Alone, Derek Sanderson plays basketball on the floor of Boston Garden. Around him the gray deserted seats rise up to the maze of metal rafters. Sanderson dribbles out to center court, stands there for a moment in his banker's pinstriped suit and vest, his blue silk shirt and navy tie, and then drives toward the hoop. At the foul line he begins to slide on slippery-soled black-calfskin boots. He slides gracefully to the net and shoots.
In the bowels of the cavernous Garden, surrounded by stacks of folding chairs, idle forklifts and concrete pillars, stands an Interstate Lines bus, its motor idling, filling the air with fumes. Sitting inside, members of the Boston Braves of the American Hockey League are impatient to begin their 2½-hour ride to New Haven, Conn., where they will play the New Haven Nighthawks at 7:30 this November night. The bus was scheduled to leave for New Haven at 3:30 p.m. Three players were almost late. Like marines assaulting a beach, they had to run down a long ramp, weave between the pillars and leap over chairs to reach the bus on time, thus escaping a $25 fine from their coach, Matt Ravlich. It is now 3:45 p.m. and Ravlich, a 35-year-old hockey veteran who looks even tougher than the sound of his name, sits in the front seat eating French fries from a paper cup with his fingers. Before the ride has even begun, Ravlich looks wearied. "That guy will drive ya crazy!" he says. He licks his fingers. "Who's gonna listen to him all the way to New Haven?" Behind him, his players cry out, "Not me, Matty!"
Sitting across from Ravlich is Nate Greenberg, the Braves' public relations man. Nate squirms in his seat, looks at his watch, stands up—a tall, soft man in a chocolate blazer, chocolate shirt and chocolate tie filled with large white polka dots. He hunches over a bit and peers down the aisle through the rear window of the bus. "If he doesn't show," he says, "none of us better go to New Haven. I promised them the Turk. They put it in the paper, on radio, television, everything. Geesus, they'll tear us to pieces."
Finally, the Turk appears, sipping from a can of Tab and carrying three hockey sticks over one shoulder. He stores the sticks in the belly of the bus and then gets on amid hoots of derision from his teammates. He grins, raises his arms like a messiah and sits down behind Ravlich. Someone shouts, "You're overdressed, Turk. This ain't no Hart Schaffner & Marx league. It's Levi's all the way." The bus moves forward, toward New Haven and the Nighthawks.
January 6, 1974
In 1972 Derek Sanderson, the Turk, signed a $2.3-million contract to play for the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association. He was considered a very hot property in the new league's fight for recognition, and not merely because he had been a skilled center for the Boston Bruins. He was a firebrand who aroused the fans and, off the ice, a character who made lively newspaper copy—just the kind of athlete to fill an arena. But Sanderson bombed in Philly. Last winter he settled his contract for $500,000. Teamless, he returned to the Bruins, with whom he had begun his career as Rookie of the Year. He was used sparingly and, after injuring his back on the first day of training, he had yet to play a game this fall when he was sent down to the Braves, the Bruins' AHL farm team. There he became one of the highest paid minor league athletes in the history of sport, for his $100,000 Bruin salary was in full force.
A few hours before the Braves left for New Haven, Armand (Bep) Guidolin, the Bruin coach, sat behind his desk in the team's locker room and said of Sanderson, "There's nothing wrong with his back. We sent him down to get in shape. When he came to us from Philadelphia he was in terrible shape. Last year it was a battle trying to get him in condition. Then, after he got hurt this year, he did nothing to get back in condition. I'm tired of it. I don't even want to talk about him. He gets all this publicity and he hasn't played hockey in two years!" Guidolin fell silent. He is a thick-necked, curly-haired man who could easily pass for Frank Sinatra's bodyguard. In 1942, at the age of 16, he was the youngest player ever to come into the NHL. As a minor league coach he had a reputation for being a stickler for conditioning and discipline, which was why on Feb. 5, 1973 he was picked to replace Tom Johnson as the Bruin coach. Johnson, an easygoing, pipe-smoking man, was said to have been too soft on the increasingly careless Bruins, who were then stumbling along in third place in the East Division of the NHL. Guidolin guided the Bruins to five straight victories and 20 wins in their last 26 games and a second place finish.
