THE UNREAL DEREK IS UNREAL
“If people ever found out what I'm really like, Mom, I’d be finished”
Hockey, like all professional sports, depends on its image junkies — advance men, drumbeaters, barkers, sloganeers, con artists, puff writers — to gun the publicity noise machine National Hockey League owners demand, the media supply and fans crave. To be successful, a hockey star should have all the attributes of a well-advertised breakfast cereal. Maybe the greatest publicity winner of all time is a young man of high profile, neatly packaged, instantly identified, Derek Sanderson. He and the image junkies depend on each other. They exploit him and he, by letting himself be exploited, exploits their exploitation.
While the industry pours out its misinformation, Sanderson, their “far-out swinger,” neatly converts the phony image into an offer from the World Hockey Association — $2.5 million for 10 years, or $250,000 per. All Sanderson has to do is jump the Boston Bruins and tie up with the Miami Screaming Eagles!
Otherwise the phony image is a drag and a bore. It’s like Tar Baby. The harder Sanderson fights to get free, the closer the image clings to him. Yet, $2.5 million compensates for a lot of phoniness. Five short years ago Sanderson was just another talented junior ticketed for the NHL. Sure, he’d been on a Memorial Cup winner, had won the Ontario Hockey Association scoring championship, and had been suspended for coldly clobbering an Edmonton player during the Memorial Cup finals. Coldly, I say, because Sanderson is stuck with a What Makes Sammy Run? or All About Eve confession of how he used that incident to project his paying-off image all over the North American hockey screen.
You know the Sanderson image — Derek the swinger, Derek the class dresser, Derek the sexual satyr, Derek the tough, Derek “the cocksure,” “hockey’s Joe Namath,” the NHL’s first “radically hip” nonconformist.
I’m a novelist, not a sportswriter. Fiction leans on the real. I can’t write about anybody till I’ve seen the whites of his or her eyes. The word junkies are luckier. They merely plug into the mimeograph-ditto-machine-offsetcomputerized short-order myth projector and automation does their work for them. As far as I’m concerned, Derek Sanderson had no existence before I met him. I had seen him play hockey, knew all the legends, and then met him. What I met was a confessedly confused and contradictory shy young man with an extraordinary commitment to his father and mother and sister. Harold Sanderson to Derek is the icon of icons: Derek repeats his dad’s words as though every sentiment were newly minted and not easily duplicated in most Canadian Legion halls.
More to the point, the Sanderson who is supposed to
be such a nonconformist has the values one finds in many Canadian small towns, and big cities, too, particularly those Ontario communities that generate NHL stars. He refers to French Canadians only half-kiddingly as “Pea Soup,” absolutely despises militant athletes, particularly black militants, like Duane Thomas of the Dallas Cowboys. He regards American draft dodgers who have found refuge in Canada as, for the most part, “a bunch of chicken-livered weirdos.” In St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, one suspects, such sentiments abound. Between Harold Sanderson’s and Derek Sanderson’s contemporaries there is little of a generation gap. Derek’s about as radically hip as Clarence Campbell, president of the NHL. But then Derek Sanderson never claimed to be radically hip; that’s what the publicity machine said he was. And that is not the only discrepancy one finds between the image and the real human person Sanderson happens to be.
We met in Toronto a couple of nights after Boston had creamed their rivals for first place in the Eastern Division, the New York Rangers. In that game Sanderson had scored one goal and played his usual serious penalty-killing, forechecking, unselfish-passing three periods. When he steps out on the ice for the first time the fans boo; the Madison Square Garden balconies are covered with banners. Not one mentions Phil Esposito, who leads the NHL in scoring. The only time Bobby Orr’s name appears is on a sign above an effigy of Sanderson which says: WANTED DEAD ORR ALIVE, NUMBER 16! Almost any follower of hockey will agree that Bobby Orr is the greatest hockey player ever. Derek Sanderson’s name would never come up in that kind of discussion. Yet it’s his name flying from the balconies, not Orr’s. In the game he doesn’t get one penalty, he wins face-offs fair and square. Lady Byng herself couldn’t have played a cleaner game. But as Sanderson skates off a Ranger fan hollers: “What’s with ya, Sanderson, ya lousy animal!”
