1979-80 OPC - 396 cards
When Upper Deck chose one set to remake as a special insert for this year's OPC hockey, they went with 1979-80. I think it's fair to say that 1979-80 is the most famous and recognizable of all the OPC sets and among the most desirable, mainly on the basis of one card - Gretzky. The Gretzky rookie is by far the most expensive OPC card you can get (at least in this incarnation of OPC. OPC was also doing hockey in the 1930's and some of those are crazy-expensive).
The original 1979-80 set is tough to put together in top condition because of the blue borders that really show corner wear (there are worse sets, though that's for another day). These were produced long before the tendency to keep everything pristine and it's clear that a lot of these cards went up in scrambles, closest-to-the-wall, bike spokes, etc. (as it should be, really). The cards were also prone to the typical OPC miscuts and ragged edges, which makes it tough for the PSA-types to get the grades they want.
Once you get past the Gretzky rookie, though, the 1979-80 set is really pretty interesting in its own right. This set is right in the middle of a generational shift in the NHL - it sees the end of some really big names and ushers in the players that would define the 80s and really just retired in the last handful of years. The only other period like it that I can think of that really compares is actually '05-06, the year after the lockout.
This set marks the end of the NHL/WHA war. 1979-80 saw the debut of the four ex-WHA teams - the Oilers, Whalers, Jets and Nordiques (three of the four got team cards with 'New NHL Entry' on them. The Nordiques, for some reason, were the only one to have a team picture).
This was the last year of the Atlanta Flames. They would be the one and only team to move north of the border in the history of the NHL. (Can anyone imagine if the Saskatoon Blues had really come to exist?)
This set also captures the end of the last Habs dynasty (the 'NOW RETIRED' on the Dryden card pretty much says it all) and the first of the four Cups the Islanders would win. Though Philly had won a pair of Cups in 1974 and 1975, this is really the start of the era that would be dominated by expansion clubs.
In terms of players, 1979-80 has a pretty weak rookie cast once you get past Mr. Gretzky. The second-best rookie is probably Charlie Simmer. I can't even say who third-best would be. Once you're past Gretzky, this set just isn't about rookies. It's the retirees that make this interesting. This set has the last cards of the following players:
Between 1978 and 1982, the NHL would lose those five along with Orr, Parent, Ratelle, Esposito, Keon, Lemaire, Cournoyer, Henderson, both Mahovlich brothers, all big names of the early expansion era. The same period would see the debuts of Bossy, Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey, Anderson, Fuhr, Francis, Bourque, Gartner, Ciccarelli, Goulet, Stastny - most of the names that would carry us through the 80s and onwards.
Only recently, where we lost Yzerman, Messier, Francis et al to the lockout and saw Crosby, OVechkin and the rest debut, has there been a shift like this - to my mind, anyway.
From a Leaf standpoint, the set is a little sad, particularly in hindsight. This marks the end of the Neilson-era team and the onset of what we would see as the worst of the Ballard years - the 1980s. This has the last Leaf cards of Lanny McDonald, Tiger Williams and Mike Palmateer (v1.0) along with McKechnie, Quenneville, Jones and a few other lesser lights.