Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Afternoon with Derek Sanderson

He is considered to be one the most colourful and controversial players ever to play the game of hockey. Derek Sanderson burst onto the hockey scene in 1963-64 when he became a regular with his hometown junior team in the OHA, the Niagara Falls Flyers. On the ice, Derek took whatever measures were necessary to earn a victory. Off the ice, he didn't shy away from sharing an opinion or challenging the establishment.

On a recent visit to Toronto, Derek was the honoured guest at the first Sports Talk gathering for 2015. Hosted by Mike Wilson, the event took place on a dreary Sunday afternoon, but inside the bright lights switched on by a camera crew to record the festivities replaced the bleak skies.

Mike Wilson with Derek

Derek's appearance was made possible by author Kevin Shea. In 2012, Harper Collins published Derek and Kevin's joint effort, 'Crossing the Line'.  Now, they were ready to share the many stories from their highly successful book with a captive audience at Mike's Museum.

Kevin Shea with Derek

In a scenario similar to the early days of Hockey Night in Canada, Derek and Kevin sort of recreated the intermission feature called 'The Hot Stove League'. Back in the 1950s broadcast, a group of hockey men would sit around a set designed to resemble a country store. In addition to a pot-belly stove, the shelves were lined with canned and boxed goods. Nicely positioned in their rocking chairs, the likes of "Baldy" Cotton, Ted Kennedy and Syl Apps exchanged banter on all things hockey. With the advancement of time, the rustic country store is replaced with Mike's magnificent collection as the backdrop and Kevin took over the moderators role from Wes McKnight.

Keeping with this theme, there was no better way to begin than showing highlights of Derek on Hockey Night in Canada. Providing the moving images was hockey's top ranked video archivist, Paul  Patskou. Topping Paul's play list was Derek's first shift in the National Hockey League with the Boston Bruins. Called up from Niagara Falls, Derek skated on a line with Bob Dillabough on right wing and Bill Goldsworthy on the left flank.

On December 11, 1965, at Maple Leaf Gardens, Derek Sanderson's dream of playing in the NHL came true. It was a non-eventful shift for Derek, but there was one clue as to what the NHL could look forward to once he graduated from junior. On an icing call, Derek didn't let up when he heard the whistle. Instead, he muscled the puck away from Leaf defenceman Allan Stanley. To many, this could be interpreted as a brash move made by an upstart rookie.

The shining moment in Paul's line-up was Derek's first interview on Hockey Night in Canada. After being introduced by Ward Cornell, the intermission host began his questioning by asking Derek why he seemed to be cooling the rough play that he was noted for in Niagara Falls. "In junior," Derek replied, "the referees were allowed, I'd say, to be more severe with their calls and they'd call the cheaper things. If you get a penalty up here, you deserve it."

After several more inquiries, Cornell quizzed Derek as to what thrills he had experienced so far in his rookie campaign. "I got in a fight with Orland Kurtenbach, I guess that was one of them," Derek informed those watching the telecast. He also mentioned scoring a couple of goals against New York after the two teams entered the third period deadlocked on the scoreboard.

Near the end of the interview, Cornell asked Derek if he was still a bachelor. His response brought a huge laugh when he replied, with a grin on his face, "I am." The laughter came from knowing it would be a while before Derek was ready to settle down.

No video presentation involving Derek Sanderson would be complete without showing a clip from the movie Face-Off, which starred Art Hindle in the leading role. The plot centres on a hotshot rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Billy Duke, who struggles with some off ice issues. Primarily, having a girlfriend (Trudy Young as Sherri Lee Nelson), who sings in a band and cannot come to grips with the violent nature of hockey.

In a bar scene, sitting with his agent and Billy Duke, Derek is introduced by Duke's girlfriend between songs. Enjoying a fine beverage and an Export "A", Derek stands and acknowledges the applause. In typical Sanderson style, he delivers this line when Duke is described as being one of the games future greats, "Maybe," he states without missing a beat.

The final Hockey Night in Canada clips showed that Derek still possessed his scoring touch in the waning years of his career. In this package, Derek scores a shorthanded goal for St. Louis, his first goal as a Vancouver Canuck and his second to last NHL goal while wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.

When the lights went on, it was time for Derek and Kevin to begin their conversation. Here are some highlights. They have been edited and condensed.

Advice from his dad early on...

