Former NHLer Geoff Sanderson works the bench as head coach of Calgary's Springbank Whalers in the Coca-Cola Pee Wee Hockey Tournament at Civic Arena.

Former NHLer Geoff Sanderson works the bench as head coach of Calgary's Springbank Whalers in the Coca-Cola Pee Wee Hockey Tournament at Civic Arena.

Sanderson puts fun first

Former NHLer Geoff Sanderson takes fun-first approach as head coach of Calgary's Springbank Pee Wee Whalers.

Geoff Sanderson calmly goes to his whiteboard, climbs down the bench, and softly explains to the Springbank Whalers of Calgary how the play should have gone.

He was coached by the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Ken Hitchcock, Lindy Ruff and Paul Holmgren over 17 years in the NHL, where winning trumps teaching.

Here for the 42nd Coca-Classic Pee Wee Hockey Tournament, Sanderson rarely uses his pro database at this level. Instead, the former NHL roadrunner is a head coach who doesn’t put any expectations on his son, Ben, the oldest of his three sons.

“It’s a little different with kids,” said Sanderson, who turned 41 last week. “Some of the drills I’ll throw in there and tell the boys, ‘this is what we used to do for morning skate.’ A lot of it is different. In Pee Wees, it’s more power skating, stickhanding and shooting and then some flow drills mixed in.”

As for the mental approach to hockey, the down-to-earth Sanderson is making adjustments on the fly.

“I’m still learning. This is my first year coaching high-level Pee Wee and my approach is, ‘they’re 12-year-old kids and you’ve really got to keep that in perspective.’ As much as you wanna win a game, they’re thinking about the pool and the waterslide back at the hotel.

“You gotta realize that they’re kids. I think I bring that perspective that you can’t come down on 12-year-old boys for effort or execution. You just gotta try and keep it positive and make sure they’re having fun, and if they all sign up to play Bantam next year, it’s a successful year for me.”

He wants the best for Ben, hoping he loves the game and “plays beer league hockey with his old man in 15 years.”

Sanderson, like most seasoned veterans, racked up a grocery list of injuries, but didn’t stay out of the lineup long. Hernia surgery. Back spasms. Hip flexor. Broken Finger. Shoulder problems.

He often played through the hurt and in an era of clutch-and-grab hockey, recorded 46 goals in his second NHL season with the Hartford Whalers, following it up with 41 in year three. He used an aluminum shaft with a wooden blade.

“I was just shooting everything,” he smiled, moments after the Whalers shaded the Watkin Motors Mustangs 4-3 in their tourney opener Thursday morning. “I mean, I had 46, but my centreman, Andrew Cassels, was probably one of the best in the league that year so I was purely the benefit of skill and passing ability. All I had to do was shoot the puck and go to the net.”

He was traded five times, played for eight teams and won two gold medals with Canada at the World championships. He has no regrets, but laughs that he perhaps extended his shelf life three too many years.

“I’m still looking for a contract,” he chuckled. “I haven’t officially retired. I called the PA (Players’ Association), I called my agent, said I was retiring. There’s no formal press conference. Those days are gone.”

The Columbus Blue Jackets did honour Sanderson on an alumni night in 2011, showing a video of some sweet toe-drag goals, and having him drop the puck between Rick Nash and Shawn Horcoff. Sanderson was an original Blue Jacket, the first forward they took in the 2000 expansion draft.

His career highlight was the 1998-99 season with Buffalo. The Sabres lost Game 6 of the Stanley Cup finals to the Dallas Stars.

“I was on the bench,” he quickly offered, when asked if he was on the ice when Brett Hull scored the controversial winner from the crease.

Sanderson, a left winger, was picked 36th overall by Hartford in the 1990 NHL amateur draft after compiling 111 goals in three WHL seasons with Swift Current Broncos. That was considered one of the finest lotteries ever. He went two spots after Doug Weight. First-rounders included Owen Nolan (first choice), Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved, Keith Tkachuk, Peter Bondra and Martin Brodeur (20th pick).

Does he remember his first snipe of 355 in 1,104 NHL games?

“Absolutely, it was in my first game against Buffalo, assisted from Paul Cyr and the goalie was Clint Malarchuk. Paul Cyr chipped it to me on the wall; it was a partial breakaway, backhand, forehand, first goal.”

Funniest teammates? Marc Bergevin (now GM of the Canadiens) and Tyler Wright (another original Blue Jacket and now a Vernon resident).

Sanderson followed the latest work stoppage and wasn’t surprised at how things went down.

“It brought me back to both lockouts before this one. Nothing gets done ‘till that absolute last minute. As soon as that lockout started, basically, as an ex-player, you knew nothing was gonna get done ‘till the league decided we can’t get a season. So that date was whenever, January 15, and that’s when the deal got done. It’s kind of sad it works like that, but the owners and players knew that’s when they were gonna get the best deal.”

Sanderson is the only NHL player to have been raised in the Northwest Territories, where his father was a pharmacist. His hometown, Pine Point, a mining community, died in the mid 1980s.

From the NWT, his family moved to High Level, Alta. He finished his minor hockey career in St. Albert, racking up 55 goals and 120 points as a 15-year-old with the Midget Royals.

Besides coaching and raising a family with his St. Albert teenage sweetheart, Sanderson and a couple of partners run an oil patch service company in Calgary.