Derek Sanderson returns to the room-service tray on steel hips and aluminum crutches. It has taken an eternity for him to answer the knock on the door. "This is the best way to drink coffee," he says to a visitor, stripping the paper from a water glass and hoisting the pot. "Trust me. When I'd wake up in one of my clubs in Boston, there weren't a lot of coffee mugs around."
This crippled, gray-haired man in reading glasses was once the world's highest-salaried athlete. At that time he was the longest-tressed, moddest-dressed member of the Big Bad Boston Bruins. "I bought the world a drink," says Sanderson, an erstwhile nightclub owner, of those heady days on and off the ice nearly 20 years ago. "And everybody showed up." Now he wakes to pain that doesn't fade—no longer in a bed that is round or beneath ceilings that are mirrored.
His femurs in decay, Sanderson, 43, is again traveling the bone-chilling road of the NHL. Now, however, he is a television commentator covering the Bruins for WSBK and NESN in Boston. "When I was young and strong, I got to go out and party on the West Coast," says Sanderson, who was Rookie of the Year in 1968. "Now I stay in the room. In that sense, metal hips are a blessing."
Sanderson has had five hip replacements—two on the right side, three on the left—since he learned in 1980 that he was suffering from avascular necrosis, which cut the blood flow to his hips and dried the femural heads. In Sanderson's case, it was brought on prematurely by years of using prednisone, a type of steroid prescribed for a colitis condition. "Super," a self-pitying Sanderson had whispered on hearing the diagnosis a decade ago. "Arthritis."
November 6, 1989
"No," said the doctor. "Bone death."
Even now, Sanderson can take no medication to mute the pain, because he thinks he would become addicted to it. "I'd just be chewing my booze," he says.
He used to kill hangovers the same way he generated them, by "staying out and getting stoned," as he puts it. But his is no longer a temporary aching rooted in the night before. Rather, Sanderson has felt an incessant throbbing in his legs for the last nine years, essentially a hangover from a decade before. "In 1978 they told me I was addicted to 11 different drugs," says Sanderson. "I still can't name 11 different drugs."
His most troublesome addiction these days is to nicotine, and he fills his hotel room with smoke from Export A cigarettes. Butts are piled in an ashtray on the nightstand, for Sanderson spends days and off-nights on the road by retiring to bed with the TV remote control. He usually nods off after phoning Nancy, his wife of three years, at their Needham, Mass., home. "I don't even bother to call his room to go out anymore," says Fred Cusick, Sanderson's 70-year-old broadcast partner. "A big night for both of us is going out to dinner."
Forty-eight hours before a game in Vancouver two season ago, Boston right wing Cam Neely persuaded Sanderson to take in a movie. "We walk in the theater and there's Ray Bourque and Billy O'Dwyer and about five other Bruins," says Sanderson. "There's no greener light than the one two nights before a road game—and these guys are watching Rambo III. I told them what I would have been doing in my playing days."
Bourque, Boston's 28-year-old captain, was neither impressed nor amused by details of Sanderson's debauchery. "If you watched a few more movies, you might have played a few more years," said Bourque. Sanderson's smile is just one more deep crease in his face as he mulls the moment: "The kid was right."
You couldn't have told that to Sanderson in the summer of 1972, when he led a pack of prodigals from the NHL to the fledgling World Hockey Association. At a time when Henry Aaron was the best-paid player in baseball with an annual salary of $200,000 and Joe Namath topped the NFL at $250,000, the Philadelphia Blazers offered Sanderson, a tenacious center, a five-year, $2.6 million contract, even though he had scored only 29 goals in his most prolific season in Boston. The Blazers were getting more than a penalty-killing wizard from the defending Stanley Cup champions, however; they were buying attention in Philadelphia, where they were battling the Flyers for fans.
In that regard, Sanderson didn't disappoint. "If there was anything different about Derek, it was his constant need to be noticed," says Harry Sinden, his coach for three seasons in Boston. Sanderson agrees: "I was always trying to impress people."
