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'Turk' owes his life to Orr, counsellor, God

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What would it be like to be the highest-paid athlete in the world, the toast of Boston, the winner of two Stanley Cups, the rich, devil-may-care playboy? Then to find yourself broke, alcoholic, drug-addicted and sleeping under bridges? In the space of 12 years, this all happened to Derek "Turk" Sanderson.

I recently interviewed Derek Sanderson, the former NHL hockey player, in Toronto during a dinner sponsored by Healthy Minds Canada. I was interested in his story, as I had attended the same school, lived on the same street and watched Sanderson as he started his hockey career with the Niagara Falls Flyers. I knew his loving parents, who tried to instil the right virtues in their son.

Multiple events led to Sanderson's downfall. He was terrified of flying, so the Bruins sent him to a psychiatrist, who made two disastrous errors. He first prescribed Valium. This made Turk groggy. The doctor then advised scotch, Dewar's White Label. That's when he took "four fingers" for a flight to New York and eight for the trip to the West Coast.

The next disaster occurred when Sanderson, along with Joe Namath, the football star, opened a bar in Boston, compounding his temptation. They decided attractive airline attendants should have free drinks after landing in Boston. This led to free sex, a lifestyle as close to heaven as a young, good-looking hockey star from small-town Niagara Falls could ever imagine.

As a leading star, the rival WHA hockey league soon offered him an unprecedented $2.6 million to be the first NHL player to switch to the WHA. It was a mountain of money at that time. The Bruins' owner wisely cautioned Sanderson that for someone not bred to wealth, it would ruin his life.

Sanderson didn't listen. The first thing he did was purchase a burgundy Rolls-Royce and fox-fur coat. On the spur of the moment, he took several women to Hawaii for a weekend jaunt.

It was the beginning of the end. Eventually, his off-ice lifestyle, playboy image, booze, women and drugs became the Frankenstein monster that destroyed his hockey career.

It's amazing Sanderson didn't die. Doctors diagnosed chronic ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that isn't helped by excessive alcohol consumption.

Later, he developed cirrhosis of the liver. Then, while in a drunken stupor, he nearly froze to death sleeping in the snow. He's also a prostate-cancer survivor.

So why is Sanderson alive today? Bobby Orr, always a class act and arguably the greatest hockey player ever, repeatedly tried to steer Sanderson away from his snowballing slide to hell. He paid for his care in detox centres, only to see him walk away from them multiple times.

So I asked Sanderson what finally saved his life. He claims a counsellor at Hotel Dieu, a rehab center in St. Catharines, Ont., caught him at just the right time. He convinced Sanderson to accept the role of God in his recovery.

For Sanderson, the tough hockey player and ultimate playboy, it must have taken an immense change of heart for him to get down on his knees and say, "God, help me. I cannot live this way any longer."

This Christmas, Sanderson is a happily married man with two children. He has many to thank for banning alcohol and drugs from his life. Orr arranged surgery for his hips, destroyed by prednisone. On behalf of the City of Boston, Sanderson has counselled tens of thousands of wayward children. And for someone originally afraid of public speaking, he learned to be the hockey commentator on Bruins broadcasts.

He also acts as financial adviser for athletes in Boston. He's dedicated to making sure they don't lose the millions of dollars that fell through his hands.

Fortunately, he's hasn't lost his sense of humour. He says he made the perfect pass to Orr, who went flying through the air to score the goal that won the Stanley Cup. He laughs and says, "I made Orr famous."

See the website www.docgiff.com For comments, info@docgiff.com Twitter @GiffordJones MD

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2012 A25

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