sets featuring players from the World Junior Championships such as Connor McDavid, Zach Fucale, and others. None of those cards, however, have RC designation even if the player has NHL experience because these releases have licensing from Hockey Canada, not the NHL and the NHLPA.


 Part of the Standard Base Set 


This part is where things can get very tricky for collectors. Many of the popular releases today will have, in addition to their regular base set, a number of parallels and insert sub-sets. For every release, there can be only one Rookie Card. Any other card of first-year players doesn’t get that designation. Like we said earlier, this doesn’t make other cards any more or less collectible, it just means that they are different and do not get the RC label. Some sets are very light on parallels, such as SP Authentic, which has only the Limited Auto Patch variant to go along with the hugely popular Future Watch Rookie Cards. The Future Watch cards are #’d to 999 copies, and are usually autographed on the card. They have a sharp design and are some of the most sought-after Rookie Cards in the hobby today.     


Other product releases, however, can be a real challenge. One example is 2014-15 Upper Deck Trilogy. This set, which has some eye-popping cards, created three “levels” of cards within the regular set and also three additional parallels (Radiant Black, Radiant Blue, and Radiant Green) of each card. So Curtis Lazar, for example, has twelve cards in this release, every card has a regular set number on the back (#113, #146, and #179), and some of the cards are autographed—which one would be the Rookie Card and which would be the parallels? Unfortunately, and this is said only because of the choices Upper Deck made with the parallels and autograph usage, the card #113 with no autograph and a print run of 799 cards is the true Rookie Card. It is the first card in the set and is not a parallel, so it would be the one that gets the designation. On its own, it’s not as “cool” and probably wouldn’t fetch the same value as the Level 3 Radiant Blue autograph with the “Go Sens” inscription numbered to only 15 copies. But it does have a different type of collectability as the RC from 2014-15 Upper Deck Trilogy.


Another major determinant in Rookie Card status is print runs. The rules have been relaxed on this one in recent years. It used to be that a card had to have a minimum print run of 99 copies (as seen in high-end releases like The Cup, Dominion, etc.) so that the cards could be accessible to collectors. This was in response to 2001-02 Titanium, which had serial numbered its rookie cards to the numbers worn on the players’ jerseys. One card in particular: 2001-02 Titanium #158 Ty Conklin – was a massive headache, because Conklin wore #1. So his Titanium RC was a 1/1. The collective frustration led to the 99 copies rule. However, in the past couple years, Panini’s Titanium releases and Upper Deck’s SP Game Used have gone back to that “RC’s numbered to the player’s jersey number” model, and it has been generally accepted by the hobby that this is OK again. It makes for a great chase for set-builders and collectors alike, who get bragging rights for being able to nail down those super-rare Rookie Cards of their new superstars. 


We hope that you’ve found this reference guide to be useful and helpful to you. Remember, the hobby is all about collecting what you like and enjoy. Just because a card isn’t a “true Rookie Card” doesn’t mean it can’t be a great collection piece or that it has lesser value. But the most iconic cards in the hobby, from its humble beginnings over a hundred years ago to the sleek manufactured masterpieces we see today, feature that crucial designation.  


The 2019-20 Young Guns are released in Upper Deck Series 1 – available in store Wednesday November 6th. Family Break night scheduled for Saturday November 9 starting at 4pm. Break spots open Monday October 28th




  1. Tom

    Hi there I was Just looking at Wayne gretzkys first cards
    It would appear his first card set 1978/79 put out in 1979 is that his western hockey year ?
    If it Is the western hockey league so that’s not an nhl rookie card , is that correct??
    as most rookies don’t have stats
    Now looking at the 1979/80 #250 that came out in 1980 first year stats right on it 110 by its self so it’s seems like they are just playing with collectors completely,
    rearrangement of stats on the two cards
    Basically same so it’s his first nhl card as of 1979/80 that’s came out in 1980 that’s #250
    Please clarify this as it’s interesting
    His second year card has his first year 1979 and western league stats as first only that’s why I’m asking that says true rookie to me
    I also have the card in a un cut sheet
    It would be amazing to be his true rookie
    Because you don’t normally have stats on a rookie There’s a debut no stats for the nhl at all and then first year stats talk about a situation ,
    is my medicine playing tricks on my eyes Lol

    • Paul. Wile

      OK fine Enjoyed yourll story I have a rookie card for the NHL 1994


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

8 − two =

You May Also Like

My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.