That made Sanderson, a talented but unexceptional playmaker from Niagara Falls, Ont., the highest-paid athlete in the world. Not long before, the Bruins, having paid him $10,000 for an entire season as the 1967-68 NHL. rookie of the year, had offered him a $1,000 raise. That's how the old league operated, until the new one came along. "My first thought when the Blazers offered me the contract," Sanderson says, "was, How do I turn this down without them putting me in the Bridgewater state mental institution?"
He didn't want to jump to the WHA—nobody did, really. He just wanted to wake up the Boston management and to be a Bruin forever; the penthouse playboy of mod-squad New England; Joe Namath's partner in a chain of saloons; drunk and oversexed and a walking Walgreen's, addicted to a variety of prescription drugs. He would gladly have stayed in Boston had the Bruins offered him a piddling 80 grand. But they didn't. They concentrated on keeping Bobby Orr from leaping to the Fighting Saints. The Bruins, like the Blackhawks, haven't won the Stanley Cup since.
"I had always worked very hard," Sanderson says. "I was aggressive. I was chippy. I loved to play. I loved to win. Then, suddenly, all that money has an effect on you. You don't want to suffer. You don't want to put up with the sweat, the bleeding, the pain it takes to win. There's no reason to try harder. There's no incentive to get better. All I could think was, They're paying me $2 million, and I'm just a penalty killer. I can't score seven goals a game. I can't carry the parade."
The Blazers' season was to open on an October evening at the dilapidated Philadelphia Civic Center. The arena's elevator could take only four players at a time down from the clubhouse, leaving the others to clomp down three flights of stairs with their skates on. The refrigeration piping stopped well short of the boards, producing a ribbon of soggy black slush around the edge of the rink. Captain Sanderson—"dressed in the most hideous orange-and-black uniform in the world," he says—went to the referee, Bill Friday, and begged him to call off the game.
"We can't cancel," Friday said. "It's opening night."
Then the Zamboni broke through a crack in the playing surface, carving up great blocks of ice. Sanderson went back to Friday and said, "I presume this is sufficient?"
It was. But thousands had come to witness this historic game and had been given souvenir red Blazers pucks as they entered the Civic Center. Sanderson felt it was his rightful duty to apologize to the faithful. He headed for center ice, where a red carpet and a microphone had been set up for the ceremonial first face-off.
"Frank Rizzo, the mayor, was there," Sanderson recalls. "He warned me, 'Derek, I'll teach you something about politics in this town. Don't touch that microphone. Nobody can calm those people down. Just get down that corridor and get out of the building.' I didn't listen to him. I took the microphone and began, 'I'd like to apologize on behalf of the team...' when ping came the first puck, right at my head. Then, ping, ping. Two more! Ping, ping, ping.
"I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, remember that there was only one entrance to the parking lot when you came in? Well, there's only one exit going out. Good luck!' It was a complete debacle. There were fights everywhere. We hid in our dressing room until 1 a.m."
Having survived that fiasco, the Blazers took to the road. Playing the Crusaders in Cleveland, Sanderson scored two goals against his old Boston netminder, Cheevers—another astonished new millionaire—before suffering the injury that would, much to his delight, end his WHA career. "I was in the penalty box, and the fans were throwing stuff at me," Sanderson says. "I said, 'I don't need this s—-,' and I jumped out. I landed on a piece of garbage and slipped a disk in my back."