This excerpt from Crossing the Line: The Outrageous Story of a Hockey Original is printed with the permission of Triumph Books, triumphbooks.com/dereksanderson.
HOW DID I SCREW UP MY LIFE SO BADLY? My only dream was to become a professional hockey player. Everything I did, I did to play in the National Hockey League. Now I was 31 years old. I should have been in the prime of my life. I should still have been playing hockey. A few years earlier, in 1972, I was the highest-paid athlete in the world, and yet there I was, being quickly escorted into the bottomless pit of alcoholism and drug addiction.
I tried to blame everyone else for my situation, but I had only myself to blame. No one put a gun to my head and told me to drink. I was bad and I was mean. I’m telling you, I was ugly mean.
It was the summer of 1977, after being cut from the Vancouver Canucks, when I began what proved to be a three-year binge. I was out of control with fear that I might never get off the merry-go-round. You drink to control the fear and the loss of respect. I slid slowly into the depths of a hell I could never have imagined.
It started with a good-looking girl, as it so often does. We were both drunk. I had just arrived in New York. The girl was staying with friends and invited me back to the house. As we were heading there, she asked whether I had any money. I gave her the last of the cash I had, which was about $1,500. She slid into the apartment before me and slammed the door. I could hear the click of the lock, with me standing on the outside. It was late. I had no money and no place to sleep. The clothes I was wearing — the only clothes I had — weren’t appropriate for a miserable New York night. I looked like hell. I banged on the door for a long time. Through the locked door, she yelled, “Get away from here or I’ll call the police!”
I trudged over to Central Park and glanced around. There were a few people walking around, but the park was mostly quiet. The cold and rain made the night miserable, but I knew I just needed a place where I could close my eyes and drift away from my problems for a few hours. I grabbed a discarded New York Times and stretched out on a damp bench, pulling the newspaper over me like a blanket to keep dry and as warm as possible.
An old-timer came by, looked at me, and shook his head. “You’re obviously new at this,” he said with a sigh. “If you knew what you were doing, you would have wiped down the bench and then put the paper down before you laid down.”
“Is there an art to this?” I asked facetiously.
“Yes, sir,” came the reply. “There actually is.”
I appreciated the advice from a guy who clearly had spent a few years living in the park.
“Hey, one more thing.”
I glanced up.
“You’d be wise to find a spot under the bridge in the western part of the park. You’ll be out of the wind and out of any bad weather. Get there about 4:30 or 5 o’clock, before it gets dark, and claim a spot. I’ll tell ya now, you’re going to have to fight for it, but it’ll be worth it.”
I asked him whether that’s where he stayed. “No, I’m too old to fight for a spot,” he said shrugging. “But you’ll be fine.”
I thanked him for the advice, then he offered more of his experience.
“In the alley behind the big appliance stores, get yourself one of those cardboard boxes that they ship refrigerators in. Lean it up against a building. It’ll keep out the wind. Eventually, your body heat will warm you up. The temperature drops pretty good some nights.”
The next day, I found one of those cartons, and it became my new home. A discarded paperback was my entertainment. I ate out of dumpsters, stole, and panhandled. It was sheer survival at that point. When it came to panhandling, I discovered that there was a pecking order; the veterans had their corners. You didn’t mess with their seniority or you’d suffer the consequences. My sign said: “Just Sober. Help Me Out. I Want to See My Family.” People handed me tens and twenties. I made $150 to $200 cash a day. I realized that if you really wanted to get out of living on the street, it was possible. For some reason, I knew I would get out of this predicament. I had family and friends, but I was too embarrassed to ask anyone I knew for help. My ego simply wouldn’t let me, but I realized that I needed help. I was anonymous for the first time in my life. My hair was really long and unwashed, I hadn’t shaved for a while, and my clothes were filthy. People walked by and didn’t recognize me. It wouldn’t have mattered to me if they did.
After a couple of days, I started to shake. I needed a drink, and thankfully there was a liquor store nearby. I lingered outside, and then, as soon as the guy at the cash register was serving a customer, I grabbed a pint of vodka from near the front of the store and ran. The guys in the park later told me that the employees at the liquor store wouldn’t chase you for a pint, but they would for a fifth. It didn’t matter to me — a fifth was too big to run with anyway.
I was going back to steal another pint the next day when I noticed a guy sitting on a bench wearing a nice camel-hair topcoat. It was clear that he was on a two- or three-day bender. He had a couple of bottles of booze stuck in the pocket of his coat. When I saw that he was asleep, I sneaked over and reached into his coat to take one of the bottles.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he barked, grabbing my wrist.
“Come on. Just give me a drink!” I begged. “We’re both in the same spot.”
“Get your own!” came the reply.
“Listen,” I blurted, “do you know who I am?”
That was the stupidest thing I have ever said. That was the first and only time I have ever said that in my life. I was desperate.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “You’re a drunk just like me.”
Those words stung.
WHEN I WAS IN BOSTON, I’d been living the life. I was a single guy playing for the most popular hockey team on the planet, beautiful women all around me. The image I projected was that I was this crazy playboy, and I believed my own hype, but the truth was that I was just an insecure kid from Niagara Falls, Ontario.
Flying scared the hell out of me, and I got really anxious and panicked before every team flight. The Bruins sent me to a shrink, and that was the first time I ever had drugs. Valium mellowed me before a flight, but it made me groggy and irritable and interfered with my play. I was finding it all too much. The doctor took me off the Valium, but I still needed something to calm me before a flight, so he suggested a couple of shots of Scotch. They took the edge off, but after a while, they weren’t enough. The next thing I knew, I was getting so hammered just to be able to fly that I was passing out and had to be poured off the plane on the other end.
That was really the start of my drinking problem. Alcohol masked my fears — of flying, of not being accepted, of not being liked enough. I started as a social drinker, and before I knew it, I was drinking constantly. Others around me started to notice that my drinking was becoming a problem. Most of my teammates didn’t see it, but Bobby Orr took me aside a few times and talked to me about what I was doing. But I didn’t think I had a problem. I was in denial.
I never drank the day of the game. That was my rule of thumb, but I was often so drunk from the night before that I didn’t sober up for two days after the game.
The drugs really started to take hold in 1973. I was taking barbiturates for pain in my hips and to help me sleep. Then I began experimenting with “bennies.” Add to the mix cocaine, prednisone, Valium, and whatever else I was using, and I was out of control.
TO AN ALCOHOLIC, the bottom is every day. Every day, you try to quit. You know that you’ve got no control. You’re really pumped — you have four hours under your belt. And then you have seven hours. It’s 1 o’clock in the afternoon and you’re proud: “I haven’t had a drink since 3 o’clock this morning!” And then it’s happy hour and you have a beer. And then another beer. And then a shot and a beer. Bingo! Gone again!
For me, that was every night. I’d swear I was never going to drink again, and then I’d go back. I went to detox 13 times before I was admitted to rehab, and it was there that I was finally able to give up my addictions to alcohol and drugs.
I was in such a drug-and-alcohol-induced haze that I don’t even know how I got to Hotel Dieu in St. Catharines, Ontario. In the scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I met a man there who saved my life in 1980. I don’t even know his name, although I sure wish I did. I told him I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. He got me on my knees and persuaded me to let God into my life. That made all the difference.
He said, “Derek, I’ve been doing this for 18 years.” I asked him why he chose to be a rehabilitation counselor. He told me: “I do it because it’s a calling. I have to do this.” I asked him why, and he replied, “Because I know what fear is, and I think that alcoholics are inherently good people who simply don’t know how to handle fear.”