The media in 1972 are still shouting “Derek’s mod,” still boring everybody with the possibility that Derek, like Joe Namath before him, will one day appear in white boots to go with his skates. The whole California Golden Seals hockey team already wears white skates and still the talk goes on! And the “mod” Derek I meet in Toronto is working on a new “conservative dresser” image which, unfortunately, the image projectors haven’t quite noticed. They still talk of his daring shirts and bells and lace-up trousers, his long hair (yawn), his moustache (yawn again), his broads, his single-swinging.
I see this youngish guy with a rather recalcitrant moustache, his hair is neat and not-quite-shoulder-length; his suit is grey flannel, pinstripe, with a vest yet; he orders a steak done medium-well when any swinger or jet-setter knows steak has to be eaten rarer-than-rare or, to project the proper image, even a little raw! To go with his steak he orders, not champagne, or 20-year-old Scotch, or even a beer! Three Pepsis Derek asks for, and the waitress, familiar with his likes, doesn’t bat an eye.
In that same restaurant, to compare with Sanderson’s “hair” and “moustache,” I see three Christs with hair falling down the back, two bearded Che Guevaras, one Fidel Castro, an Allen Ginsberg; I think of a typical college campus with its splendid show of hair, beards, sideburns and moustaches. Among these people Sanderson would not only sound but look square. In fact, people he calls “hippies” seem to offend his sense of class. One such drives by in a Volkswagen bus: Sanderson scowls. If he tells these “creeps” what he tells Johnny McKenzie about his corny shirts and ties, “You want a little class, kid, it’s gonna cost you a few bucks,” they may laugh in his face. The establishment is no enemy of Derek Sanderson’s. Its enemies, moreover, are his. The close connection between
"money” and having “class” is a staple of the establishment credo to which Sanderson so generously subscribes. That $2.5 million World Hockey Association offer is not to be sneered at. Two and a half million bucks buys a lot of class. Besides, Sanderson tells me, “That could put me and my dad on Easy Street.”
After lunch, Sanderson and I walk through the Colonnade on Toronto’s Bloor Street. “Hey, you know any good broads in Toronto?” swinger Sanderson asks me. Several pretty girls pass by. Sanderson smiles, bows, makes a sad try at coming up with girl-boy chitchat. The girls ignore him and move right along. “Everybody thinks I got nothing but women,” Sanderson says. “Finding nice broads isn’t that easy.”
A week or so later, as we’re driving past Bachelors III in Boston (which Sanderson was briefly connected with, when Joe Namath hadn’t yet given it up) he observes sourly: “I spoke to Joe Namath maybe 30 minutes in my whole life. In New York City. He says to me, ‘Hey, man, know where I can find some girls?’ Maybe he was putting me on.” It’s more likely that Namath was putting Sanderson off. Imagine how many times guys have asked Namath, “Hey, where are the broads?”
Sanderson, on the other hand, has almost had to hide the fact that he, the swinger, has been involved with one woman, Judy Martin, for the past two years. “I’m so close to getting married you wouldn’t believe it,” he tells me, who believes it. “Not that I don’t go in for a one-night stand,” Sanderson adds, to relieve my anxiety, “except that apart from sex I don’t give those broads nothing.”
His loyalty to Judy Martin assumes real class: John Reeves, the Maclean’s photographer, comes from Toronto looking for fabled Sanderson women to photograph. Sanderson refuses to give out the names of women he has had only casual relations with. He won’t do it because it’s phony, but, more importantly, rejects it because of the hurt it might cause Judy Martin and his mother.
