"There was a crucial face-off in our end of the rink," McKenzie says, continuing the tale, "and I wanted Derek to take it. I went to him on our bench and said, 'Get out there for that face-off!' But instead of going out, he starts barfing."
A week or so later, it was over. Sanderson went to the owners of the Blazers, pleaded to be allowed to return to the Bruins and made a settlement that, he says, is still tied up in legal wrangling somewhere. The buyout might have been $1 million, or half that; he isn't sure. What Sanderson is sure of is that he eventually wound up broke and broken, once sleeping on a park bench, and existing on the charity of friends, insensate, nearly dead from the bottle and the pills. "I stopped drinking in 1980," he says, "but I didn't get sober until 1985." Now married and the fattier of two children, he is a senior vice president at an investment firm that caters primarily to athletes.
"It worked out well for both of us," McKenzie says. "I got him into the WHA. He got me into Alcoholics Anonymous."
IN BECK'S TAXI NO. 364, TORONTO
At 5:15 a.m., emerging from the early twilight in a garish green-and-orange cab, the former All-Star goalie hauls up in front of my apartment building and opens the car door. We ride off together. Allan Robert Smith—an original New England Whaler; an original, period—has spent the past 14 years at the wheel of a Toronto hack and, in the off hours, at a keyboard, hacking out the first novel that, like the WHA, will leave him neither rich nor understood.
Smith went end to end (except for a brief return to the NHL) in the revolting league—from the first whispers in Detroit, when rumors of a challenge to the NHL began to swirl, all the way to the WHA's termination in the "merger" of 1979. He was, at the start, a brash, long-haired netminder who had played a little with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Detroit Red Wings and the Toronto Maple Leafs before leaping to the Whalers. He is, at the end (for he sees this as his end), a portly, bald, mad, funny, jittery, divorced, streetwise cabbie, working dawn to dusk to support his writing habit, having blown his WHA signing bonus on a newsletter for lacrosse enthusiasts.
He turns off his dispatch radio, cruises north on Spadina, east on Bloor, south on Yonge, west on Front, around and around and around. Fourteen years. "Nothing I ever did in the WHA put me in the cab," he says. "Trying to be a writer put me in the cab."
He calls the league "the Waaah," sounding like a Peanuts character bawling. He talks of "being a Waaah guy in a Waaah world." He says, "Every Waaah player understands it. We're in this free fall. Ken Dryden has merit—he won the Stanley Cup all those times in Montreal. We are without merit. I'm not a writer—I'm just an old Waaah player."
"Did you ever think you were as good as a Dryden or a Plante or a Terry Sawchuk?" I ask him.
"I was always gonna be," he replies, "but I never was."