"My dad said, 'son you have to work around the clock, think it, dream it, be it, everything you do should be towards hockey'."
And Derek used this to his advantage. When the time came to do chores around the house, young Derek would point out certain pitfalls to his dad. For example, when a snowstorm dropped a load of the white stuff on the roof, Derek told his dad a fall off the latter could result in an injury, which could end his pursuit of earning a living-playing hockey. Upon hearing this, the elder Sanderson immediately turned the job of removing the snow off the roof to his daughter Karen.

On being scouted by Harold "Baldy" Cotton...

"One night in Paris, Ontario, I scored four goals...and "Baldy" asked my dad if I'd been signed by anyone. My dad said no and he ("Baldy") asks 'how about a hundred-bucks for your son?' 'Sure' (replied Mr. Sanderson) and I didn't find this out until I was 32. Bobby (Orr) got $800. and not just stopping there, he got a blue suite and they put stucco on his dad's house."

On getting the nickname "Turk"...

"We were playing a very close game in bantam...and I curled outside a guy and I heard 'hey Derek'...and I drop the puck to him and it was their guy. They started giving names to the sounds (to identify another teammate in order to safely drop the puck) and mine was a turkey. I had to say 'Gobble, Gobble' (thus the nickname "Turk")."

On playing junior hockey in Niagara Falls...

"They had just moved out of Barrie (Ontario) and came to Niagara Falls. I was 15 and I use to pull the barrels in the rink (to clean the ice surface). Ronnie Schock and guys that were in the National Hockey League are all playing and I'm just a rink rat. I was shy and nervous and really didn't know what to do. I stayed on the bench for a good 30 games, but you learn a lot on the bench."

Getting called up by Boston...

"Hap Emms calls me into the dressing room and says, 'son I think you are playing pretty good, I want you to go up to (play) the Leafs tonight. Meet the bus line and Eddie Westfall, here is his number and give him a call.' So, I got my little junior blazer on and I got my skates. I asked Eddie if there is anything I should do? He said, 'just take your time and let it happen'."

Speaking about Bobby Orr...

"Bobby Orr was suppose to belong to the Niagara Falls Flyers, we owned him, but Wren Blair got him to Oshawa. He was like a fly-in-a-bottle. Gilles Marotte (a Flyers defenceman) got him one night and crossed checked him in front of the net. He drove him into the crossbar and lifted him up because he was so light. He was so humble."

More on playing in Niagara Falls...

"We had a real good team. We had some defencemen that were really talented and we had goalies - Doug Favell and Bernie Parent. We had Goldsworthy (Bill) and Tommy Webster; there were a lot of guys that played in Niagara Falls, who could play anywhere."

Fighting while in junior...

" I never really liked starting (a fight) because I liked to mouth my way through it. It is exhausting to stand up and do that. It is a very difficult task. I only weighed 175-pounds. I use to put cotton-batten in my shin guards to make them look bigger."

On playing with the OHA Junior All-Stars against the Czechs in December of 1966...

"They were playing real well, so I thought I would go in and start something. I charged Jiri Holik. (At this point, Mike Wilson showed Derek a program from that game) I hit him and gave him a little jab, which nobody sees. I try to upset him, but he spits in my face. Now, I'm going to try and kill him! They didn't want to fight, they didn't want to use the stick, they'd shoot the puck at you and kick. To them, you've lost it if you want to fight."

Harry Sinden...

" I think he was the smartest guy to ever understand the game. He would come by and kick your shin pad and whisper in your ear and nobody heard it. He'd try new things and keep everybody up. He was the best."

On being a faceoff specialist...

"We didn't have the marks on the ice and then they tried to put the players feet apart with the markings. That really hampered hockey. I wasn't afraid to pull myself out of the draw if I didn't feel it or the other guy had beaten me a couple of times. My dad use to say you had win every draw all over the building. If you get each centre winning every faceoff you're going to have the puck 7 or 8-minutes more than the other guys."

Making the Bruins a team...

"Bobby Orr started a two-drink rule, meaning you got to come out for two-drinks (any beverage would do beer, milk whatever) and after that you can leave. And I never saw anyone leave after two. We stayed together and went places together. We got to know each other. It was a team that had fun and we all liked each other."

Winning the Stanley Cup in 1970...