By this time I’m not surprised by the signs of feeling and delicacy in Sanderson. In Toronto he tells me how angry he was when his good friend Eddie Shack got traded away from Boston. His eyes glint. “Trades,” he says, “kill a man. They hold it over your head all the time. To keep a guy in line.” A “radical” would go the next step, of course, and ask how come “they” have so much unchallenged power.
But the Eddie Shack story isn’t finished. “You know when I gave up that fighting?” Sanderson tells me. “It’s when I’m banging away at somebody in the middle of a game and look up and see — my old buddy, Eddie! Right there and then I realize there’s got to be something goddam awful about what I’m doing.” The image makers haven’t noticed; Sanderson’s detractors put it down to the new third-man-in rule which automatically banishes the third player in any fight; Sanderson has stayed clear of brawling. Once in a while he does a chippy thing, like hooking the feet of Buffalo’s great rookie, Rick Martin, right after Martin has banged in his thirty-third goal. On the whole, though, his play is classically clean and fairly unspectacular. He’s nothing wild, as Mike “Shaky” Walton is, say, hurtling through space like some mad padded moppet out of Dickens, or Johnnie “Pie” McKenzie trying to slam some guy six inches taller and 50 pounds heavier right through the boards. To his mother, a cheery Scots lass who hasn’t lost her charming Fife lilt, Derek’s the essence of reliability — a born penalty killer: “Nobody,” she tells me, “has to worry when Derek’s around.” According to her, Derek tries to hide his sensitivity. “If people
ever found out what I’m really
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like, Mom,” he told her, “I’d be finished.”
In the Bruin program there’s a group picture of the team. Everyone in it — players, managers, trainers — is smiling, except one man, Sanderson. Once he was off in Florida when picture proofs arrived at his home. They had to be judged right away. “You do it, Mom,” Derek said over the phone, “but make sure you don’t choose one with me smiling.” Sanderson works at that particular projection. Before a game, while the other Bruins skim a speedy circle loosening up, scowling Sanderson almost lumbers in their wake. Unsmiling, he makes the linesman wait while he talks to goalie Cheevers or Johnston — just that much longer if the game’s on international TV. He backs away from the face-off, skating slowly, almost stifflegged, then moves in, muttering and growling. Sometimes he distracts the linesman, sometimes the opposing centre, but always the fans. “Come on, Sanderson, ya phony,” someone hollers from the Bruin section, “this ain’t y’own TV show.” The ploy, you see, has worked. Sanderson the scenestealer has done it again. Bobby Orr may be out on the ice with him, Ken Dryden, the NHL East All-Star goalie, waits at the other end; other All-Stars, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, J. C. Tremblay, are getting set for the power play, but the guy who to them is no more than a good, not great, player captures all the attention. And attention translates into bucks. Sanderson’s name now is instant cash. A typical investment situation for a sports star who has made it Sanderson’s way is that one partner has the skill, another partner has the cash and/or political connections, and the third man in, someone like Sanderson, has the instantly recognized name.
The NHL, rather than being an end in itself, becomes, for those who reach it, the fastest and shortest route to Easy Street. Think of it. All over Canada, and, increasingly, in the U.S. too, thousands upon thousands of kids play hockey with some NHL idol held before them — Gordie Howe, Jean Béliveau and, among the active players, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, and at most one or two others. As they move up through tyke, peewee, midget, juvenile, junior and college play, the kids turn into young men in need of a career, a Big Break, a windfall, or any old job, even a trade. Of these thousands who wait to be called by the NHL, only 100odd are chosen, and of these fewer than 30 or so really make it — even in the era of expansion. Of those who make it, only two or three reach
the state of being noticed regularly. For these the NHL is not only the way up, it’s the way out — to a flourishing business setup, a fat stock portfolio, or, in the dream of dreams Sanderson sometimes dreams, to Hollywood, to big-time television, the intersecting avenues of Easy Street.