"Listen, sending Sanderson down was a disciplinary measure, too," added Guidolin. "He's gotta prove to me he can do what he's told. And he's gotta show me he can still play hockey. I mean every game, not just one game out of three or four. I can tell you this for sure. He didn't run at anyone all last year! All he ever did was play up to the other teams' potential. He never played any harder than he had to. Why do you think we were able to waive him out of the league before sending him down? Why didn't L.A. try to grab him? Or Vancouver? Now everybody's telling me he's in a great frame of mind. Derek wants to play hockey again, they say. I haven't seen it. I haven't seen anything on the ice. I'm tired of hearing Derek Sanderson's gonna do this, Derek Sanderson's gonna do that. I'm tired of hearing all the things he's gonna do and never does. I don't want to hear anything from him anymore. He's always trying to con you. It's a habit by now. A habit."
Guidolin stood up to leave. With the thumb and forefinger of each hand he pinched his shirt collar and tugged it up around his neck, a gesture out of Guys and Dolls. "To get back to the Bruins," he said, "he's got to get in shape, prove he can do what he's told, and that he can still play hockey. When I first saw him at 18 I thought he couldn't miss. Now, when he wants to be, he's one of the three best centers in hockey. But he's got to make up his mind whether he wants to drive his Rolls-Royce or be a great hockey player. A lot of people got Rolls-Royces and nobody knows their name. Without hockey nobody would know Derek Sanderson's name."
Riding toward New Haven on the bus, Derek talks, to no one in particular and to everyone. To Johnny Carlton, the Braves' dapper business manager; to his young teammates behind him; to Nate Greenberg, contented now, shelling pistachio nuts across the aisle; and most of all to Ravlich, a former Bruin. Ravlich, slouched in the seat in front of Derek, is trying to sleep. Each time he is about to doze off Derek taps him on the shoulder, saying, "Ain't that right, Matty Joe?"
He has always talked. When he first came up to the Bruins he looked around, saw Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, and decided that the only way his name would be mentioned in the same breath with theirs was to be outrageously outspoken. "I worked hard at shocking people," he says, "and now I'm the highest paid 25-goal player in history." For a while with the Bruins, his fabricated flamboyance grew in pace with his solid talent. But then the former kept on growing while the latter stopped, began to wither. Still, he talks outrageously—"I went $68,000 in debt my first year in the NHL"—but no longer with passionate intensity. He speaks in a toneless voice and with a blank, small-featured gaze. He talks out of habit now, without conviction, like a record winding down. The tenor of his remarks has shifted noticeably, too, from braggadocio to self-depreciation. "Everyone thinks I'm a real flake, now, and maybe they're right. My mind is a little screwed up."
When the bus passes Worcester on the Massachusetts Turnpike it is not yet dark outside. Derek is talking about his business ventures. He is thinking of buying an old warehouse near Boston Garden and converting it into a condominium. He is one of three partners in a chain of Boston nightclubs with Scott Fitzgerald names—Daisy Buchanan, Great Gatsby's, Zelda's and Scott's. "Why?" he says. "No reason. I just like the names." When the bus crosses into Connecticut on Route 86 it is dark outside and inside. Derek is talking about the girls he has dated. "Joey Heatherton was a class lady. Real class. But I'm tired of the kind of girl who thinks a simple meal begins with caviar. I'd like to find a girl who drinks beer out of a bottle, a girl you can relax with."
As the bus passes the flat, darkened tobacco fields north of Hartford, Derek begins to talk about his experience in the WHA. "It's a minor league," he says. "I felt I worked very hard to get to the majors and then there I was in Triple A. There's no glamour in the WHA. There's only about 20 guys who could play in the NHL and they're just biding their time. Pretty soon they'll be jumping back. I'd never do it again. If I had it to do over again I wouldn't do it. Not even for the money. I got fat. Ain't that right, Matty Joe? A fat cat. I lost my values. I bought nightclubs and invested $200,000 in the market and after a while I had so many outside interests I'd lost my ability to concentrate on the game. My thoughts were too diversified. I forgot about the sport that had brought me there in the first place. I had no desire. I was just going through the motions. I was so bad at Philly I wanted to crawl into a hole and hide.
