Sanderson's autobiography details highs and lows

Monday, 12.31.2012 / 2:00 PM
Tal Pinchevsky  - NHL.com Staff Writer

A member of the Boston Bruins' 1970 and 1972 Stanley Cup championship teams, Derek Sanderson was one of the most charismatic and flamboyant figures the game of hockey has seen. On a team led by superstars, most notably Hall-of-Fame members Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, Sanderson was a character who managed to transcend the game.

So it's more than a little shocking that the former NHL standout who at one point was the world's highest-paid athlete begins his recently published autobiography with the details of how he spent part of his retirement broke and drunk, at one point sleeping on a bench in New York's Central Park.

Those dizzying highs and cavernous lows are all documented in Sanderson's book, "Crossing the Line" [Triumph Books, 320 pages]. The longtime NHL center spares few details in his story, providing a signature narrative style in recounting his blue-collar youth in Niagara Falls, junior hockey exploits, celebrity status in Boston, and a difficult fall from grace weighed down by addiction.

And through it all, Sanderson doesn't consider sleeping in Central Park a singular low point -- just another lull in the life of an addict.

"Every day is a lull when you know you can't stop drinking. It's uglier and meaner and you just push people and try to control things you can't," he told NHL.com. "The same person who got you in can get you out if you have faith, if you have a belief in something stronger than the three-dimensional self."

Just a few years after signing a historic contract with the World Hockey Association's Philadelphia Blazers, Sanderson was broke, sick, and with few friends to speak of. It was a sobering contrast from his glory days in Boston, a time marked by appearances on late-night talk shows and nights carousing with Joe Namath and Playboy playmates.

In recounting his steep fall from grace, Sanderson at no point tries to shift blame or responsibility onto anyone but himself. The result is an incredibly candid and honest firsthand portrayal of celebrity and skill undone by excess and addiction.

While attempting to detox following his hockey career, Sanderson eventually found salvation by working with the city of Boston to speak to children across the city about the perils of addiction. It's those years spent sharing his story that helped him overcome his demons and eventually put together his autobiography.

"A lot of people ask, 'Would you have done it the same way?' Probably not, but the most rewarding thing I have in my life is the 12 years I spoke to kids. I think I got more out of it than the kids," Sanderson said. "It was cathartic. You have to get it out. They say that you can't keep it unless you give it away. That's what you do when you talk about it."

Sanderson paints a complex portrait in telling his own cautionary tale. But "Crossing the Line" is also a vivid retelling of a historic time in the League that saw some of history's greatest players lead some of its greatest teams. And for Sanderson, who completed his career in 1978 after a stint with the Penguins, it forged a bond with some lifelong friends, including Orr, who provides a foreword for the book.

"We didn't fly like they do today. We played two quick games at home back-to-back and then headed out to the west coast. That's where we bonded. You'd get four days off and do things and have dinner and hang out. You get to know each other," said Sanderson, who served for years as a Bruins television color commentator before becoming a financial advisor working primarily with athletes. "Then you play a game and go to a bar and talk hockey. You don't get on a charter jet with two seats and start texting. We had to hang out with each other and make our own fun. That's a big difference. They don't do that anymore."

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