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Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Debunking A Sanderson Myth

I've been reading former NHL player Derek Sanderson's autobiography over the past few days, and I have to say that I'm impressed with the honesty that Sanderson shows in the book. This article, however, isn't about the book. It's about a specific portion of the book that Sanderson explains in great detail, and one that I feel should get its own look considering some of the stuff written. It's a fairly common belief that Sanderson smoked, drank, and injected himself enough to have him excused from his extremely rich contract, but hearing his side of the story in his book makes one wonder if all the hearsay is actually true. Armed with a few dates, I decided to hunt through the Google Newspaper Archive for stories about the Philadelphia Blazers and Derek Sanderson.

I'll fully admit that I have no idea where the rumors started about Derek Sanderson being a drunk and not caring while playing for the Blazers. I have heard countless stories over the years about how Sanderson didn't take the WHA seriously and was just there for his own means. Having read most of his book, I get the sense that these rumors hold little water. I needed answers. To the internet, I turned.

Derek Sanderson confirms in his book that the Blazers agreed to pay him $2.65 million to play hockey for them. Originally, though, they had offered $2.3 million. Sanderson had worked the price up to $2.6 million, and basically had complete control over the owners of the Blazers, lawyer Jim Cooper and trucking magnate Bernie Brown, during the negotiations. Written into his contract, the two owners had agreed to not being permitted to move or sell the team without Sanderson's blessing! What sane owner would agree to anything like that?

Sanderson also had final say on whether he would play road games as his fear of flying would prevent him from air travel. The owners agreed to train travel for Sanderson if he so preferred. Essentially, they were allowing Sanderson to decide which road games he would play! And Sanderson was able to have his father hired as an Ontario scout for the Blazers for five years at $50,000! Again, what sane ownership group would even entertain these ideas?

Furthermore, the $2.6 million price tag had been agreed upon earlier in their meetings, but reports had surfaced that the New York Cosmos of the North American Soccer League had signed Brazilian star Pele to the same value on his new contract. Sanderson, on a lark, suggested that Cooper and Brown toss another $50,000 onto his contract to make him the highest-paid athlete on the planet. Cooper agreed, citing this as a major marketing opportunity, and bumped his salary to $2.65 million! Honestly, Jim Cooper sounds as if he is insane in running this franchise, especially since he was using a lot of Bernie Brown's money to do so.

Here's what we do know in going back in time to find the newspaper articles from the era. Derek Sanderson signed for a reported $2.6 million as stated above. He referenced the negotiations he had with Boston in the Gazette article, singling out former Bruins owner Weston Adams Sr. who instructed him to take the money. It wasn't that Adams wanted to see Derek Sanderson leave the Bruins to play for another league and team, but that he'd never see that kind of money at the NHL level!

I'm not going to go into the discussion that happened between Weston Adams Sr. and Derek Sanderson, but the Bruins almost re-signed Sanderson if not for one thing. That one thing? You'll have to read his book to find out what drove him to leave Boston for Philly.

After Sanderson signed with the Blazers, Boston, along with the other NHL teams who lost players, filed lawsuits against the WHA in order to prevent their defected players from playing in the rogue league. The NHL would eventually lose their lawsuit, and Sanderson suited up for Philadelphia's opening game after missing most of camp, anxious to get back to playing his brand of hockey in the WHA.

Unfortunately, the Civic Center in Philadelphia was a horrible hockey venue, and the first game never actually took place on what seems like a rather ominous date to start: Friday, October 13, 1972. Nevertheless, the Blazers were set to open the season against the New England Whalers until a number of severe problems with the rink's ice were discovered. Like a zamboni that had fallen through it. Wow.

Sanderson and the Blazers would struggle mightily as they battled horrific arena conditions and injuries, and things went from good to bad very quickly. The Blazers dropped their first seven games of the WHA's inaugural season, and internal strife led to changes in the front office as well. It appeared things were going to turn around for Sanderson and the Blazers when he had a goal and two assists against the Cleveland Crusaders on November 1, but every silver lining had a massive black cloud to go with it.

After lighting up former teammate Gerry Cheevers in the Crusaders' net that night, Sanderson took a penalty and was sent to the sin bin in the third period. While sitting there, he was pelted with all sorts of debris being thrown by the Cleveland fans. Sanderson jumped out of the box and slipped on some debris on the ice, and Sanderson went down heavily. He needed assistance just to get off the ice! For the world's highest-paid athlete, the experience thus far with his new team had been anything but enjoyable.

Sanderson was told to stay in bed for a week, but the pain didn't subside. It only got worse, and the Blazers' team doctor - Dr. Arnold Berman - was called in to see if he could fix the pain. When he suggested surgery, Sanderson balked. The diagnosis on November 3 was "a severe muscular sprain in his lower back". However, one week later, Sanderson's injury got much worse as The Leader-Post reported that he had torn ligaments in his lower back.

On December 17, nearly five weeks later, Sanderson was still out with his reported injury despite being seen in the crowd sitting in the stands! How could that be?

Sanderson, after opting out of surgery, had been working with a physical therapist to strengthen his back. After a month of working every day with his Austrian physical therapist, Sanderson was ready to go with a back that felt stronger than it had before. He suited up for the game against Cleveland on December 5, but was told he would not be playing. He did the same for a game against the Raiders on December 8, but head coach Phil Watson wouldn't let him dress. The same happened for games against the Ottawa Nationals on December 9, and against Winnipeg on December 13 and 15. And, as seen above, Sanderson sat on December 17 against the Whalers.

Why would Sanderson, the highest-paid athlete anywhere, be forced to sit for six straight games while the Blazers struggled mightily? It seems that during his recovery time that ownership had a falling out. Basically, Bernie Brown was furious with Jim Cooper spending a ton of money with little return, so Cooper left. Brown was now the sole owner of the Philadelphia Blazers, and he began to see that he was losing bundles of money. Sanderson's contract? That would be the easiest way to recoup some cash, but Brown needed Sanderson to quit.

If you know anything about Derek Sanderson, he's a stubborn as a mule. Despite being sat out for the entire month of December, Sanderson wouldn't quit. The Blazers tried to trade him to several interested teams, but no team completed a deal with the Blazers. Sanderson, for his part, honored the contract by showing up at the rink and sitting in the stands while the team paying him performed on the ice. On January 17, 1973, Bernie Brown bought out Derek Sanderson's contract for $1 million. Sanderson's WHA days were over.

While Sanderson certainly enjoyed a few drinks here and there during his time in Philadelphia, I cannot find any publication that states that Derek Sanderson was boozing, doing drugs, or just not caring about the Blazers. This notion that he was a drunk and didn't care about the WHA or the Blazers seems entirely false when looking back through old newspapers and reading it in Sanderson's book. I'm not sure where the rumors started, but I cannot find anything to suggest that Derek Sanderson was anything but professional when it came to his time in Philadelphia.

While his WHA career was a mere eight games, Sanderson scored three goals and added three helpers while posting 69 minutes in the penalty box. He was named the captain, downgraded to assistant captain, and then served out his time while injured without being a distraction on or off the ice.

I have to say that any rumors about Derek Sanderson not caring about the Blazers and/or the WHA are entirely false as far as the newspaper reports and his book suggest. While I understand there are two sides to every story, objectively, the rumors do not hold water. As far as I'm concerned, Derek Sanderson honored his contract respectfully and professionally, and these rumors need to be put to rest.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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