Long before Milan Lucic dropped Mike Komisarek, before Shawn Thornton fashioned his fourth-line merlot practice jersey a badge of honor, even before Cam Neely potted 50 in 44 and still found time to bash some skulls in, there was Derek Sanderson.
An integral piece of the Big Bad Bruins squad that returned the downtrodden franchise to its former glory in the early 1970s, Sanderson was one-of-a-kind. With clean-shaven, well-scrubbed Bobby Orr as his foil, Sanderson was, as Jon Klarfeld described in Boston magazine’s January 1970 profile, “a swinger, a mod child of his time, a Joe Namath on ice skates” (In fact, he opened a bar with Namath). Unafraid to drop the gloves, but equally skilled while they remained on—he was a pioneer of dangerous sweep-check—Sanderson captured two Stanley Cups before his 26th birthday and became the highest paid player in hockey. Don’t forget: Sanderson had the primary assist on Orr’s Cup-clinching flying goal, now immortalized outside TD Garden.
All the sex, drugs, and alcohol caught up with Sanderson, who soon found his game faltering under the weight of the excess he embraced. He became homeless, and at age 32, his hockey career was over. His fall from grace—and return, thanks in part to Boston Mayor Ray Flynn—is chronicled in NBC Sports Films’ first hourlong feature, Center of Attention: The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson, premiering tonight after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“The reason behind choosing Derek’s story for our first film was that we wanted to concentrate on a compelling story that centered around our core properties, something that our audience would really enjoy watching, after being entertained post one of our live events,” says Mark Levy, senior vice president at NBC Sports Group. Levy, who grew up a New York Rangers fan, got the idea for the documentary while visiting a Barnes and Noble last summer, where he stumbled upon Sanderson’s memoir, Crossing the Line.
The documentary features interviews with eight members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, including Orr, Phil Esposito, Rod Gilbert, Gerry Cheevers, Brad Park, Bernie Parent—Sanderson’s teammate twice, in juniors and with the WHA’s Philadelphia Blazers—and coaches Harry Sinden and Emile Francis.
“I think Derek’s story shows how the NHL has evolved since the 1970s,” says Dan Fleschner, a senior producer and writer on the project. “People certainly remember Bobby and Derek and the players of that era, but the game has changed so much, and that’s on display in this film.”
Though Sanderson sat for two lengthy interviews, as well as a few shoots in Boston, he has yet to see the film. “I think he’s going to be surprised as anybody at the sound we uncovered,” Fleschner says. NBC Sports Films partnered with the NHL and the CBC to dig up some incredible archival footage, including one interview Sanderson gave after the Blazers bought out his contract for $1 million.
“He is so candid about his situation, about drinking, about what went wrong in Philadelphia,” Fleschner says. “Compared to today, when players are so often guarded about what they’re feeling, everything feels so packaged and calculated. And Derek was so open and honest, and it was really unlike any piece of video I’ve ever seen before. It’s a thrill that people are going to see it for themselves.”
Center of Attention debuts Monday night on NBC Sports Network, directly following Game 3 between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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