Saturday, December 14, 2013

Review: Crossing the Line (2012)

By Derek Sanderson with Kevin Shea

So that's what happened to Derek Sanderson.

That sentence is the easiest way possible to describe Sanderson's autobiography, "Crossing the Line." It's quite a remarkable story. The short version is that Sanderson essentially rode a somewhat exaggerated public image to fame and fortune ... only to lose most of it through addictions.

Sanderson grew up in Niagara Falls, Ont., and played junior hockey there. He was a decent but not exceptional scorer, and was best known for his defensive skills. Sanderson always could take care of the opponent's best players and limit their effectiveness.

He was sure that he was headed to the National Hockey League to the point where he quit school in order to pay more attention to hockey. That usually doesn't work, but it did - for a while in this case. Sanderson landed with the Boston Bruins in the late 1960's.

That was just the right time to be coming up from the junior ranks to the Bruins. Bobby Orr had arrived the year before, and Phil Esposito had come over from Chicago in a trade. After years in the dungeon, the Bruins had tons of young talent coming up. The team matured together, resulting in Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

If Orr and Esposito had the market cornered on talent, Sanderson took care of color. He had long hair, a mustache, good looks and personality. Sanderson may have talked a better game than he actually he played - he admits here he tended to exaggerate such qualities as the size of his wardrobe - but he became a star. Sanderson was named one of the 25 coolest athletes ever by GQ magazine once upon a time.

But it came with a price. There was pressure to live up to that image, pressure to perform on the ice night after night. That pressure ramped up a few notches when he signed the richest contract in pro sports when he jumped to Philadelphia of the World Hockey Association. That deal only lasted a few weeks, as the team soon gave him a million dollars to go away. Sanderson went back to Boston, but things were never the same. He soon was traded by the Bruins.

Meanwhile, a couple of drinks turned into three or four, and three or four turned into marathon sessions. Throw in a fear of flying, not a healthy trait for a pro athlete, and Sanderson found himself a full-blown alcoholic. In fact, the first chapter deals with the time that Sanderson had absolutely no place to go - so he slept on a bench in Central Park. Sanderson did make several attempts to keep playing, bouncing around the league. It's probably a tribute to his talent that he stayed in the league as long as he did, but eventually the disease caught up to him.

Sanderson went through a variety of detox and rehab programs, but it took a while for him to finally get to the bottom and realize he had to start the climb up. Luckily for him, he made it out of that hole. Sanderson had a long career as a television commentator with the Bruins and has done financial work.

The authors really do a good job of making Sanderson's days come alive. He reviews his childhood days in an interesting way, telling how they shaped his personality. Shea certainly gets plenty of credit for putting the story together. Sanderson covers the Bruins' Glory Years extremely well.

Interestingly, Sanderson's book may have a better perspective on Orr than Orr's own book does, just released this year. While Orr doesn't talk about himself in that book comfortably, Sanderson is happy to fill in the gaps. Not only does the forward think the defenseman was the greatest player ever, but he thinks Orr was about the best person ever. Orr has always been there for Sanderson, paying for treatments, leading a hand when possible. Orr also needed little time to become a leader of the Bruins at a very young age, making sure the team stuck together on and off the ice. That really was quite a team; Sanderson probably is right in saying it could have won four straight Stanley Cups quite easily.

Addiction stories are never easy to read, and Sanderson probably is right in saying here that he's lucky that he didn't get arrested, and lucky that he's still alive. There are plenty of "boy, was I stupid" comments along the way; it's difficult to disagree with him.

The only odd part of the book comes when Sanderson talks about his former lawyer who he says robbed him of a great deal of money. But Sanderson doesn't choose to provide many details about the experience, simply giving a few comments from a distance. Remember, we are dealing with someone who throughout the book showed that he could go through money pretty quickly - alcohol, cars, gifts, drugs, etc. There certainly is a sense that there is more to the story.

That aside, Sanderson still comes off a likable person. He always seemed to be in on the joke, but just got carried away with it.

"Crossing the Line" obviously works best for those who remember Sanderson as a player. That admittedly is a relatively small window of about four years that were more than 40 years ago. But most, even those who didn't see him play, will find his story instructive and amazing at the same time.

Four stars

Learn more about this book.

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