Derek Sanderson returns to the room-service tray on steel hips and aluminum crutches. It has taken an eternity for him to answer the knock on the door. "This is the best way to drink coffee," he says to a visitor, stripping the paper from a water glass and hoisting the pot. "Trust me. When I'd wake up in one of my clubs in Boston, there weren't a lot of coffee mugs around."
This crippled, gray-haired man in reading glasses was once the world's highest-salaried athlete. At that time he was the longest-tressed, moddest-dressed member of the Big Bad Boston Bruins. "I bought the world a drink," says Sanderson, an erstwhile nightclub owner, of those heady days on and off the ice nearly 20 years ago. "And everybody showed up." Now he wakes to pain that doesn't fade—no longer in a bed that is round or beneath ceilings that are mirrored.
His femurs in decay, Sanderson, 43, is again traveling the bone-chilling road of the NHL. Now, however, he is a television commentator covering the Bruins for WSBK and NESN in Boston. "When I was young and strong, I got to go out and party on the West Coast," says Sanderson, who was Rookie of the Year in 1968. "Now I stay in the room. In that sense, metal hips are a blessing."
Sanderson has had five hip replacements—two on the right side, three on the left—since he learned in 1980 that he was suffering from avascular necrosis, which cut the blood flow to his hips and dried the femural heads. In Sanderson's case, it was brought on prematurely by years of using prednisone, a type of steroid prescribed for a colitis condition. "Super," a self-pitying Sanderson had whispered on hearing the diagnosis a decade ago. "Arthritis."
"No," said the doctor. "Bone death."
Even now, Sanderson can take no medication to mute the pain, because he thinks he would become addicted to it. "I'd just be chewing my booze," he says.
He used to kill hangovers the same way he generated them, by "staying out and getting stoned," as he puts it. But his is no longer a temporary aching rooted in the night before. Rather, Sanderson has felt an incessant throbbing in his legs for the last nine years, essentially a hangover from a decade before. "In 1978 they told me I was addicted to 11 different drugs," says Sanderson. "I still can't name 11 different drugs."
His most troublesome addiction these days is to nicotine, and he fills his hotel room with smoke from Export A cigarettes. Butts are piled in an ashtray on the nightstand, for Sanderson spends days and off-nights on the road by retiring to bed with the TV remote control. He usually nods off after phoning Nancy, his wife of three years, at their Needham, Mass., home. "I don't even bother to call his room to go out anymore," says Fred Cusick, Sanderson's 70-year-old broadcast partner. "A big night for both of us is going out to dinner."
Forty-eight hours before a game in Vancouver two season ago, Boston right wing Cam Neely persuaded Sanderson to take in a movie. "We walk in the theater and there's Ray Bourque and Billy O'Dwyer and about five other Bruins," says Sanderson. "There's no greener light than the one two nights before a road game—and these guys are watching Rambo III. I told them what I would have been doing in my playing days."
Bourque, Boston's 28-year-old captain, was neither impressed nor amused by details of Sanderson's debauchery. "If you watched a few more movies, you might have played a few more years," said Bourque. Sanderson's smile is just one more deep crease in his face as he mulls the moment: "The kid was right."