"I was really happy to get back to the Bruins. Then I hurt my back this year, and maybe I didn't do enough to get into shape again. I don't know. I think they sent me down to humiliate me, make me eat humble pie. For eight days I told Harry [Harry Sinden, the Bruin managing director] I wouldn't go to the AHL. No way. Then Harry and my attorney, Bob Woolf, told me it was in my best interest to go. Woolf told me I had to go to keep my name in print for my business ventures. So here I am. It turned out to be the best move I ever made. I had lost my perspective on things. I was working so hard at keeping up an image and making money that I forgot to play hockey. Now with the Braves I'm just playing hockey again. It's a challenge to prove I can make it back. Besides, I love it here. This is the most fun I've had in eight years. The guys are great; there's a lot of laughs. Even the bus rides are O.K. Buses don't leave the ground, eh? I might decide not even to go back to the Bruins, stay in the AHL permanently. Ain't that right, Matty Joe? I don't deny though that I was nervous my first game here. More nervous than I'd ever been. I didn't want to embarrass myself. I had to score a goal, too. Prove something. But they overestimate me down here. They give me an extra half-step because of my reputation. They back up on me. They're waiting for me to do things on the ice maybe I can't do. And if I happen to make a mistake everyone thinks it's the other guy's fault, not mine. I should know better."
It is over two hours now since the Interstate Lines bus left Boston. Most of the players are asleep. Only Carlton, Greenberg, Ravlich and Sanderson are still awake in the front seats. The floor around them is littered with the tiny red shells from Greenberg's bag of pistachio nuts. Carlton, Greenberg and Ravlich are sitting back in their seats, their heads resting on the backs, eyes staring ahead through the bus window. Derek, leaning forward in his seat, his elbows propped against the back of Ravlich's seat, is telling stories about his youth. Every so often, at the mention of a familiar name, a smile passes over the faces of Ravlich and Carlton, and they say to Derek, "What's that son of a gun doing now, Turk?" He shrugs, "Last I heard he was pumping gas outside of Vancouver," and they all laugh.
For a long while Derek talks about his past. His voice is different now. It is tinged with enthusiasm, and wonder, too, as if the person he is talking about is so distant that he recalls him only as a passing friend. He tells stories about his junior hockey days in Canada; about the rink owner so cheap he was always turning off lights so the players could barely see the net; about hockey under the famed Eddie Shore, who was such a tyrant his former players always said, "I played for Eddie Shore in hell"; about his first invitation to a professional training camp. "I was 18," he says, "too scared even to smoke." He holds up what must be his 20th cigarette of the trip and it reminds him of the first time he ever snuck a cigarette on a darkened team bus. Now, almost nine years later on another darkened team bus, Derek describes that moment in pantomime. He lowers his head to his knees, hunches his shoulders forward and through cupped hands drags deeply on his cigarette. He fills his cheeks with smoke and sits up to find, standing by his seat, his imaginary coach of nine years ago. He is too terrified to exhale and so, while his coach talks to him, Derek only nods, his cheeks bulging and his eyes popping out like a frog's. Just as he seems about to explode his imaginary coach walks back to his seat and Derek exhales like the west wind. He begins flailing his arms to clear the smoke while around him Carlton, Greenberg and Ravlich roar with laughter.
A friend of Derek's says of him, "Lately, he's been talking a lot about the way things used to be. He likes to talk about the old Bruins, how close they were, how they used to fight together on the ice and afterward go drinking and carousing together. He says it isn't like that anymore. I told him he isn't like that anymore. He's 27 now. He wants to be 21 again. I still can't get him to go to sleep at night. That's why he and Bep don't get along. Bep hates Derek's life-style. He's a good guy in a lot of ways but he's thick-headed, too. Know what I mean? He doesn't understand Derek. He's trying to break him. He won't take him back until Derek crawls back on his hands and knees. But Derek will never give him the satisfaction. He told me once, I know Bep's game and I'll deck him before I ever give in.' And how Derek hates it down here in the AHL! It degrades him. Harry knows. If it was up to Harry, Derek would be back with the Bruins right now."
