Growing up on ice: Geoff Sanderson’s journey from N.W.T. to the NHL

Geoff-Sanderson

Born and raised in the Northwest Territories, Geoff Sanderson, left, played 1,100 games for seven NHL franchises. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

It’s a moment seemingly algorithmically produced to go viral across Canada in the age of Instagram. A glassy, frozen street, the sound of skates carving into ice, children playing the national pastime, and the stars shining only as they can once you escape the light pollution clouding the views of the South.

It’s almost surreal.

But for former NHLer Geoff Sanderson — by far the most accomplished of five from the Northwest Territories — it was real life, and the way he grew up in the remote, now-ghost town of Pine Point, N.W.T., in the 1970s and early ’80s.

“I remember playing road hockey with my brother (the oldest of three) all the time. There were only a few kids in our area, so we would always plan on meeting out front of someone’s house. Normally, whoever had a net, maybe a sponge puck and whoever’s street lights were working at the time,” recalled Sanderson, whose best years were spent with the Hartford Whalers and Columbus Blue Jackets.

“I vividly remember that, and I vividly remember the gravel truck. It’d been given the instructions not to gravel anywhere near where we’re playing road hockey,” he continued with a laugh, reflecting on his early fastidiousness about the quality of his ice surface.

Sanderson, now 48, spent the first 11 years of his life in Pine Point — a nearly 600-kilometre drive around Great Slave Lake to the territorial capital of Yellowknife, where this month’s Hockey Day in Canada festivities take place — before eventually carving out a 17-year career in the NHL.

It was a life that began on a day so harsh that even his own mother hasn’t forgiven him.

Hockey Day in Canada in Yellowknife, NT
Celebrating Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada’s 20th anniversary, Sportsnet and Scotiabank unite to bring a 4-day hockey festival to Yellowknife, NT and a 12-hour NHL broadcast to Canadian fans coast-to-coast-to-coast.

Sheila Sanderson, 72, spent 17 years with her husband, Aaron, 73, in Pine Point — after he took a job at the pharmacy — and was used to bundling up before braving the frigid outdoors of the North.

But on Feb. 1, 1972, it was minus-55 C.

And to this day, she still brings up her “sacrifice” — how she had to endure the bone-chilling cold and wind to get in an ambulance bound for the closest hospital in the town of Hay River.

“Every birthday she reminds me,” Sanderson said with a laugh.

But on most days, even though the mercury regularly dropped to minus-40, the cold wasn’t an impediment — it was a way of life.

Sanderson remembers hopping on a Ski-Doo with his parents or older brother and zipping off on the snowy roads to his home away from home: the hockey rink.

Competition wasn’t exactly fierce in Pine Point — which had a peak population of roughly 2,000 in 1976 and just the single arena — but it was where Sanderson learned to love the game.

Pine-Point-Arena
(Courtesy of Geoff Sanderson)

Pushed into goalie gear — ironic, given the goal-scoring prowess that was to emerge down the road — Sanderson recalls seldom travelling to face other teams, as is the norm nowadays, and perhaps making a single hour-or-so drive to Hay River for a tournament each year.

The one time he ventured further, he’ll never forget.

A nine-year-old Sanderson, his team and their parents packed into a Twin Otter plane for a flight to a tournament in Yellowknife. While in the air, the cabin door flung open.

“I was sitting there (by the door) — I remember my mom told me that she saw me in the seat, I had my tuque on — and then the door opened and my tuque was gone and she had a quick panic attack. But I actually just pulled my tuque off because it got super windy in the plane when the door opened,” said Sanderson with a trace of impish bravado in his voice.

“And … the dads got together and found a way to chain arms, to pull the door back and then close it while we’re flying, so I remember that.”

Geoff-Sanderson-Byers
(Courtesy of Geoff Sanderson)

Despite the scare, growing up and playing hockey in the North was plain and simple — fun.

“I grew up on ice. That’s what it was … All of our outside playtime was on the road, playing on the ice, sliding around playing hockey. Or you were at the rink playing hockey. And it was not super organized and super competitive probably,” he said. “I think that is a big part of the reason why I grew to love the game. There’s no pressure, no expectations.”

Geoff-Sanderson-goalie
(Courtesy of Geoff Sanderson)

It wasn’t until his family uprooted for High Level, Alta. — after his father bought a pharmacy in the town — that Sanderson was moved out of net and started finding the back of it, that he realized he might have a shot at The Show.

The kid from Pine Point then went on to star for the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos, capturing the Memorial Cup as a rookie in 1989, and was drafted 36th overall in the 1990 NHL Draft by the Whalers.

Once he made the league, Sanderson put up back-to-back 40-goal campaigns, played in two all-star games, made it all the way to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals with the Buffalo Sabres, claimed gold at two world championships and finished his NHL career with 355 goals and 700 points across 1104 games.

After retiring in 2008, Sanderson worked in player development for the New York Islanders for two years. But the grind of constant travel — and living in eight cities across 17 seasons — caught up with him, and Sanderson moved to Calgary with his young family to become a stay-at-home dad/coach as his three sons were just starting Timbits hockey.

Now, with his kids grown — aged 19, 17 and 14 — Sanderson would like to one day take a trip back to his old stomping grounds.

The last time he was back was roughly 10 years ago on a promotional trip to Hay River. And even though he was close by, Sanderson opted against visiting Pine Point on the advice of a good friend who also lived there.

“‘You’re going to get sad and confused, and the roads are all overgrown and you’ll have a hard time remembering at all where you lived,’” he said, reflecting on the conversation about the town, which was abandoned in 1988 soon after its mine shuttered.

Pine-Point-Closure
(Courtesy of Geoff Sanderson)

And while some things may have changed, Sanderson’s fondness for the beauty of the North remains.

“It’s a goal of mine for my kids to see (the northern lights),” he said. “You know, we live in Calgary, there have been times when you can kind of see them, but when you’re living in the North — there’s nothing like it.”

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