Canadian lacrosse goalie Chris Sanderson was a champion on and off the field
Chris Sanderson is gone but the memory of his gutsy goaltending for Canada at the 2010 world lacrosse championship while coping with brain cancer will endure.
Sanderson, a champion on and off the field, died Thursday. He was 38.
"What Chris Sanderson had to overcome physically and mentally to play one more time for his teammates and for Canada is something I will never forget," said Dean French, the team's executive director.
Sanderson not only helped Canada win silver in Manchester, England, he was named best goaltender for the third time in the four quadrennial tournaments in which he took part. He'd been a star on the 2006 team that upset the United States to win the world title for Canada for the first time in 28 years.
"Canada has been represented by some of the greatest players to ever play lacrosse and Chris Sanderson is the greatest national team player of them all," said 2010 head coach David Huntley. "He has been the leader of our team since 1998 and we will miss him greatly."
Sanderson is survived in New Jersey by his wife, Brogann, and daughters Stevie, 6, and Clementine, 4, by his parents Phil and Sue Sanderson of Orangeville, Ont., and by the extended Sanderson family that has been so vitally involved in Canada's national summer sport for many years.
"Chris passed away this morning at 2 a.m. surrounded by family," Brogann said in a post on the family's journal at the caringbridge.org.
A legion of supporters followed his battle with cancer that began after the first symptoms in July 2008. Initial surgery was on Dec. 22, 2008, and the prognosis was not good.
"It was pretty dire," he recalled in a subsequent interview. "I was given nine to 12 months to live — best-case scenario — but one per cent survive the brain tumours and we could be that one per cent. We took that as a challenge. After that point, we didn't want to hear numbers and percentages from the doctors anymore. We set out to beat this thing. A big part of this was lacrosse."
He set Manchester 2010 as a goal to work towards. After travelling to New Westminster, B.C., for his induction into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame in November 2009, he organized his treatment schedule so he'd be in the best possible condition to again compete in the world tournament, and he was so good in workouts that he was named No. 1 goalie.
His dedication to the team and his sense of humour made him one of the most popular players.
"This tournament and this group of guys has allowed me to be honest about my situation," he said on the eve of the game for gold. "They were interested and open about talking about my cancer, which has been unusual.
"A lot of people avoid the conversation. These guys weren't afraid to tackle it and wanted to hear about it. That took a lot of pressure off me. It allowed me to focus on lacrosse."
Canada led by one in the fourth quarter but lost 12-10 to the Americans. Afterwards, and amazingly given his cancer history, Sanderson was talking about setting a new goal.
"Maybe it'll be the 2014 world championship," he said. "To be honest, I think my wife might kill me before the cancer if I told her that but, just being honest to myself, it'll probably be something like the 2014 games."
Teammates could only hope he'd make it.
"Chris is the best international goalie in the history of the tournament," said 2006 and 2010 national team defenceman Brodie Merrill. "He thrived in the world championships. They brought the best out of him.
"What separated Chris as a goalie was his presence in the net. Chris was such a great communicator, constantly directing the play. It was like having a coach on the field. You felt confident playing in front of Chris. He would make jokes during the course of the play to keep everyone loose. Sometimes he subtly poked fun at opponents with his quick wit.
"He was so savvy outside the cage, often throwing behind-the-back passes and scurrying around the cage in man-down situations. He had unbelievable stick skills."
It was Sanderson who convinced Merrill and others from their shared hometown of Orangeville to add the field game to a mostly box lacrosse repertoire.
"He had a profound impact on me personally," says Merrill. "He took us under his wing and was a friend and mentor.
"Getting a chance to play with Chris and win a gold medal with him was a dream come true. And if you trace the recent explosion of popularity of Canadian field lacrosse, Chris was a major catalyst. His impact on Canadian field lacrosse will be felt for many years. I'm forever in debt to Chris and will miss him terribly."
Players at the European championship in Amsterdam honoured Sanderson with a moment of silence Thursday.
"England will also be wearing a black arm band in honour of this great Canadian player who always took the time to stop and talk to the many players of the lacrosse world," said Stewart Begg of the Canadian Lacrosse League. "It is quite obvious that one of the most respected players of the lacrosse world will live forever in our hearts and minds."
Sanderson did well in the indoor game, too, helping the Orangeville Jr. A team win the Canadian championship in 1993 and 1995. He was a member of the 2001 National Lacrosse League-champion Philadelphia Wings and until just recently was their goaltending coach.
"This is a very sad day for all Wings fans, Wings players, coaches, management and ownership," said Wings co-owner and president Michael French. "Chris' leadership, spirit and sense of humour were just some of his wonderful traits he possessed. As a fellow Canadian I am eternally grateful for all he did for our national team and our sport."
On the field, besides his Team Canada heroics, he helped Virginia to two NCAA Final Four field lacrosse tournaments. He operated lacrosse businesses after starting a family in New Jersey.
In March 2011, a small tumour was found just below Sanderson's original tumour in the left temporal lobe. More treatments and further surgery followed. His condition worsened in recent weeks and Brogann updated the caringbridge.org journal earlier this week under the ominous heading of Time To Say Goodbye.
"He is still conscious but minimally responsive and I just pray that he feels little pain and so much love," she wrote.
Memories of his last Team Canada experience linger.
Just before the 2010 title game, Canada's players warmed up for at least 15 minutes before the U.S. side made its appearance by marching in military-style formation behind the Stars and Stripes from an adjacent field. Sanderson's competitive spirit rose up as he put on his game face while standing alone on a sideline.
"You guys going to show up and play?" he yelled. "Come on, come on."
Back at Pearson International Airport in Toronto at a rail link to a parking lot, Sanderson left the group he was with to walk cross the platform and extend a hand to a writer.
"Thanks for all those stories about the team," he said.
The site of Sanderson holding his stick high to be in position to make a save in Canada's crease is an indelible image.