He was known as “The Turk” and in his time was one of the most popular players in the rough and tumble world of the NHL in the 1970′s. Along the way he encountered brushes with stardom, health problems, Stanley Cups, the rise of hockey in major markets across the United States, the beginning and end of the WHA, and developed a bond with core fans in cities like Boston that still exist today. He is Derek Sanderson, and along with Kevin Shea, he tells those tales of life in the NHL of the 1970′s in “Crossing The Line.” We caught up with him to ask him about hockey then and now, and what he likes about the NHL today.
1. The NHL you played in was a different game on the ice than the style played today…which do you think is more enjoyable for the fans?
Of course I feel that the era in which I played was the most enjoyable, but the fans of every era would say the same thing. I got to play a few games in the Original Six era, and that was special, but my rookie season was also the season when the National Hockey League doubled in size. It was now necessary to travel by plane, whereas we went by train before. And my era featured the greatest players ever to lace up a pair of skates – Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Jean Beliveau.
2. You have had many well-documented health problems over the years that are tied to your time on the ice. Today the focus is so much on concussions and trying to protect the player from serious injury. Do you have any regrets that better equipment and mandatory helmets were not in place for you?
Absolutely not! In fact, I firmly believe that helmets are the cause of more head injuries than anything else in the game. There is a lack of respect in hockey today that comes from the fact that every player today grew up wearing a helmet. They have grown casual in their approach to hitting above the shoulders. Head hits and high sticks are the results of two generations of players not having to fear hitting or being hit above the shoulders. I refused to allow my two boys to play hockey because I’d never forgive myself if they received a head injury from playing the game.
3. You were a loud voice as a player but the game was not as labor conscious as it is today. Do you think the unions have helped or hurt the game from a players perspective?
Unions have helped the players. In the 1940s and 1950s, the owners held all the cards. Players had no voice and were at the mercy of a general manager who held the threat of a demotion to the minors over their head. Although there have definitely been flaws, the Players’ Association increased the pay scale for players, instituted realistic pensions and broke the stranglehold owners had on the players.
4. There is still a debate about whether players should be allowed to play in the Sochi Olympics next year. You had some international experience, would an Olympics have been a highlight for you?
I really never got the opportunity to play internationally, and would love to have worn the Canadian maple leaf on my chest. I was chosen to play in the Summit series in 1972, but because me, Bobby Hull and Gerry Cheevers signed with the World Hockey Association, we weren’t allowed to play. It saddened me as I would have loved nothing more than to play for Canada against the Soviet Union under two guys I respect as much as any in the game – Harry Sinden and the late John Ferguson. I say that the players in the NHL should be able to play in the Olympics. It should always be the best athletes competing against the best. That’s what the Olympics are for.
5. You were around Boston for their recent Stanley Cup…what is it like to be a champion in Boston in your playing days?
Boston has the greatest fans in the world, bar none. They were always so supportive of us when we played. I’ll never forget that after we won the Cup in 1972, thousands of fans showed up at the airport to greet us. Traffic was tied up for miles and miles. They ripped the guys’ clothes when they were leaving the airport! I had to trade clothes with one of the guys working on the tarmac so I could sneak away. To this day, the Boston fans treat me and the guys like champions.
6. You had a brief flirtation with the WHA…any regrets about not making the jump fully at the time?
But I did make the jump fully! After I signed with Philadelphia, I did everything I could to help the Blazers. All the guys on the team did. But in a city where the Flyers were considered kings, fans didn’t come out to support a second team. I only lasted eight games, but that was because I injured my back and then the Blazers’ ownership realized that they couldn’t afford my salary and tried to force me out. I made a commitment and am a loyal guy. I was quite prepared to stay in Philadelphia but when they bought me out, I was very happy to return to the Bruins and the NHL. I realized pretty quickly that going to the WHA was a big mistake for me. I had wanted to remain a Bruin, but the Philadelphia offer was going to set me and my family up for life.
7. What was it like playing for the Rangers after such a storied career in Boston?
There is no better friend than a converted enemy, and that’s the way it was in New York. The fans in New York hated me when I played with the Bruins, but they were great to me when I joined the Rangers. Rangers’ fans are very knowledgeable and are intensely loyal to their team. When I wore their jersey, they loved me. I enjoyed my time in New York.
8. Who are the players you like watching in today’s NHL and do they remind you of any of the stars of your era?
I still love to watch hockey. And I still watch it with a critical eye. There are so many great players out there. Some of these kids can do things we never dreamed of.
9. Who was the player you enjoyed playing against the most and who was your favorite teammate?
In Boston, I centered the line that was put out against the best players on the opposing team in order to shut them down, so I ended up playing against (Stan) Mikita, (Jean) Beliveau and guys like that. And I was on the first penalty-killing unit, too. I took my role seriously and looked forward to beating them in the face-off circle, to keeping them from getting good scoring chances and to picking their pockets. If I could do those things, I was very content. Stan Mikita was as tough as any player I ever played against.
All the guys I played with were great but I hold one guy above all others. Bobby Orr is the greatest player to ever play the game. He was a great leader and is a great friend. When I got in trouble, it was Bobby Orr who was there for me every time.
10. If there was one rule change in the NHL you would like to see brought back what would it be?
I would like to see the NHL get rid of helmets. It would reduce the number of head injuries. Guys would be forced to show respect to upper body hits and carrying their sticks so high. There’s only one explanation for that and it’s because every player grew up wearing a helmet so they have lost the respect that we had. We still hit every bit as hard, but we didn’t take guys heads off. Get rid of helmets!