My Weekend with Turk

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Life as the Ultimate Leaf Fan doesn’t get any better than hosting monthly “hockey talks” that consist of guest players, coaches or management. They can be current or former and usually the subject will have a Toronto Maple Leaf slant.

On occasion, like anything in life, there is an exception to the rule. Hockey author Kevin Shea and myself were chatting one day, trying to decide who our next headline speaker would be, at our monthly gathering. I threw out the name Derek Sanderson because Kevin had written the “must read” book on Sanderson, “Crossing the Line,” and since Derek had played international hockey as a junior representing Canada, I could justify him speaking, because I have a case in my collection, designated to Team Canada memorabilia. Kevin thought this was a great idea because the 68-year-old Sanderson was feeling better and was going to start public speaking more frequently.

The first time I saw Sanderson play was at Maple Leaf Gardens against my second favourite team, the Toronto Marlboros. The year was 1966 and as a rule I rarely noticed anyone on the other team, so playing the Niagara Falls Flyers this fall, Sunday afternoon, shouldn’t have been any different. Well there was something different about this scruffy looking Sanderson guy whom I had to look up in my .25-cent Marlboro program. He was not only leading his team in scoring, but the league as well and had a lot of penalty minutes. He seemed to be in front of the puck all the time he was on the ice (like good players have the ability to do), the puck also seemed to follow him around (again a trait amongst good players) and he was more than willing to drop his gloves or stick someone, at a moments notice. I didn’t like this guy Sanderson but I couldn’t stop watching him. My revenge would come later that spring when the Marlboros won the Memorial Cup.

Sanderson was an original and the word “colourful” is often used to describe the flamboyant and self-destructing life-style he would lead and as the term goes, “it took a long time to whittle one of him.”

Sanderson’s life of booze, drugs and women has had its toil on his body and health. He walks with a cane these days and has good days and he has not so good days. Thirteen detox visits and numerous rehab stints will certainly break a body down over time.

We had 35 people attend the “hockey talk” session on January 18; ex-NHLers Bob Nevin, Jim Dorey and Steve Ludzik were in attendance to support Derek. While being interviewed by CTV beforehand, Sanderson did mention as he admired my collection, how much he had loved the Leafs growing up.

Sanderson is truly a class act. He captivated us all with tales of growing up, making it to the NHL and sprinkling in some juicy stories along the way. At no time did Sanderson look for pity, blame anyone or make excuses, which at the height of his career took him from being the highest paid athlete in the world, to arguing with a bum on a bench in Central Park over a bottle of wine.

Acclaimed film-archivist, Paul Patskou, provided us with historic footage of Derek’s first NHL shift, interview with Ward Cornell and appearing as himself, in the film “Faceoff,” (the subject of a future “hockey talk” session).

One of the attendees pulled me aside as the afternoon was breaking up and offered me a ticket to the Mastercard luxury suite at the ACC the following evening, to see the Leafs host Carolina. Derek along with the guy Sanderson claims he made famous, by challenging him to fight the first time they played against each other in Junior, Bobby Orr, would be the hosts. Sanderson in game 4 of the 1970 Stanley Cup final, set up Orr’s famous OT clincher against St Louis, to win Boston’s first championship in 29 years.

Entering the box the next evening I was immediately greeted by Bobby Orr who asked if I was Mike the Ultimate Leaf Fan, and when I answered yes, he grabbed my hand and hugged me saying, “I love that, great to meet you Mike.” Needless to say I was speechless (doesn’t happen often).

After speaking with Orr a few minutes, Derek invited me to sit with him and Kevin Shea as the game was about to start.

“Mike, how many face-offs are there in a game?” Derek asked as I sat down.

“Well, I never really thought about it before, but since your asking, I’m assuming high, so ill say 80-90?”

“100 to 110 per game,” he answered before I even finished speaking.

“And,” he continued immediately, “Did you know that it takes roughly 6-seconds for the puck to be moved to the defenseman and put in play, which means over the course of the game, that’s 6-minutes or so the other team doesn’t have the puck?”

Well Sanderson is regarded as one of the best face-off men of all-time in the NHL, so it made perfect sense to me.

For the next hour and a half it was non-stop with observations similar to the face-offs. Sanderson thinks the equipment is the cause of the concussion epidemic today.

“When I played, a player would take you into the boards or glass and the momentum of your head would “give” with the hit, but today, with these helmets designed the way they are and the gladiator shoulder pads, the head has no where to go when taking the brunt of a hit, except its jarred violently and snaps back, no give. So now add a cage and it’s worse. So never mind that this is an NHL problem, this problem starts when kids are 6 or 7 and the constant banging and jarring of there heads builds up as the years go on, that’s the problem.”

Before I could respond he quickly pointed out that the shifts are to short and how four lines are too many.

“Harry (Sinden) had the best way to get us ready for long shifts. At the end of every practice during training camp, he’d pull the nets out to the top of the crease; we’d go half speed 20 ways one way, then 20 ways the other way. He’d add a lap per day and increase the speed to three-quarters as the days went by. Well you do that for 30-35 days during camp and you’ll last longer than these 30-second shifts.”

We discussed numerous subjects from business to social media.

Knowing that I’m in the investment business we talked about how players had been ripped off for years. Sanderson with grade a 10 education went back, studied, got his series-7 (very tough exam folks) and help set up a players investment fund.

I teased him about his career as the “homer” broadcaster for the Bruin telecasts, back in the late 1980’s and early 90’s I picked up on satellite.

“What the hell you expect, 90% of my audience were Bruins fans, and you think they gave a dam about some player on the other team, God dam right I was a homer.”

We had a good laugh when I mentioned witnessing history back in his broadcasting days and he gave a compliment to a player on the other team.  Ron Tugnutt made 70 saves in a 3-3 tie playing for Quebec March 21, 1991. Sanderson acknowledged Tugnutt played a good game and I said,

“Yes, you did say he played well but I think it was only after a frustrated Bruin, Cam Neely patted Tugnutt on the pads after another brilliant save.”

Sanderson told me a story how a girl at the office he worked, wanted to meet a young Bruins player. She was very attractive and when questioning her motives he wouldn’t help.   After the weekend, the same girl approached Derek, brought out her smart phone and showed him a picture of the said young player in an uncompromising position. The player would have had no idea the picture had been taken (sleeping) and within minutes of showing Derek the photo, it was posted on the Internet.

“Mike she hunted him down and then does this, these kids have to be more aware, thank God they didn’t have this social media stuff when I was at my best, whoa.”

There are plans for a Hollywood movie on Derek’s life and NBC is preparing a documentary on Sanderson that should air in March of this year.

Derek will soon hit the speaking engagement tour and the message mostly to young people is to be aware of the traps in our society that got a hold of him.

Unlike these pretenders today who look to make the tabloids and check to see what paparazzi frequent certain locals to get there names in the paper, guys like Derek went out and things just happened.    One time he took five stewardesses and three guys from his bar, to Hawaii because his bartender hadn’t had a vacation in a while. The only stipulation was they had to go right to the airport as they were. That little junket cost him $35,000 for a few days partying.

It’s times like last weekend that I cherish and thank my lucky stars for my collection. I’ve said in the past that all the players we admired growing up, we now can reflect back on those times and remember when it was so innocent. Remember these guys were kids once too and had their heroes as well.

At the game last Monday I had my picture taken with Orr and Sanderson. I’ve looked at the photo numerous times since and each time I do; I come to the same conclusion, how great those two would have looked in blue and white.