By Elizabeth Casey | Photo contributions by Ross Dettman
Before John Anderson brought four championships to the Windy City, he played in the National Hockey League for 12 seasons. He was a first-round draft pick in 1977, and registered five 30-goal campaigns as a player. A big chunk of his adult life was spent in the NHL, but when he made his return as a head coach at the start of last season, nearly 20 years after the conclusion of his NHL playing career, he felt like there was a lot to learn.
“Well, first of all, there are only like two or three arenas still standing from when I played,” he joked. “When we walk into arenas, I have no idea where anything is. (Last year) I’d have to follow our PR guy to tell me where the coaches’ office was. But hockey is hockey, no matter what league. It just takes some time to get acclimated.”
Part of the acclimation process for Anderson involved establishing himself to his players.
“You take for granted after you’ve played in the NHL and you’ve coached a long time in the American League that there is an instant respect,” he said. “That was a hard thing last year. I was on trial all the time. I assumed they’d listen right away, but it took a while to gain their trust and respect and get everyone on the same page.”
Because the Thrashers are the Wolves NHL affiliate, the roster was not entirely new to Anderson, nor was he new to all of the players. He had coached many of them as youngsters at the annual Traverse City Prospect Tournament, and others he knew from assisting with Thrashers training camps over the years.
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One player with whom Anderson had an automatic bond was Wolves defenseman Nathan Oystrick, who shared his rookie NHL season with the coach after winning the Calder Cup together in 2008.
“At the start of the year he was maybe a little more quiet and not as outgoing as he was here, but he was in a new setting in the NHL,” Oystrick recalled. “But as a coach, he was the same. We played the same systems and did everything the John Anderson way.”
Anderson appreciated the familiarity he had with the players that had played
under him in Chicago, but ever the coach, recognized that it helped their transition to the NHL to know him as well.
“I think that it was probably easier on them because they’re comfortable with me,” he said of players like Oystrick, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and defenseman Boris Valabik. “Our rapport is probably easier than some of the guys who are just starting to get to know me. I think that helps tremendously.”
Oystrick echoed that sentiment.
“It definitely helped me. Johnny and (former Wolves, now Thrashers assistant coach Todd Nelson) knew me and knew what I was capable of doing as a player. When you’re making a jump like that, it’s the best thing in the world to have coaches that know you and know what you’re capable of.”
Anderson said his 11 seasons with the Wolves benefited him in far greater ways than just helping him get to know some of his future Thrashers.
“No question it helped me in hockey as a coach, but also as a person,” he said. “I coached lots of players in Chicago. I can’t even imagine how many came through while I was there. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, then something else happens, but that’s the beauty of the game. Spending 11 years in Chicago, seeing all sorts of different scenarios, really prepared me for almost anything.” Despite his busy schedule with the Thrashers, Anderson still keeps an eye on the Wolves.
“I talk to Wendell (Young) and Gene (Ubriaco) and Don Lever when our schedule permits,” he said. “The bond hasn’t left for me, and certainly with the Wolves being our affiliate it never will, but the great thing about this weekend is I get to come watch in person.”
Asked to evaluate his first season as an NHL head coach, Anderson is pragmatic.
“I’m happy with how we finished up and how we carried that through the start of this year. We’re playing well but we’re not winning consistently,” he said. “I’m very disappointed that we didn’t get a chance at the playoffs last year. We put ourselves really out of the race at the start of the year and that’s disappointing because the playoffs are what you play for. You don’t play 82 games to go home at the end of the year and do nothing.”
Anderson’s goal for the Thrashers – something he left undone during his playing career - should come as no surprise to Wolves fans.
“The Stanley Cup,” he said. “I don’t want to come here and play 82 games and not succeed. The ultimate mark of success in hockey is winning the Stanley Cup. I played a lot of years and I never won one, so now’s my chance to get my name on the Stanley.”