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Former Bruins center Derek Sanderson credits dad for NHL success

Recalls support allowed him to 'follow my dream'

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

On this Father's Day, two days past his 71st birthday, former Boston Bruins center Derek Sanderson will again think of his late dad, as he often does.

"I miss my dad. I wonder how I'm doing compared to the man he was," Sanderson said this week from his Boston-area home.

Harold Sanderson died 19 years ago this September. What his son remembers most about him are the things they did together.

"The things my dad did for me to follow my dream," Sanderson said.

That dream would be to play in the NHL, which Sanderson did for 13 seasons -- first with the Bruins, winning the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie in 1967-68 and the Stanley Cup in 1970 and 1972, then the New York Rangers, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins.

Harold Sanderson took enormous pride in the career of his son, who scored 202 goals and had 250 assists in 598 NHL games. But he was prouder to witness a greater human victory, seeing Derek turn his life around and come back from the brink of self-destruction.

This father was at ground zero for his son's plunge into alcohol and drug addiction, with 13 attempts at detox finally bringing Derek to a life of sobriety in the mid-1980s.

It was the only time in Sanderson's life that he did not heed his father's counsel.

"I had questions for my dad about life," Sanderson said of his youth. "I was in the seventh or eighth grade and I asked him, 'What do you do if you like a girl?' and he replied, 'Oh, you're at that stage, huh?' and I said, 'Dad, you knew this was a stage and you didn't tell me about it?' "

The high schooler got some common-sense advice about girls from his father, but what Derek Sanderson remembers more is that in 1954, when he was 8, his dad said to all who would listen, "My boy's going to be a hockey player."

NIAGARA FALLS PEEWEES, 1950's:Derek Sanderson, back row, fourth from left; Harold Sanderson, back row, far right

Harold and Caroline Sanderson had two children in Niagara Falls, Ontario, daughter Karen and, two years later, Derek.

As a young boy, Derek took to hockey with great vigor, skating countless hours on what was roughly a half-scale version of an NHL rink. His father built the sheet, spanning two backyards of small cookie-cutter houses, on lots provided at low cost to servicemen like himself who were returning from World War II.

Working in the Kimberly-Clark plant in Niagara Falls, Harold Sanderson was a master of fixing things, seemingly no job beyond his reach. He built the rink with shovels and a hose, packing snow and freezing it for boards, and brought home discarded steel pipe and mesh to assemble goal nets.

The makeshift arena spilled into two yards because of Harold's bargaining; he offered the next-door neighbor all the winter's broken hockey sticks and Harold's yard for the man's summer tomato garden in exchange for some real estate on which to expand the rink.

Harold was a disciple of Lloyd Percival, a pioneer of fitness testing and coaching techniques whose 1951 book "The Hockey Handbook" was the revolutionary manual of the day and would become the bible of instruction for the sport in the Soviet Union.

"My dad had me practice all the stuff out of that book," Sanderson said. "He told me I was going to have to go both ways, handle the puck both ways, equally hard, turning left and right and backwards. He made sure I was able to do it all. Before I got to play with the guys, I'd go on the fresh ice in our yard and skate 200 laps around the rink, left and right, carrying the puck. That was probably one of the greatest things my dad ever had me do. A few years later, when I was trying out for the Niagara Falls Flyers (in junior hockey), that's exactly what the coaches wanted us to do.

"My father knew a lot. I was amazed by the man. He was a great dad, self-taught, and he knew what he was doing in life. I don't think he ever missed a game of mine that he could drive to."

Sanderson recalled that, as he grew into a good player, his father took pains to protect his son's fledgling career.

He remembered cutting his thumb as a boy while trying to fix his bike with a wrench, telling his father with melodramatic flair that his hockey future might be in jeopardy. Karen was immediately dispatched to finish the repair. It was the same with cutting the grass -- Sanderson said that a stray rock could injure his foot -- and the "dangerous" chore of trimming hedges.

Once, when the family's TV antenna toppled during a Saturday "Hockey Night in Canada" telecast, Derek sat inside, sipping hot chocolate while his father and sister slipped and slid across a frozen roof.

"Karen has forgiven me," Sanderson said with a laugh.

He speaks of the chest-swelling pride he has to this day regarding his father's war service, four years spent overseas.

"I have his picture here in the house, [of him] in a blue blazer, when he went to Europe," Sanderson said. "He couldn't figure out why God let some soldiers live and not others -- luck of the draw, karma, whatever it was. He told me, 'You just start shooting and you start moving. If they get you, they get you.' He told me he didn't get scared until the end, when they were fighting teenagers and young girls."

Sanderson said his father's unwavering support steered him toward and afforded him the opportunity to excel at hockey. At age 12, he craved a pair of CCM Tacks, the leather skate of choice for NHL players. They cost $100, one month's salary for his father, who scrimped and saved to buy them, but not before making a deal with his son: In exchange for the skates, Derek would give his dad his Stanley Cup ring when, not if, he won one.

Though he never expected to, Sanderson paid the account in full. In 1970, he won the Stanley Cup with the Bruins, his pass from behind the net in overtime of Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues setting up Bobby Orr's legendary airborne goal. Two years later, he won his second championship, against the New York Rangers, the crush at Boston's Logan Airport awaiting the Bruins' return from New York so great that Bruins legend Phil Esposito recalls Sanderson paying a baggage handler $40 for his uniform so he could pull it on and escape the crowd.

Sanderson would give not one championship ring to his father, but both of them.

"I didn't wear them in public. The 1970 ring was like a university class ring, not like today's monstrosities, but the diamond in the middle would still rip my pants pocket and all the change would run down my leg onto the ground," he said, laughing.

Years later, when Sanderson brought his fiancée, Nancy, to meet her future in-laws, Sanderson asked his father to see the rings.

"So he walked across the living room with a little knife that he carried all the time and cut the rings out of the hem of the curtains," he said. "I couldn't believe it, but that's where he kept them, so they wouldn't be stolen. He wouldn't wear them because he said that only the Cup winner had that right."

Harold Sanderson returned the rings that night to his son, who in time gave them to his own sons with Nancy: Michael, now 26, and Ryan, 24.

"They don't wear them, either," Sanderson said. "They could, but they don't."

Father's Day is something different yet very special now to Sanderson, who cherishes memories of his dad as he enjoys his own two sons.

"My father was so darned good, so thoughtful," Sanderson said. "He was there for me all the time. I tried to make sure my boys had what they wanted, what they needed, and maybe a little extra if I could get it."

Michael and Ryan Sanderson played many sports growing up, their father unable to participate because he had his hips operated on 10 times, finally surgically replaced. When he yearned to join their games, Sanderson's mother, who died in 2012, had some good advice of her own.

"Mom told me, 'They don't need you to play, they just need you,' " Sanderson said. "And I think back to what (New York Yankees slugger) Mickey Mantle once said: 'If I knew I'd have lived this long, I'd have taken better care of myself.' "

On this Father's Day, Sanderson will think of his father, Harold, whose guidance and friendship remain larger than life.

"Dad was the greatest man I ever knew," he said. "He was the only hero I've had in my life."

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