Total ad lib

STEVE SIMMONS -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:40 AM ET

Derek Sanderson is saving his best stories for a book he may never write or for a movie that he hopes one day will find its way to film.

This is about as close as he will come to telling all now. It's his way of holding something back, for his own protection as he gets closer to the age of 60, as he marvels at what he has done and where he has been and how many stunning turns his life has taken.

"I never understood it all," said Sanderson, who has been hockey star, celebrity, millionaire, trend-setter, alcoholic, drug addict, homeless, born-again, rich-again, all in the span of an extraordinary life.

"I never understood what it was about me. Why a penalty killer was getting all that attention? I was never a star, never. I was never a great player, never. But people would say you've got charisma and I was a kid and didn't even know what charisma was. And I just went along with it all.

"I had no ambition to be a millionaire. I had no ambition to be a star. I never strived to be rich and famous. I strived to have a good time. I had no plans. Maybe that's why I floundered. I just lived one day to the next. Total ad lib."

Derek Sanderson is talking on a telephone from Boston 27 years after he played his last game. For some reason, it doesn't seem that long ago. For some reason the numbers -- 598 National Hockey League games played, eight in the World Hockey Association, no more than 29 goals in any season, never more than 67 points, all seem less than the reputation. But he was better known in his day -- the late 60s, the 70s -- and more recognizable than anyone who plays today. He was the hockey face of his generation, with loud clothes, slick cars and long sideburns: The Joe Namath of the NHL. And while Namath just came clean about his most recent bout with alcoholism, his life has been near fairy tale when compared with that of his former business partner in failed nightclub ventures.

The low point, Sanderson is asked to define, can't necessarily be pinpointed. Where do you begin? Was it sleeping in New York's Central Park when he had no place else to go? Was it the days he can't even remember, the many months misplaced in a haze of booze and drugs? Was it falling on his knees in Niagara Falls or was it St. Catharines, somewhere near home, yet completely lost?

"Nobody goes into the guidance counsellor's office in high school and says 'I want to be a drunk,' " Sanderson said. "Nobody puts a gun to your head and says 'Start drinking.' But then you get into the cycle. It's poor me. It's nobody cares. It's my boss, my brother, my mother, my wife -- everybody is a pain in the ass. You get in that mindset you can't get out. I couldn't stop drinking. It was always in my brain. And then you say to yourself -- today is good, I'll stop tonight. Then you have a drink and you say you'll stop tomorrow. It gets in your brain and you just keep going back to it. And sometimes you just don't want to get better."

Derek Sanderson left the Boston Bruins in 1972 to sign a record-breaking 10-year, $2.6-million US contract with the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association, with a significant amount of money paid up front. At the time, the money was beyond anyone's wildest imagination. It was the first million he would make, the first million he would blow.

"The important thing of that deal it wasn't the money, although that kind of wrecked me," Sanderson said. "The important thing is what happened in court. This was the first time anybody really tested free agency without compensation in sport. Curt Flood tried it and baseball buried him. He went from being an MVP to hiding out as a bartender in Spain.

"Philadelphia came to me and said 'Will you take on free agency in court?' I said they'll bury me. But it was over in a short period of time. The whole thing was settled in an hour and a half. It was basically the birth of free agency in all of sport, although people today point to other things. But I know this is used in law schools today as a site case. When they found for the WHA in court, they found for all of sport at that time, creating free agency. Everybody today should pay me 1% of their contracts for what I did for them."

The money, though, created a life Sanderson himself couldn't control. He lasted a little while in the WHA, hating the game, the league, the sudden star status, and writing cheques for any whim that came his way. The money disappeared and Sanderson played out his career in his five different cities over parts of five seasons. By the age of 32, he was done.

This is normally when the story ends, the typical tale of the down and out athlete hitting rock bottom: Sanderson bottomed out and with it found a new beginning.

He had lost his job, his money, and, over time, his health. He has had 10 hip operations, with both hips being replaced. His knees have been repaired. There isn't a day something doesn't hurt.

"I ran into a counsellor in St. Catharines and said I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," Sanderson said. "It's difficult to explain what happened after that. That's why I have to write a book because it's not something you can say in a few words. It's that powerful.

"Certain things happened that were monumental. I got clean, and you white knuckle it for a while. I live every day by the things AA taught me. And it's spiritual, too. I don't know anybody that can get through this without it being a life altering experience."

Getting through clean and sober was victory enough. Making the climb back was just as miraculous.

He went home to St. Catharines where his father told him General Motors was hiring in 1981 but somehow the idea of factory work wasn't for him. Instead, he went back to Boston, called a friend who ran a golf club, asked if he could find him some work.

Sanderson worked cleaning golf clubs, slept above the pro shop, pumped gas at a local service station, hustled the occasional game. Anything to get by.

"I let humility run my life," he said. "And you measure success by whether you stay clean another day."

While working at the Andover Country Club, he met a man who thought he should be telling his story to students in the Boston area. Suddenly he was public speaking. And it was through those public speaking engagements that a female reporter from a local cable station came to interview him.

"She said, 'Why don't we do this interview?' I said 'Why don't we go to dinner?' " Two years later, they were married.

From there, another golf club contact paid off. The chairman of a major Massachusetts brokerage firm lost his job and a golf friend took over. At first, he wanted Sanderson as a spokesman for the company. Sanderson took it one step further.

He went back to school, took a brokerage course, began working at a firm called Tucker Anthony, building a client base and working with those he knew best: Professional athletes.

"I used myself as an example," Sanderson said. "How you can have everything and then have nothing. It was my job to protect athletes from themselves."

At its height, Sanderson directed the investments of more than 200 professional athletes. He has since begun to slow down, spending more time with his teenage boys, Michael and Ryan, more time with Nancy, his wife of 18 years. He can afford the leisure life.

"There has been a lot of silly stuff in my life, a lot of trouble" Sanderson said. "I tell athletes that I don't want what happened to me to happen to you. Some guys listen ... some guys never get it."


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