Vintage Athlete Of The Month: Derek Sanderson
The Boston Bruins of the early 1970s were a championship team, winning multiple Stanley Cups, and those teams were led by some of the all-time greats. Starting with Bobby Orr and including Phil Esposito, the Bruins were loaded with talent. Derek Sanderson wasn’t one of the most notable players on the ice, but he was still an important contributor—and he was very notable off the ice. BST&N honors him as our Vintage Athlete Of The Month.
Sanderson was born in Ontario, and picked up his native country’s passion for hockey. He played four years in the Ontario Hockey Association before being signed the Bruins prior to the 1965-66 NHL season. After a couple seasons spent mostly in the minor leagues, Sanderson would come to Boston full-time in 1968.
He played center and in his first year captured the Calder Memorial Trophy, symbolic of NHL Rookie of the Year. Sanderson never produced great offensive numbers—29 goals and 34 assists were the highwater mark of the five years he played in Boston—but nor was that necessarily his role. With Esposito as the front-line center, Sanderson’s unit was often entrusted with penalty-kill responsibilities and generally expected to play more conservatively. He did his job well, and being able to hoist the Cup in both 1970 & 1972 was the reward.
Even in his greatest moment, Sanderson was overshadowed. We’ve all seen the shots of Bobby Orr’s flying goal to win the Stanley Cup in 1970. Somebody had the assist on that play, and that someone was Derek Sanderson.
But while Sanderson’s on-ice achievements were marked by the quiet, humble, team-oriented approach that wins championships, his off-ice achievements were taking him in the opposite direction. He lived a flamboyant lifestyle, well-recognized in the Hub and did what a lot of us would have done at age 26, if we had fame and women crawling all over us—he indulged in the lifestyle to the fullest.
But living that lifestyle requires a big paycheck, and in a stunning development, Sanderson landed an annual $2.6 million deal with the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association. Why is that figure so stunning? Not only was it a lot by the standards of the summer of 1972, but it was the biggest contract ever given to a professional athlete in any sport.
In the sports world of 1972, elite players were names like Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson in baseball. There was Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw emerging in the NFL, while Jerry West was leading the Los Angeles Lakers to a record win streak and title in the NBA. That’s just a handful of the stars—Derek Sanderson got a bigger paycheck than any of them.
The situation did not work out in Philadelphia, and after an injury-riddled year, the Blazers bought out Sanderson’s contract—in effect, they paid him a million dollars to leave town. The bill for Sanderson’s lifestyle was coming due, only he didn’t see it yet. He came back to Boston, but wasn’t the same player and the Bruins traded him to New York.
Combining a young man on a self-destructive path with the Big Apple nightlife had a predictable result. Sanderson went in on a nightclub investment with New York Jets’ quarterback Joe Namath, whose lifestyle made Sanderson look like a monk by comparison. The nightclub flopped, and so did Sanderson’s hockey career. For the next several years he drifted from team to team, only having a notable year with the St. Louis Blues in 1976, when he scored 24 goals and dished 43 assists.
The nightclub wasn’t the last bad investment. Sanderson continued to take risks, and he ended up broke, developing a serious drinking problem and even slept on a parkbench in New York City.
Thus far we have a player with a good, albeit not great, career, and a disastrous personal life. Is this why he’s BSTN’s Vintage Athlete Of the Month? No, but what happened next is.
Derek Sanderson found a new lease on life thanks to the generosity of Bobby Orr and the loyalty of Boston sports fans. Orr helped Sanderson get into rehab, and Sanderson would go on to spend ten years as a NESN broadcaster, giving something back to the fans who once cheered him on. Sanderson took his debt to Orr and “paid it forward.” Sanderson set up an organization designed to help professional athletes manage their money and avoid the same kind of life-wrecking spiral that left him destitute.
It’s easy to understand why Derek Sanderson became beloved in Boston. I suspect most of us can identify with one who made bad choices at a young age—particularly when the opportunities to do so were much greater than most of us will ever experience. He hit rock bottom and was humble enough to accept that his own flamboyance had destroyed him. He became the man off the ice, that he had once been on the ice—the team player, whose greatest moment was not scoring, but in an assist.