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Once world’s highest-paid athlete, Derek Sanderson reflects on regret-filled departure from Bruins

(Photo by Melchior DiGiacomo/Getty Images)

Derek Sanderson had a price in mind — $80,000.

$80,000 was what it was going to take. 

Fresh off of his fifth season with the Bruins, Sanderson was looking for a pay bump from the $70,000 he reportedly collected after helping Boston hoist its second Stanley Cup in 1972 — the franchise’s second title in three years.

A draw on the ice for his two-way play and pugnacious ways — and a draw off the ice for his lavish lifestyle and charisma — “Turk” was in line for a raise, and was willing to hold out if need be to secure some additional capital. 

As such, he expected to play a waiting game with B’s owner Weston Adams, Sr. What he didn’t expect was to get a call from the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association (WHA). 

Sanderson, speaking with season-ticket holders and media via a virtual town hall on Tuesday afternoon, discussed plenty during the 35-minute Zoom call — with most of the conversation centered around the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Bruins’ Stanley Cup title. 

But Sanderson, known for his colorful storytelling, also delved into tales beyond Boston’s titles — headlined by his decision to depart the Bruins in 1972 to become the highest-paid athlete in the world at the time. 

For a player who had already embraced an aura more akin to a rock-and-roll star rather than a two-way forward, inking a contract for $2.6 million dollars (valued at over $16 million in 2020) would seem like a no-brainer — given that it would have paid him $600,000 up front. 

But an ever-candid Sanderson did admit that such a decision was not one taken lightly — nor was it one that led to much of anything by regret. 

“It was not the right move,” Sanderson said. “(Philadelphia) offered me $2.6 million. I went into the room, and the guy says, ‘I'm here to offer you $2.3 million’. I wanted 80 with the Bruins — $80,000. They budgeted me for $75,000 — that's all I was gonna get. ... So they offered me $2.3 million. 

“I was stunned. Speechless. And the guy thought I was disinterested. He says, ‘Well, I've been authorized to go as high as $2.6 million.’ Beautiful — I get another $300,000 in a matter of seconds.” 

The Blazers' gargantuan offer far and away exceed whatever fiscal promise Sanderson was going to receive from any other club, even the Bruins — who kept close tabs on forward ever since he played for his hometown Niagara Falls Flyers of the Ontario Hockey Association as a teenager. After all, the WHA was desperate to lure a draw like Sanderson into its league — and was willing to write whatever check was necessary to seal the deal.

Still, even if Sanderson was granted plenty of additional clauses in order sweeten the deal, the 26-year-old forward was still hesitant to let the ink dry on his contract.

"My dad raised me to be loyal," Sanderson said. "If you're going to be anything, be loyal. It's a tremendous attribute to have. So they offered me $2.6 million. And then I put in some clauses. I didn't even have to play road games. I told them I was afraid to fly. (The executive) said, 'We'd appreciate you getting to as many games as you can by train.' I knew it wasn't a hockey guy. This was management. So I initialed this, that and initialed all the little add-ons. I said 'Give me five banking days,' because I knew I couldn't sign it without talking with Weston Adams Sr.

Even if the Bruins were not going to come close to matching the deal Philadelphia had placed on the table, Sanderson went up the North Shore to seek counsel from Adams — and potentially explore a chance for reconciliation on a new deal.

"I went to see him up in Marblehead," Sanderson said. "I showed him the contract he goes, 'My God, rogues and thieves." I said, 'Well, what do you want me to do? I'm here for your advice.' He never lied to me. He's always been good to me. He said, I'm getting a sense that you would stay. I said, 'I don't know anybody else.' I was always a Bruin. ... My whole life was with the Boston Bruins.

"He said, 'Okay, under the circumstances, we'll give you the $80,000.' He never went a penny above $80,000."

With Boston not set to budge, Sanderson ultimately opted to leave the Bruins and became the highest-paid athlete in the world. He admitted that turning down all that cash, especially with a hefty portion of it up front, was ultimately out of the question. But even with all the money in the world, it didn't assuage the pain felt leaving a town that he called home for years.

"I was driving back. Now I'm kind of upset that I did that. What am I going to do? They're gonna put me in Bridgewater if anybody finds out I turned down two and a half million dollars," Sanderson said. "I'm gonna go to a nut house. ... Similar story to Gerry Cheevers, too. Neither one of us wanted to leave. And a lot of people don't understand — you gotta be crazy (to turn down that money). No, it was my whole life. My whole world. All my friends were there on the team — I owned four nightclubs, things were going good."

[caption id="attachment_566021" align="alignnone" width="1600"] BOSTON - DECEMBER 16: From left: waitress Margaret McNulty, Derek Sanderson, Larry Patey, Floyd Thomson, Claude Larose, and Bob Gassoff at Zelda's nightclub. (Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)[/caption]

All of the sudden, Sanderson was a man in a new city — with a much heavier wallet. It didn't take him awfully long to start opening up his wallet.

"First day in Philadelphia — and I didn't know a soul," Sanderson recalled. "I take a cab to go see a movie and drove by a Rolls-Royce dealership. Hey, I wanted to see if the money was real. So I just put in a cashier's check, and I bought a Rolls Royce. That wasn't the smartest thing.  I should have known I was in trouble when I did that. But it was the insanity of being young."

Sure enough, that massive payday proved to be Turk's undoing, with his contract further fueling a partying lifestyle that was impossible for anyone to maintain. His stint with the Blazers proved to be a disaster, to say the least. Plagued by injuries and hampered by a routine regimen of alcohol and drugs, Sanderson only appeared in eight games with Philadelphia — tallying six points. It didn't take long for the Blazers' management to pull the plug on their latest signing, buying him out for $1 million and allowing him to return to Boston.

While he played with the Bruins for two more seasons, Sanderson was already mired in a downward spiral that eventually saw him bounce from team to team in the later stages of his career. His performance on the ice dropped, but his spending habits certainly didn't. His raucous ways and a slew of poor investments left him essentially penniless by the time his hockey career ended — with the former millionaire at one point forced to sleep on a bench in New York's Central Park.

By 1979, after years of poor health, Sanderson was checked into rehab by his former teammate, Bobby Orr, who also covered the costs in an effort to help his friend. Slowly but surely, Sanderson escaped the haze of drugs and booze that he'd trudged through for years — sobering up and eventually jumping into the field of sports broadcasting. Not wanting other young athletes to fall into a similar hole as the one he spent years climbing out of in the '70s, Sanderson helped co-found a sports management group with State Street Global Advisors in 1990, advising clients on ways to gain fiscal security amid the massive influx of cash that quickly fill their bank accounts.

A 73-year-old Sanderson has remained sober since hitting rock bottom over 40 years ago. The trials, tribulations and debauchery that Sanderson both faced and embraced during his career are now tales of legend. But these days, "Turk" is more happy discussing what he accomplished on the ice, rather than off of it — starting with a Cup title won back in 1970 alongside his closest friends.

"The guys, we always get together," Sanderson said. "It's a team where there's no one there you didn't like. It's hard to believe — there's 20-something guys and everybody liked everybody. ... We had a great team. We had a great team of guys that cared about each other.  We had a rule, that no one would ever be in a fight alone."