Rock Solid

In Both His Personal And Professional Life, Craig Anderson Stands Tall In The Face Of Adversity

The quiet and fiercely intense competitor silently stood alone in the corridors of Rogers Place in Edmonton. Hunched over and leaning on his stick for support, Craig Anderson waited for the announcement of first star of the game after posting a 37-save shutout.

The Park Ridge, Ill., native emerged from the tunnel and received a rare congratulatory ovation for a visiting goaltender, including an embrace from then-Oilers netminder Cam Talbot. Despite the Oilers loss, there was still a buzz in the building several minutes after the October 30, 2016, contest ended.

The post-game accolades not withstanding, Anderson's mind was elsewhere, with his wife and mother of his two children, Nicholle, who days earlier had been diagnosed with late stage nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a rare throat cancer. Anderson left the team for a few days to be with her before she prompted him to return.

"Any moment that holds an emotional bond, I think sticks with you," Anderson recalled. "That Edmonton game, Nicholle told me to fly back, 'the team needs you.' You go there and have a game like that, Cam Talbot goes out there on the ice and is clapping for you. It's stuff like that that you remember."

That night is one of the fondest memories of Anderson's career, one that has spanned 16 seasons with four NHL teams. He's spent the last nine in Canada's capital of Ottawa, playing in 401 games with the Senators and is the franchise leader with 191 wins.

The acknowledgement of the Oilers faithful also provided a glimpse of the support from the hockey community and how it resembles one big family that looks out for one another when times are tough.

"When you break it down, it's such a small community," Anderson said. "There's lots of players that have come and gone that reached out. Players that I never even knew they knew who I was, reached out. You get gift baskets from the wives and girlfriends. The community is so close and with a moment like that, that's when you realize we're all looking out for each other, even though we're battling each other on a nightly basis." 

In addition to the support of her family, Nicholle felt equally blessed to have the hockey community backing her as she began the process of chemotherapy. 

"The support was amazing," she said. "Getting through it to where I am now, I don't think people really understand that hockey is a big family. Everybody is connected to each other and people really care about each other, even on the inside, on the outside."

Anderson took one more leave of absence in December and January to be with his wife. When he returned to the ice on Feb. 11, over two months between games, he posted another shutout in a 33-save performance against the New York Islanders.

"When he took the leave of absence, I personally was worried for him," Nicholle said. "You know the guys in hockey, they all live it and breathe it since they were young. So, when he left, I knew where his heart was at and it was so big for him to even do that. 

"I think I personally struggled because I was in treatment and I'd see him watching the hockey game, and he's like 'No Nicholle, I'm fine, I'm fine.' But I could see it in his eyes that he was doing the right thing because he loves our family and he loves me. But I think for me, him leaving the game was so much deeper."

After backstopping the Senators to within a goal of reaching the Stanley Cup Final-Ottawa lost in double overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against Pittsburgh-Anderson was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to ice hockey.

Fast forward to present day and Nicholle is two years cancer free. Craig is still with the Senators, putting his competitive fire to the test every night as he tends the twine for a team deep in the midst of rebuilding process. Their mindsets and perspective forever changed from what they've been through as Anderson completes the latter stages of his NHL career.

"Maybe the purpose was for him to learn how to step back from it all and appreciate the game even more in a deeper purpose," Nicholle said. "After I was diagnosed and he did come back, he told me that 'Nicholle, I'm learning how to leave it on the ice and not let it affect me anymore.' 

"In the bigger picture, that's great because I know Craig as a goalie. When we first got married and he'd lose, he'd stay up all night replaying that goal in his head. Mentally it would bother him. When the team loses, the fans all blame the goalie."

Anderson doesn't deserve to shoulder the blame in Ottawa. This past season, he finished with a 3.51 goals-against average and .903 save percentage. His numbers are inflated from the number of chances he would have to turn aside, as Ottawa allowed a league-high 35.7 shots per game.

"I certainly learned how he was able to handle adversity this season at times," said NHL veteran goalie Mike McKenna, who was Anderson's running mate for part of the year in Ottawa. 