So he bought the world a drink. In fact, cocktails were all that saw ice in that summer of '72. Sanderson started the season in miserable shape, scoring three goals in eight games before he slipped a disk in October. By then the Blazers were slipping too. They paid him $1 million and released him from the remaining 4¾ years of his contract. Sanderson finished the season in Boston, after Sinden, who had become the Bruins' general manager, reluctantly agreed to take him back.
Sanderson would raise glasses and hackles with four different NHL teams over the next six seasons. He earned $185,000 for playing 75 games with the New York Rangers in 1974-75, and three years later, having retired from hockey, he returned to New York. For a couple of months he made his home on a patch of Central Park. A barroom philanthropist with a penchant for picking up tabs, Sanderson had squandered his bankroll in a little more than five years. Cocaine and barbiturates were out of his reach. At least then, by flashing the .38 Beretta he packed for protection in the park, he could bully another bench tenant out of a bottle. "Do you know who I am?" Sanderson indignantly asked one wino.
"Yeah," came the reply. "You're a bum."
Sanderson had endured—had reveled in—the far more heinous and creative slurs that greeted him from the highest reaches of Madison Square Garden whenever he led the despised Bruins into New York City. Yet, strangely, it was in looking at the first abusive drunk who wasn't separated from him by Plexiglas that he saw his own reflection.
He returned briefly to his parents' home in Niagara Falls, Ont., before drifting to Chicago to impose upon Bruin-turned-Blackhawk Bobby Orr. Instead of getting him a job in hockey, however, Orr steered Sanderson to drug and alcohol detoxification. Over the next three years he would make 13 trips to detox centers. "It was all that money," says Cusick. "It spoiled him."
Sanderson is wise to wave away such a convenient explanation. "I would have been an alcoholic and an addict if I was a shoe salesman," he says. "It wasn't the money. It was my nature. I always had to show off, and I had to do things my way. I could have used a little humility."
Adds Cusick, "He was a wiseass."
Sanderson bounced around the Boston area in the early 1980s while trying to straighten out his life. "I had to be around friends," he says. The first one he found there was John (Spike) Boda, a golf pro who got Sanderson—an excellent golfer—a job in the pro shop at the Andover (Mass.) Country Club. Sanderson was supplementing his income by working the pumps at Bossy's Gas Station in Winchester when his hips went out for the first time. Medicaid funded the first operations. "The doctors botched the job," he says. "I had to have total reconstructions done."
Another beneficent former Bruin, Phil Esposito, contributed money from a fund he had established to help hockey players who had fallen on hard times. The operations continued. And for three years Sanderson lived with Anthony and Lilly Zizza, friends whom he credits with giving him emotional support and encouragement when he needed it most.
Sanderson's lone avocation may necessitate more operations. Golf, he swears, is the only indulgence he now permits himself. "Obviously, Derek can't walk the course or move his hips," says Cusick. "He's a straight arm-swinger. But he can still drive the ball 250 yards down the center of the fairway—275 if there's money on it."
Yet walking across a room can be a struggle. "It is a shame," says Sinden, remembering the ferocious forechecker who leapt the boards at the start of his line shifts.
Sanderson is no longer the Hub heartthrob who was the grand prize in the Win a Date with Derek contests in 1968. He is another middle-aged man, largely unrecognized by kids, giving antidrug speeches in schools. He has even gone corporate, delivering his speeches in behalf of Browning-Ferris Industries, a waste disposal firm based in Houston, for which he is director of community relations.
Sanderson hobbles into New York now. Time was when he inspired thoughts of homicide in Gotham. He was nearly stabbed by a rabid Ranger fan while boarding the bus after a game in 1970, but he reacted quickly and the man slashed Sanderson's suit bag instead. When a cop collared the culprit and Sanderson thanked him for doing so,
the officer replied, "———you, Sanderson."
Tonight, Sanderson will enter and exit Madison Square Garden unnoticed. He will simply do his broadcast and fly back to Boston, which will require him to sit for five painful hours, and he has been sitting in his hotel room for two hours already. He sips the last of his coffee and excuses himself for not seeing a visitor to the door. It is a heavy door, a struggle for a man on crutches to open. Perhaps that's why Sanderson was so slow responding to the rapping on it earlier, like a kid who can no longer come out to play.