In the Bruin dressing room after a recent Montreal game I met an old buddy of Sanderson’s now tending bar in Montreal. “Can you imagine,” he said to me, “I grew up with this guy. And look where he is now!” He meant that, tips included, he could clear $150 a week, maybe $200, and here was his old buddy, Derek, already doing better than $50,000 a year, and inevitably headed for much much more. Without both the NHL and his image-projecting, Sanderson himself might now, at 25, be earning — if he could find a job in Niagara Falls — $8,000 to $10,000 a year working nine to five five days a week. With only the NHL, Sanderson at this point would be doing well earning $20,000 a year.
The key, obviously, is in that projected image Sanderson helped foster and now, sometimes, hates. The key, too, is not Joe Namath, because successful self-promotion started long before the “Broadway Joe” show hit the road. The guy whose success falls in with the greatest of Hollywood buildups— Gable, Cooper, Garbo, Marilyn Monroe — is, of course, Elvis Presley. Again, thousands of kids played better guitar than Presley, sang better, acted better, but nobody came up with a better gimmick — or nobody white did — long sideburns, a wave in front, a forelock loose, silverthread shirts, bumping his guitar — the image our toughest miners, our beer guzzlers, hoods, greasers, bikers, stompers, stay desperately loyal to, come hell or high water or Tiny Tim. The Gimmick, the image, was everything. In Britain hundreds of pop bands were muscling for eminence, but only one, to begin with, found the gimmick — longish hair, bangs, singing falsetto, amplifying to ear-split, being trailed by teenies, groupies, weirdies and oldies who put the old Sinatra and Presley screamers to shame. The Beatles, with Presley and, to an extent, Namath and Muhammad Ali, celebrate the success of The Gimmick. Muhammad Ali had talent, Namath has enormous talent. In hockey terms Orr and Hull are on Namath’s wavelength; in gimmick terms Sanderson is the one who almost plays Namath even.
If the NHL, and hockey in general, weren’t so unbelievably square, Sanderson’s image-projecting would not have
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been so unbelievably easy. The NHL owners are like one of those highschool principals forever suspending kids with long hair or jeans; he himself wears a stiff collar, a knotted tie, a sharkskin suit, his hair cropped — rather imitative of the costume cons wear the day they are sprung from prison. At PTA doings he spouts the neatness-and-discipline bubbles, and parents — less and less, fortunately — applaud. Anybody with a moustache to this geezer is a rebel; combine the moustache with longish hair and the culprit’s a radical, even a revolutionary, so let society beware. To this gent, too, sports in general and hockey in particular are character-building, teach team-spirit, unselfishness, good health, abstinence, all the eunuchoid virtues. He can watch players goofed to the eyeballs on bennies or booze, see them line up in front of hookers’ paradise, and his pitch about sports won’t change a bit. To him an athlete is the young man in white shirt and crested blazer speaking to the local service club about neatness and discipline and success. He, more than anybody Sanderson has tangled with on the ice, is a prime contributor to the Sanderson legend. That hockey is an old-fashioned monopoly enterprise fatted immeasurably by television never enters this gent’s consciousness. That hockey players think of the game on one level as “let’s grab the money and run” is similarly out of sight. Quite recently, in the Maple Leaf Gardens press box, I heard Johnny McKenzie give a mumbling TV interview: the only words I could make out were “money . . . money . . . money.” Knowing what he knows about broken bones, bad seasons, surly coaches, grudging managers, kneebuckling trades, a player would be an idiot to think of much else. Next to money and image the word NHL players love most is “investments.” Sanderson’s investments will turn out well because the squares who think of him as anti-square will make sure the anti-square image glows hard and long. In Boston I introduce Sanderson to a young woman in her late twenties. She says, “Hey, Derek, can I touch you?” Later she explains, “We love him because he’s one of us kids. He’s on our side. The rest of them are nothing but squares.”
In Toronto, a waitress approaches our table shyly. “Derek,” she says, “my daughter-in-law just loves you. My son’ll kill me for this, but put something personal to her with your autograph. She don’t really care for hockey, my daughter-in-law. She don’t even care for Bobby Orr. She’d do
anything for you, Derek. She says it all the time. Maybe it’s because you look like my son — hey, oh thanks, Derek, you’re a real honey.”