"There were moments where he was seeing 40 to 45 shots a game. He'd stand in there after every game, talk to the media and face the music. He'd play an unbelievable game and still allow three or four goals, a scenario which is incredibly frustrating as a goalie. Outwardly to the media, he never let that be a storyline. It was always positive and always trying to get the team in a better place. He's someone that we can all learn from."

Now 38, Anderson has built an impressive NHL resume. He's played in more than 600 games, and should he grab 24 wins next season, would pass Mike Richter with the fifth-most wins by an American-born goaltender.

As the 6-foot-2, 185-pound goaltender has gotten older, his training regime has changed to best equip him for the grind of a starting goaltender's workload over the course of an NHL season. 

"I would say my training has changed drastically over the start to the finish of my career," Anderson said. "My first three or four years in the offseason were a big learning curve in how hard you need to train. The next eight or nine years were hard offseasons where you were training really hard and trying to get stronger. 

"Now, once you get to my age, you just don't recover like you used to. It's more of just maintaining, staying healthy and making sure you don't get hurt."

A large portion of that offseason training occurs at home in Coral Springs, Fla., with Nicholle, Jake, 7, and Levi, 5. Anderson enjoys the family time and is currently coaching his son's baseball team. He also continues to run a goaltending camp in his native Illinois.

"Giving back to the community and giving back to the kids is something that I really enjoy doing, seeing the kids learn and seeing them smile," Anderson said. 

"Something clicks in their head when you tell them something and all of a sudden it alters their game completely just from a one-week goalie camp. It's like man, I can give back to the hockey world. Hockey in general has given me so much, that you feel like you owe it back."

Nicholle recently surprised Craig with a trip to the Indy 500 for his birthday. It was the perfect gift for a track rat who grew up watching his father race Corvettes. He enjoys simulation car racing, stays close with his brother through racing together and has an Anderson41 Motorsports partnership. 

"I want to pursue it after hockey," Anderson said. "It's the next stage after hockey and is one of those things that I'm passionate with and it's where my heart is, along with hockey. You follow your heart at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what it is."

With one year left on his deal with Ottawa and still showing that he can play at a high level, it might be a few years time before the checkered flag waves on his NHL career. It's well worth the wait for an Ottawa squad filled of up-and-coming young players who lean on Anderson for his veteran leadership.

One Senators player who has appreciates the mentorship is defenseman Christian Wolanin, who represented the U.S. at the 2019 IIHF Men's World Championship.

"From the moment I got [to Ottawa] last season, he was one of the first vets to really welcome me with open arms. And he's been a great guy to me ever since," Wolanin said.

"On the ice, he's a terrific goalie. For him to be as good as he has been for so many years, especially with a tough year like this one. For him to still be that good and still continue to come to the rink every day with a good attitude says a lot about his character and the type of person that he is."

That good attitude has been put to the test over the years. He's been through a lot, from professionally, playing a full season in Chicago and then being traded to Florida and playing for their AHL team, as well as personally with helping Nicholle overcome her illness.

It's made him stronger and he's learned from it, embracing the notion of living in the moment. That can be extremely useful for a goaltender, as any mistake is magnified, especially at the NHL level.

"I wish as a younger player you'd realize it is a game and you have to let go," Anderson said. "Enjoy the moment instead of taking things home with you, over-analyzing and getting pissed off. With what Nicholle had, sometimes it takes big emotional moments to have life-changing thoughts."

While Anderson is hesitant to divulge his future plans, for now he is content to enjoy every moment. And he's happy to have Nicholle and his two sons right beside him.

"I think it's a matter of focusing on one year and seeing where things go," Anderson said "It's in the back of your mind, how far do you push it? Do you want to end with them kicking you out or do you want to end on your own terms, knowing you gave it your all and you can't give anymore?

"You realize that 'hey, I have an opportunity to do something here that I enjoy doing and I'm going to enjoy it while I can and not have any regrets.' Just leave everything out there. 

"[Nicholle's battle] was the moment when I was like, stop stressing over it. Good game, bad game, doesn't matter. You go home, hug your wife, hug your kids and the sun comes up the next day."

 

Issue: 
2019-06

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