REMEMBERING THE GREATS
FLEERʼS 2001-02 GREATS OF THE GAME RELEASE MAY BE LARGELY FORGOTTEN, BUT ITS EXPANSIVE AUTOGRAPH INSERT SET IS WELL WORTH A SECOND LOOK.
IT WAS 20 YEARS AGO THAT I PACKED OUT AN AUTOGRAPH OF CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS LEGEND STAN MIKITA FROM A FRESH BOX OF 2001-02 FLEER GREATS OF THE GAME. PLEASED WITH MY GOOD FORTUNE, I SECURED THE CARD WITH A PENNY SLEEVE AND TOP LOADER, SLID IT INTO A SHOEBOX … AND PROMPTLY FORGOT ABOUT IT.
I’m sure I came across it from time to time as I was searching through that box for other autographs, but it wasn’t until Mikita passed away in 2018 that I purposefully dug it up and took a moment to consider what a special card this was. It wasn’t long a er that I recognized the Greats Of The Game Autographs set for what it is: one of the nicest and most ambitious signature series ever committed to cardboard.
Of course, any superlative is open to debate. Few collectors today even remember the set. Fair enough. Twenty-year-old inserts tend to get overlooked by the hobby in the face of the never-ending wave of new releases, but this one is deserving of a serious second look.
Fleer set high expectations by calling the product Greats Of e Game, but this auto set lives up to its name. e 87-card checklist is absolutely loaded with Hall of Famers, Stanley Cup winners, and other legends from the modern era, including Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Bobby Hull, and Mario Lemieux – the only player who was active at the time of the set’s release. Granted, two all-time greats (and Upper Deck exclusives) in Wayne Gretzky and Bobby Orr are nowhere to be found, but the depth and quality found in the rest of the set ensure they aren’t missed.
You look at that roster now and it’s almost shocking how many of these players have passed on since Greats Of The Game was released. Along with Mikita, Howe, and Beliveau, legends like Red Kelly, Ted Lindsay, Bernie Geoffrion, Johnny Bower, Tony Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Andy Bathgate, and Henri Richard are no longer with us, leaving these cards as affordable mementos of their legendary careers. Many others, including Paul Henderson, haven’t signed on-card in years. ose that have, well, their signatures o en aren’t as sharp as they are in this series.
While those elements stand out in hindsight, it has other qualities that were immediately evident. All autographs are on-card, and most of the stars delivered every-letter sigs or, at the very least, ‘graphs that are instantly legible. ere’s an insertion rate of 1:12 hobby packs (two per box) and 1:14 retail packs (1-2 per box) that makes pursuing the set a reasonable goal. en there’s the design, which is a throwback to the clean and classic looks of the past and leaves plenty of space for a big, bold auto.
There also are 18 short prints to make set building a real challenge. ese SPs, naturally, include some of the key players. Aside from Mikita, Howe, Beliveau, Hull, Lindsay, Richard, and Henderson, the list includes Glenn Hall, Phil Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Peter Stastny, Marcel Dionne, Bryan
Trottier, Bobby Clarke, Alex Delvecchio, Cam Neely, Mike Bossy, Mike Bossy, and Mike Gartner. Interestingly, Lemieux is not listed as an SP though his signed card is rarely seen and is believed by many to be an unannounced SP. at said, it is the most heavily graded single in the series. Fewer than 50 GOTG Autographs have been slabbed in total, but seven of those have been Lemieux with one receiving a Gem Mint 10 from PSA.
One thing set builders have to watch out for is base cards that have been signed “aftermarket.”
These signed cards are o en offered alongside the certified auto cards on eBay and can be confused for the real thing by an inexperienced collector. Fortunately, they’re easy enough to detect. Base cards have a team logo in the bottom white border area, while the certified autographs do not. e trim is different as well. Base cards have blue trim and a silver seal while the certified autos have gold trim and a gold seal, and are unnumbered on the back.
ere are a few interesting sidebars to the set. e Phil Esposito, Bobby Smith, Ed Giacomin, and Butch Goring (and possibly other) cards were issued as redemptions. at wouldn’t be particularly noteworthy of an on-card auto in those days but for the fact that the redemption cards actually picture the player (instead of agate type legalese) which makes them desirable in a way that other redemptions aren’t. ey’re almost impossible to find these days because of redemption or being discarded a er the program ended. If you can track one down, and you’re a completist like me, it’s well worth picking up.
Nicknames also play a part in this set. It’s cool that Vancouver legend Richard Brodeur signed some, if not all, of his cards “King Richard,” along with his number 35. I’ve never seen one signed with his full name, but they may exist.
Howe, of course, was in the process of fully monetizing his newly trademarked “Mr. Hockey” nickname. While the card itself uses that moniker instead of his name, he signed his autographs with both, in his traditional perfect penmanship, making for a very attractive collectible.
The age of the set is both a curse and a blessing. You’re unlikely to find singles at your local card shop or show because dealers tend to devote their limited space to newer and more liquid products. at said, you might be able to snag a few gems at fair prices out of bargain bins. And there usually is a fair number available online via eBay or other sellers. However you decide to pursue it, this is a set that you’ll love to chase and be proud to own.