That same afternoon two kids in hockey sweaters sneak into the area where the Bruins are eating. Orr isn’t around, but almost all the other Bruins are: “Hey,” a kid says to Phil Esposito, “which one’s Derek Sanderson?” Phil shrugs and points, the other players glare, the kid passes almost the entire roster by, gets Sanderson’s autograph for himself and his buddy, squeals with delight, and leaves. It’s almost like that everywhere else. First Orr, then Sanderson — plus Esposito and McKenzie — then the undifferentiated rest. The players glare because though nobody thinks himself as good a player as Bobby Orr, or as good a scorer as Phil Esposito, or as rough a scrapper as Johnny McKenzie or Teddy Green,
everyone, almost to a man, thinks of himself as at least Sanderson’s hockey equal, if not his superior. Yet there’s Sanderson, talking about a dozen pairs of golf slacks he just bought for $35 per. In every city they hit there’s Derek’s unsmiling photo and the WHA tale of two and a half million bucks. I sit at a table with a couple of players: “I don’t want to talk about Derek,” a Bruin says quickly. When another player joins the table and is told I’m doing a piece on Sanderson, his immediate response is: “Well,
that won’t take long, will it?” Even Tom Johnson, Sanderson’s coach, can’t hide his feelings: “Not another thing about Sanderson?” he says. “Why can’t people try something hard for a change?”
Sanderson’s comeback is that what he has done is as much a contribution to the NHL and other players as it is to himself: “They don’t even know what I did for them,” he tells me. ‘7 was the first one with long hair in
this league, I gave them their first moustache. I was the first guy to mouth the big shots. Nobody else did a thing. For two years they paid me back with stories I was being traded to Toronto.”
We walk along a Boston sidestreet, pass a sporting goods store. Hanging in the window is a yellow sweatshirt inscribed DEREK IS UNREAL. TO go with the printing is a line drawing of Sanderson sans moustache, his hair shorter, his sideburns much more like Elvis’s. “That’s me two years ago,” Sanderson says, “I’m nothing like that anymore.” As soon as we leave the store he mugs a softshoe routine; later, in a costumer’s, he puts on a succession of pilgrim hats, Paul Revere triangulars, a Greek helmet, a W. C. Fields busted top hat; he does imitations, clowns around, smiling, having a ball. For an instant all thoughts of The Gimmick are banished, he doesn’t have to protect the Unsmiling Image: in front of me is a charming, relaxed, self-mocking, shy Canadian kid, the same one his mother, Caroline, describes, the same one Judy Martin has been telling me about.
Earlier I’ve been to a Bruin workout at Boston University: Sanderson, the Sunday night before, had scored three goals and had two assists in a nine-to-two slaughter of the Detroit Red Wings. Everybody was cool and kibitzing. After the workout I got into Sanderson’s car, and, moving at about two miles an hour, he aimed it at Johnny McKenzie. Without missing a beat, McKenzie vaulted up on the hood, climbed up over the roof, then down off the trunk, as if he’d merely stepped over a hockey stick. Sanderson and the other Bruins watching convulsed with laughter.
Five or six longhaired BU students were watching. To them, undoubtedly, Sanderson looked extremely puckish and neat. But that’s the way he came through to me from the very beginning, a rather nice, not unusual boy from a hockey town in southern Ontario, more typical than he thinks, less abrasive than other people think. Derek is real enough. If Trudeau can be contradictory, why can’t a hockey player from Niagara Falls? If consistency isn’t attained by most philosophers, academics, tycoons, politicos, why should one be surprised when a young man like Derek Sanderson on the very same day blasts draft dodgers and yet signs his autograph “Peace”? If Derek Sanderson is unreal, he’s no more unreal than the two-dimensional four-color-poster world he thrives in, that needs him more than he needs it. ■