June 27, 2008
Things were good for John Anderson in Chicago. Nice neighborhoods. The annual feast of 80 hot dogs and fries from Gene & Jude's Red Hot Stand in River Grove. Most of all, he was the head coach of the Chicago Wolves, who won their second Calder Cup on his watch during a season in which the Windy City remembered it was also an Original Six city. (Thanks, Rocky Wirtz.) "Any time hockey is on the front page in Chicago, it helps the Wolves. Usually we're buried about six pages back, right behind high-school and college women's basketball," Anderson said.
He loved Chicago, but it was time to leave. Because his first NHL head coaching job was waiting in Atlanta.
"We were in the playoffs until June 10. The next day, Donny told me to fly into Atlanta," said Anderson, who was hired by Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell as the fourth coach in Atlanta Thrashers history.
What Anderson brings to the Thrashers is rather distinctive: He's both a fresh perspective and a familiar face. As Waddell said in their introductory press conference this week, Anderson has run development camps for the team over the course of several seasons. But he's also someone who's patiently waited his turn to take over a NHL bench, much like his friend and fellow AHL graduate Bruce Boudreau did in Washington. Boudreau came to the NHL with a young team and a Russian superstar; so does Anderson. And we all know what Boudreau has now.
I spoke to Anderson yesterday about the important stuff: Beer, his relationships with Boudreau and Melrose, and fishing. We also got around to how to effectively turn Ilya Kovalchuk into an Ovechkin-like leader, and what the Thrashers need to do to win a championship. Enjoy ...
Did you come extraordinarily close to getting an NHL job before this year?
A couple of times. I look at it this way: At least I had my chance at the plate. A baseball player hits one of every three and goes to the Hall of Fame. I went 0-for-4, so I had to hit a home run this time.
I imagine you're making a little more coin than you did in Chicago. Is there any luxury item you plan on purchasing in celebration of the new gig?
I'm a simple person, really. Last year, I bought a boat for $750 and I still have that. It's a 20-foot fishing boat. I took all the Wolves out fishing in it last year.
So what's your biggest catch?
A 30-pound salmon from Lake Ontario. We caught like 30 or 40 salmon last year. I would take different guys out on the boat in Lake Michigan and we just had a great time.
Is that your Zen time, to sort of zone out?
Nah, it's more like my fun time. It's an interest outside of hockey.
Oh, so that's your beer time then.
Yeah, that too. I had a few of those.
What's your brew of choice?
Just a Bud man. Actually, though, in Canada, my favorite beer is Sleeman. Aw, man. You have to have it really cold. But it's the beer of choice.
I was in Ottawa for the draft. We were watching a Euro soccer match, and I passed up the Sleeman on tap for a Guinness.
Aw, you made a huge mistake then!
I'm regretting it already. So this columnist named Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote a piece last week that said your hiring was the cheap alternative, rather than the Thrashers paying for a John Tortorella or a Joel Quenneville. How do you try and change that perception?
Well, Donny can always pay me more money and that will go away. (Laughs) If I got paid 1.5 million, what would Schultz say at that point?
The reality is that I think that my credentials are good enough for me to coach in the National Hockey League. But the other thing is that we've had a good relationship with the Atlanta Thrashers for the last six years, so I know most of the players. I know Kovalchuk. I know Kari Lehtonen, Brian Little. It becomes an easier transition than bringing in, say, a Joel Quenneville who knows nothing about the Atlanta Thrashers. It's not that this team is unfamiliar to me.
In your press conference, you talked about the need to get the Thrashers into the community. Is that an essential part of taking a head coaching job in Atlanta?
Professionals can sometimes seem unreachable. If you have a guy like Ilya Kovalchuk -- or Kari Lehtonen, to see the face behind the mask -- just get them out to a couple of schools. I remember as a kid meeting Dave Keon, and it was the thrill of my life. Your fan base really starts with kids; if you become a Thrashers fan when you're 10, maybe 15 years down the road you're still a Thrashers fan.
Hockey players are middle class, down-to-earth guys. I just think you have to ask them. Within reason, they're open to anything. Once they're out there, I know they have a good time meeting the public. Coming from Winston-Salem, Quad City and Chicago, I know you have to go out and be with the public. It's a natural progression for a team.
You mentioned Kovalchuk. How do you go about making him into more of a leader, in the mold of Alexander Ovechkin in D.C.?
He's a leader in his own right. With a few little key things when he doesn't have the puck, he'll be fine with us. Ilya is the type of guy where you open the gate and let him go. We don't want to squash anything that he does creatively. He's got the green light the whole time. But there are little defensive things that he's got to be responsible for, and I think sometimes he gets a little frustrated and tries to carry the whole team on his back. Sometimes less is more, and it's something he's going to have to realize.
What was it like watching Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau do what he did in D.C. this year?
You have to remember I talked to Bruce about every other day. I love him to death. It was very hard on him because there's a lot of pressure, and it was like being in the playoffs for him for about four months. I think it's going to be very much the same for us this year. Every game is going to be important, because you see the parity not just in our division but all over the League.
One of the things he said was as a rookie coach, you gotta be a little more mindful and respectful of the referees. And the players are faster and bigger and certainly a little easier to make changes to.
Bruce and I played in the National Hockey League, so it's not totally foreign ground. Albeit it was a few years and a few pounds ago.
It's going to be a thrill coaching against him.
Yeah, guess who we play opening night? At home. I'm going to be double-pressured to win.
The only pressure's going to be who has the best postgame quote.
I told Gabby, ‘You know, none of us fought in the National League, so let's get it over with.' We're going to go out to center ice before the game starts and go toe-to-toe, get it over with and let the guys play. (Laughs)
Did you ever think you'd be coaching against Barry Melrose in your first season in the NHL?
You know I played with Barry? In Toronto. He's a great guy.
I remember I was reading this book once and I wanted to send it to him. So I phoned him, and he's out in Kelvington, Saskatchewan. It was like I phoned Sam Drucker's store ... I had to phone the main general store in Hooterville to get Barry off his friggin' tractor [to talk to him.] His father had a huge farm, like one gazillion
hectors hectares of land. He's a farmer at heart.
That's the strange thing with Barry: He's on ESPN wearing the Mafia suits, but he'd rather be on a tractor, huh?
When I see him, I'm going to tell him the mullet's over. And I know he's just going to tell me I'm a jealous suckhead who should grow one. Barry's a pretty sharp devil.
The Southeast is going to be a dogfight with all these nutty coaches. You look at this Atlanta roster, and are there any places you want to see improved before the start of the season?
I think the middle, meaning our centers. Maybe one more steady defenseman. But I think we have a pretty good core here right now. We'll look at free agency, see what's there and what might benefit our team. Maybe some trades. Because it's such a whirlwind, Donny and I only had a chance to sit down and talk about rosters for only hours.
How are you approaching this year? Success right away?
I learned this being in the minors: You don't know how many years you have left. Every year you want a real good kick at the can. We're focused on winning a championship here, and will leave no stone unturned to go to it. Every year you have to focus on winning a championship.
People were very critical of the Pittsburgh Penguins when they didn't win. But in the end, there's only going to be one team that's happy. You're always going to get criticized, even when you win. It's like what Darryl Sittler told me, "It's not lonely at the top; it's just a little less crowded."
Finally, what's on your iPod these days?
The Eagles. And Garth Brooks. I like almost every kind of music except rap. I don't like rap too much. I like some of it, for the most part, nah.