“Sweet smell of gum”: Western prof collecting stories of the iconic O-Pee-Chee Company

Headquartered in London, it was best-known for licensed trading card sets

Western News, By Jeff Renaud, 

Western public historian Michael Dove with some samples of trading cards and candy wrappers from the iconic O-Pee-Chee Company, previously based in London, Ont. (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo)

His historical investigation includes speaking with as many Londoners and people from across the country as he can about O-Pee-Chee, like those who worked for the company or family and friends of past employees.

“Collecting these stories can’t be left too much longer. Most of the folks I’ve spoken with, former (O-Pee-Chee) employees are in their late 60s to early 90s, so I want to hear from children and family members too,” said Dove, professor in the department of history.

Founded in 1911 as a chewing gum factory, O-Pee-Chee (‘opichi’ is the Ojibwe word for ‘robin’) is perhaps best known for its licensed trading card sets, including hockey (N.H.L.), baseball (M.L.B.) as well as movies like Star Wars and television series like Happy Days.

“Growing up in in Newfoundland in the ’70s and ’80s, we felt very disconnected to, well, most of the world,” said Dove. “We had two channels – English CBC and our local station NTV – so my friends and I learned so much about geography and math through the back of hockey and baseball cards. Looking up where players were born and their former teams and then counting up their stats to see which player was the best. A lot of the backs were bilingual, so we were learning French too. Those little pieces of cardboard really connected us to the world.”

Serendipity brought Dove to London years later for graduate studies and later an academic career. Having landed in the birthplace of Canadian trading cards, he is ready to take a deep dive into a business that was a key employer in the city for decades and was and continues to be the ‘stuff of dreams’ for collectors, hobbyists, and enthusiasts of all ages.

Western Archives and Special Collections holds O-Pee-Chee’s historical corporate and financial records, including invaluable information about shareholders, employees, products, and building layouts. Dove has read through thousands of pages of board of directors’ minutes, correspondence and legal documents and has now started to develop an oral history, having already interviewed O-Pee-Chee’s last president Gary Koreen and several former employees. Despite everything he has learned, he knows there is more to the story.

“We’re all at that age now where we are finding items that have been tucked away for years in our parents’ attics and basements,” Dove said. “Before they’re turfed out, I want people to know we want to see everything: old posters, product packaging, pay stubs and anything else, really.”

And what about hockey and baseball cards?

Dove suspects Londoners may want to hold onto their 1979 Wayne Gretzky O-Pee-Chee rookie cards (a ‘gem mint’ graded 10/10 sold for $3.75 million in 2021) and the rest of their historic finds as they represent the golden era of trading cards, a hobby he says has declined since the boom of the 1990s.

A Wayne Gretzky rookie card is shown in this image (Heritage Auctions photo)

“It’s just not the same as when I collected in the ’70s and ’80s,” said Dove. “The entire hobby has changed. Really, it’s been ruined. In my opinion, it’s not kids collecting these cards anymore, it’s all about speculating and making money.”

In fact, card companies don’t even include gum in the packs anymore, something that wouldn’t sit well with O-Pee-Chee founders John McKinnon (J.K.) and Duncan Hugh (D.H.) McDermid, brothers who started in the candy business.

“I was just reading an email from someone who remembers the operations plant on Adelaide Street (now an apartment complex) and walking by on their way to school and the sweet smell of gum in the air,” said Dove. “I want to hear more of those stories.”

Dove walks by the former headquarters of the O-Pee-Chee Company in London, Ont.                      (Christopher Kindratsky/Western Communications photo)

It is early days for the project and Dove is not sure exactly how he will present his findings, but he knows there is an appetite for nostalgia. He also knows that card-collecting and candy are the types of things that trigger emotions and memories, so everything from a TV documentary or podcast to a museum exhibit or historic plaques are possibilities.

“I want to assure people that their stories, the stories of their loved ones, and anything else they want to share, are gathered and told for years to come,” said Dove. “O-Pee-Chee meant so much to so many people and it’s so great it all started here in London.”