"It was close against St. Louis, they didn't have a lot of name guys, but they did have Red Berenson and they had some pretty good goalkeepers. I'm glad Bobby scored the goal and flew through the air, but I'm behind the net (Derek passed the puck to Orr for the Stanley Cup winning goal) and out of view in the picture. Every time I sign a picture of that goal I draw an arrow and sign the back. People try to make comparisons, but Bobby was different. He had a speed and overdrive that I don't think a lot of people can see and I don't think he even knew he had it. He knew at one certain point he would go straight instead of cutting in. He'd go straight first, then cut in. He was just a great hockey player and a great guy."

After winning another Stanley Cup in 1972, the WHA came calling...

"The only time you can win any negotiation, at any level, is when you have the ability, power and guts to walk away. If you don't walk away you've lost all your power. I met this guy, Bernie Brown, who owns 50% of the WHA Philadelphia Blazers. His partner, who is a lawyer, only came in with 50% of the franchise fee, which was nothing. So, he was giving me Bernie Brown's money. We went back and forth, but I just didn't want to go. We had Andre Lacroix and Bernie Parent, but I just didn't want to go the WHA. When me met, they offered me $2.3-million dollars. I was absolutely stunned. I told them to give me five banking days to make a decision. Then, I came back with more demands - a two-bedroom suite on the road and a driver for my girlfriend. They agreed and I thought when are they going to say no to me? Then, I realized the lawyer was giving me Brown's money. I took it and it turned out to be $2.6-million dollars. At one point, I said if you put $50,000 more in there, I would be the highest paid athlete in the world, beating the soccer player Pele. They said 'okay'. The number looks like a telephone number."

Going back to the NHL...

"Bobby said in front of the guys, 'I think you were an asshole for leaving us,' but if he hadn't done that, it would have been untenable. The Boston Bruins didn't protect me because I had a fight in the dressing room. Ultimately, I was traded to the New York Rangers. Then, it was off to St. Louis, Vancouver and Pittsburgh. The coach in Pittsburgh, Johnny Wilson, told me that I still had the head and hands, but when the knees go that is it. So, Pittsburgh didn't resign me."

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Besides talking about his hockey career, Derek spoke about his battle against alcohol and drugs. "I was a full-fledged alcoholic and addicted to seven drugs," Derek stated. "I should be dead, but there is a lot of great people in the world, that seem to help us all. I would have been nothing without them, the people who took me in and edged me along." He also provided this insight, "Nobody ever gets sober without some kind of an awakening, understanding or higher power."

Back in the day, Derek's lifestyle was often chronicled in newspaper and magazine articles. Pictorial spreads showed Derek clutching a drink in one hand and an attractive lady in the other. Away from the rink, Derek's part-time job exposed him to all sorts of temptations.

"I was contacted by Joe Namath and he asked me if I would like to be his partner in another Bachelors 111," Derek recalled of his conversation with the New York Jets QB. Bachelors 111 was a nightclub Namath owned in the Big Apple. At the time, Namath was being pressured by the National Football League to give up his interest in the club. He contacted Derek to counter the NFL and open up shop away from New York City. "I was making $11,000 a year playing hockey and Joe offered me a new Lincoln and $30,000 to run the club in Boston. Also, he offered me the power-of-the-pen. This meant that  friends could come in and I'd sign their cheque. It was all on the club. Unless you've ever owned a bar, you wouldn't believe the magnet that was."

Down the road, Derek opened his own place in Boston, Daisy Buchanan's, and developed a routine during the hockey season. "Practice finished around noon and I would have 5 or 6 beers in the afternoon. It was then time for dinner at the club and I would take a lady home. It was off the charts. That wasn't me. My mother didn't raise me that way."

Following Derek and Kevin's chat, the floor was open for questions and answers.

To read Derek Sanderson's more spicier stories, I suggest dishing out the coin to purchase a copy of "Crossing the Line'. As the movie ads state, "It is well worth the price of admission."

In the Acknowledgements for his book, Derek wrote, "Through family, friendships and faith - discovering there is something stronger than all of us - I was able to reconstruct my life. The people who really cared gave me the strength to get back on my feet, and I am eternally grateful."

On a Sunday afternoon when the NFL crowned their conference champions, Derek Sanderson talked about what it takes to be a champion both on and off the ice.

Photo credits: The author / Paul Cookson ( & Mike Wilson (

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