Face Off: Derek Sanderson vs. the NHL

Today’s post was written by Matthew DiBiase, archives specialist at the National Archives at Philadelphia.

A new exhibit showcasing the impact sports have had on America has opened at the National Archives Museum. All American: The Power of Sports spans centuries of United States history and features more than 75 original items from National Archives’ holdings. The exhibit is free and open to the public and will be on view through January 7, 2024.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the very first regular season game played by the World Hockey Association (WHA), a rival Major Pro Hockey League which existed from 1972/73 to 1978/79 and competed with the National Hockey League (NHL) for playing talent.

During its existence the WHA revolutionized Pro Hockey by expanding into areas not covered by the NHL in Canada (with franchises in Quebec, Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary), the Deep South (with franchises in Houston and Birmingham) and the American West (with franchises in Phoenix and Denver). Today four NHL teams: the Edmonton Oilers, the Carolina Hurricanes (formerly the Hartford Whalers), the Colorado Avalanche (formerly the Quebec Nordiques), and the Arizona Coyotes (formerly the Winnipeg Jets) can trace their roots to the WHA when those teams merged with the NHL in 1979.

The rival league changed hockey by enticing rookies and established NHL stars (like Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe, Dave Keon, and J.C. Tremblay) to jump to the WHA to get the superstar salaries they never received in the NHL. The World Hockey Association also altered Pro Hockey forever by aggressively drafting and/or signing players from Europe which introduced European style hockey tactics to Pro Hockey and, also, the drafting and signing of amateur talent. Whereas the NHL only drafted players who were 20 years old, the WHA lowered the draft age to age 18 (which eventually forced the NHL to do the same) thus allowing future Hockey Hall-of-Famers Mark Howe and Wayne Gretzky to get an earlier start in their Pro Hockey careers.

But the greatest change wrought by the WHA came in the form of expanding the rights of individual players when an NHL superstar named Derek Sanderson decided to jump from the Boston Bruins to play in the World Hockey Association. And in so doing Sanderson was sued by his former team because he was violating the reserve clause of his contract which bound him to the team in perpetuity. Derek Sanderson eventually won his case, and this resulted in the reserve clause system being removed from all NHL contracts. This opened the door for free agency to be introduced into the NHL which gave players more freedom of movement and more freedom to negotiate with other teams to increase their pay. Today’s NHL players enjoy far greater freedoms than their predecessors enjoyed fifty years ago because of Sanderson’s legal victory.

Derek Sanderson was born in Niagara Falls in Ontario, Canada in 1946. He grew up playing hockey and developed into a brilliant amateur player.

The Boston Bruins signed him and after playing in their farm system he became a full-time player in 1967/68 (where he was named the NHL’s Rookie of the Year).

Sanderson along with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito was an integral member of the Bruins teams which won Stanley Cups in 1969/70 and 1971/72. It was Derek Sanderson who got the assist on Bobby Orr’s immortal Stanley Cup winning goal in Game Four of the 1969/70 Stanley Cup finals against the St. Louis Blues.

Sanderson was a tough center with great two-way skills. He was a key part of the Bruins’ penalty-killing unit and for eight years led all NHL players in career short-handed goals.

Seen here is a page from a deposition given by then Boston Bruins head coach Tom Johnson attesting to Derek Sanderson’s great capabilities as a hockey player.

Page 5 from Tom Johnson’s Deposition.

In the summer of 1972, the Boston Bruins offered Sanderson a five-year contract (shown here) worth $80,000 a season.

However, the Philadelphia Blazers franchise in the WHA offered Derek a five-year contract (also shown here) worth $2.65 million dollars to play for their team, it was the richest contract ever offered to a professional athlete in the world at that time.

Derek Sanderson accepted the Blazers’ offer and the Bruins filed a civil in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts seeking an injunction to prevent Sanderson from playing in the WHA. Eventually Sanderson’s case was transferred from the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts to the Eastern District of Pennsylvania where it was adjudicated as Civil Case File 73-215.

Depositions were taken by the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts from both the Plaintiffs (the Boston Bruins as shown here in a deposition given by then Bruins General Manager Milt Schmidt) and the defendant Derek Sanderson (as shown here in a deposition given by Sanderson where he discusses his career and his difficulties in negotiating with the Bruins and his desire to play in the WHA) which were later transferred to the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The case against Sanderson was one of many civil actions filed in U.S. District Courts throughout the country by NHL franchises in American cities seeking to prevent those players who were jumping from the NHL to the WHA from playing in the WHA. Over time these cases would be consolidated into a Multi-District Litigation case (In RE: Professional Hockey Antitrust Litigation, M.D.L. 119).

After numerous filings, orders, and depositions taken from players, NHL team owners, general managers, coaches, NHL Player Association officials, and WHA team owners on August 7, 1973, Federal Judge A. Leon Higginbotham from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issue an eight-page memorandum order and opinion which forbade the NHL from enforcing the reserve clause in its contracts (which Higginbotham found that they violated Federal anti-trust laws). This allowed those NHL players who signed WHA contracts to play for their new teams.

Derek Sanderson only played eight games for the Philadelphia Blazers during the 1972/73 WHA season. He later returned to play for the Boston Bruins, the New York Rangers, the St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks, and Pittsburgh Penguins (with occasional stints in the minor leagues) but Derek never fully regained his superstar form as a player.

Sanderson retired as a player in 1978 and endured financial difficulties and personal struggles with alcohol and drug addiction (well chronicled in his memoirs). He conquered his addictions and later became a hockey play-by-play announcer for the New England Sports Network and WSBK-TV then in the 1990s founded a business located in the greater Boston area which provides valuable financial planning advice to professional athletes.

The records featured in this blog post are located at the National Archives at Philadelphia. Interested in learning more or reviewing the records? Email philadelphia.archives@nara.gov for further research.

Case discussed in this post:
U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Civil Case File No. 73-215, Boston Professional Hockey Association, Inc. v. Derek Sanderson, Box 23 (NAID: 565160)

One thought on “Face Off: Derek Sanderson vs. the NHL

  1. Fantastic write up. As a lifelong Bruins fan, I remember following this case with my father, now seeing the contracts, it’s mind boggling.

    Thanks again!

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