Harry Sinden was Sanderson's Bruin coach in the late '60s. "When Derek first came to the Bruins' camp," says Sinden, "nobody expected him to make it. He fooled us all. He was a tough, cocky, dead-end kid who loved to play. As he grew more successful he also grew more talented, but then with more and more success he got too many outside interests and his hockey began to suffer. His concentration was too diffused. It was hard for him to retain his desire after getting all that money. It affected him. He lost track of what he was. If a carpenter thinks he's an electrician he gets a shock, doesn't he? Derek isn't foremost a sex symbol or a talk-show host or a philosopher or a basketball player. He's a hockey player. He makes sense on the ice, a kind of sense he doesn't make off the ice. Some people are never lucky enough to make sense at any one thing. Now Derek says he wants to play hockey again. I never lost faith; I always thought once he got his other interests aside he'd come back to what he was. That's why we sent him to the Braves. We felt that once he started playing against opponents again, it would rekindle his enthusiasm for the game."
On the ice against the New Haven Nighthawks, Derek moves as in a dream—gracefully and without effort. He plays a private game, so far superior to that of all the others that at times he looks like a fool. He leads his teammates with pinpoint passes they are too slow to reach. Without looking behind, he strategically drops the puck for a trailing teammate, who fails to see it. He stands alone at center ice expecting a pass that never comes. He skates swiftly, without exertion, while behind him players sweat and strain. And yet he does it all by rote, his expression blank. He loses a number of face-offs and then just stares at the puck moving away from him. At times he passes off too quickly when an opponent approaches, and never once does he check his man into the boards. Still, he scores three goals. The first—a soft, high, fluttery shot—is a fluke. The last is scored on an empty net in the closing seconds of the game with his team leading 4-3. But his second goal, the one that puts the Braves ahead by that 4-3 score, is a beautiful shot. He outskates a Nighthawk to an untended puck and then he breaks away, alone, and races toward the New Haven goal. He feints the goalie to his left and then fires a perfect shot over his right shoulder.
Later, in the dressing room, he is no longer an object of derision. In awe, one player says to another, "Did you see him? Do you believe it?" Wearing only a towel around his waist, Derek stands by his locker and talks to six reporters. He tells them how much he loves playing in the AHL; that he expects the Bruins to trade him soon; that he would only go to New York or L.A. "That's where the glamour is," he says. After the reporters have left and all of his teammates are waiting for him on the bus that will take them back to Boston, Derek is still dressing. "I played lousy," he says. "I didn't do anything but score three goals. I kept looking for the big play instead of forechecking people. But I was just pacing myself. Trying not to get caught."
Sanderson played only three games for the Braves before he was recalled by the Bruins. On his return to Boston Garden he received a standing ovation from the fans.
There had been no promise of a chastened Sanderson, and clearly the crowd did not want one. This was a gut roar for the reappearance of the dead-end kid, the rebel.
There were other ovations for Sanderson during the game, the most uproarious when he scored a slick, professional goal. The Bruins' young Greg Sheppard came out of a melee behind the enemy net with the puck on his stick and flipped it out to Sanderson, who was cruising some 15 feet from the goal mouth. With one fluid motion Sanderson received the puck and fired it past the goalie. That score tied the game. The Bruins went on to win.
And they have kept on winning. Sanderson has not been getting many goals but the applause has continued, although he has been used as merely the spare center and as a killer of penalties. In the latter role he has been superb. But the stars of the team continue to be Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito. Sanderson is in effect a utility man, inhabiting a kind of affluent limbo. Cars, clothes, clubs, pals who humor him through the night, these are still Sanderson's. But as a hockey player he has yet to make a believer of his coach. "He was recalled because that was the deal we had with Harry [Sinden]," says Guidolin. "I still don't know if he's in shape yet. I'm waiting for him to play as great as everyone says he used to. I haven't seen it yet. When he does, he can help the Bruins win the Stanley Cup. He can do things on the ice a rookie can't do. He hasn't been playing badly. He looks better every time out. Our communication is better, too. He's doing what I ask him to do. Still, he's Derek Sanderson, isn't he? He has his set ways, and that's it."