Q&A with Craig Anderson

By Glen Jackson

Craig Anderson played in six games in 2002-03 for the Chicago Blackhawks but was winless. When 2003 training camp finished, Michael Leighton had won the job to backup Jocelyn Thibault, although it was stated that both he and Anderson would take turns with it over the course of the season. In November, Thibault went down with a hip injury that required surgery and both Anderson and Leighton ended up with a lot more playing time than either had bargained for in 2003-04. Both did well enough this season that the picture remains cloudy as to who will emerge atop from this strong, young, goaltending tandem, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for the Hawks organization. Anderson did well in solidifying himself as a goalie that can compete at the NHL level as the season wore on, earning the same number of wins as Leighton (6), with 14 fewer games started.

Hockey’s Future had an opportunity to talk with Anderson via phone this week about a variety of things including this past season, growing up, and where exactly that extra “s” in his last name got to.

HF: First off, you haven’t re-signed with the Hawks yet?
CA: That’s true.

HF: Do you know what’s going on currently? Are you worried about that at all?
CA: No, not really. From what I understand I think all the young guys are going to just get qualifying offers to keep our rights for another year until they figure out what’s going on with the CBA. That’s the best of my knowledge as far as contracts are going right now.

HF: They’ll probably want to get you settled before the summer is in full flight, right?
CA: Yeah, I’m pretty sure they’ll probably get something done here in the next little while.

HF: Michael Leighton’s star has seemed intertwined with yours in the Hawks organization for the most part. How did you guys manage the situation last year both in training camp and through last season playing together?
CA: I think it’s been a pretty good opportunity for both of us. The opportunity to come up and play in the National Hockey League at such a young age and to play 21 games or whatever we played. I think he might have played 28 [ed. 35] and I played 21. I mean to get that kind of games as a young goalie it’s pretty tough, so it’s been a pretty good opportunity for both of us. I think it’s good because we push each other. Two young guys fighting for one spot. It makes you play better and it pushes the other guy to make him better. And overall it’s a better goaltending position for the organization.

HF: Healthy competition, a healthy rivalry I guess between the two of you…
CA: Yeah, because if we both can play it gives the organization a good feel for us and a good position for whatever they want to do in the future.

HF: Was there a lot of pressure on you this year to step up when (Joceyln) Thibault went down? Did you feel like this was your shot?
CA: Yeah, anytime you get an opportunity like that. You hate to see someone go down with an injury and every opportunity you get you have to take it and try to run with it. It was unfortunate what happened but in the long run I think both Michael and I now have a lot more experience and knowledge of the game in the National Hockey League because of what happened. You hate to see it happen but things happen like that and you just have to kind of ride the waves.

HF: How challenging was it to play with a relatively young team last year?
CA: You know, anytime you step into a situation that you’re not used to it’s going to be tough. We had a lot of young guys and the young guys are going to be the ones that are going to end up being the core of the team next year or the following year when they start to develop into first and second line all-star players and what not. The league is so mature that for young guys to step in and play all the time there is definitely a learning experience and there’s a learning curve that you have to have.

HF: Steve Passmore, how has he been as a teammate and mentor?
CA: He’s probably been the best guy around for Michael and I. As far as for me, he’s a good guy you can talk to about goaltending. He’s always there to help you, he’s always there to give you some of his hindsight that he’s been through. He spent five, six, seven years in the minors and made his four, five years in the National Hockey League. He’s been through everything and anything you can imagine and I think having him by your side is only going to help. He doesn’t play the same style as I do but the game is so mental it doesn’t matter how you play it as long as you stop the puck.

HF: (Goaltending consultant Vladislav) Tretiak wasn’t around much this year, but have you ever had a chance to talk with him or be coached by him?
CA: Yes and no. When he’s around you try to work with him as best you can. It’s tough when he’s not there all the time because you always need someone to talk with as a goalie. Like I said, it’s so much mental that having a guy there to talk to and go through situations that you’ve been through, it really helps. It’s just unfortunate that he wasn’t around as much as he would have liked to have been. You know, he had some issues over in Russia that he had to deal with but I think anytime a goalie coach is around it’s going to help you mature more and be a better player.

HF: What about (new full-time goaltending coach) Stephane Waite? Have you had a chance to work with him yet?
CA: Yeah, he was with us the last few months of the season there. He comes from the French-style background which, you know, that’s the way the NHL and the modern goaltenders are going. He fine tunes the technicalities of the game. He just breaks it down and he’s there and you can talk to him all the time, whenever you need to, so I think he’s been a great help as well.

HF: Do the Hawks employ a sports psychologist?
CA: I believe they do, yes.

HF: But you’ve never talked with him?
CA: I talk to him occasionally.

HF: If you were going to break your own strengths down, what would you say is your best ability as a goaltender?
CA: I think size and quickness. I try to play as big as I can in the net and I have quick enough feet to play out at the top of my crease and get back for a back door play or a pass across. I think just being big and square. When I’m on the top of my game that’s what I notice, is I’m big and square and patient. It’s hard to say, “He’s got a really great glove,” or, “He’s got a really poor blocker.” I mean, the game is going to such a blocking style that being big and square and patient is the way things are going.

HF: So it’s more of a positioning thing, and then you rely on that glove if you have to?
CA: Right, exactly. As long as you’re in position the reaction part of it takes care of itself.

HF: Is there anything you have worked on lately as something you consider a weakness for yourself?
CA: I think growing and maturing. The mental side of the game and playing day-in and day-out and the rigorous schedule like the National Hockey League has just comes with time. And always working on the technicalities of the game of being square and patient and making sure you’re always in position. You know, one day you can do it perfectly, the next day you get a little lazy or a little bad habit going and all of a sudden it’s downhill and you don’t know why you’re not stopping the puck. That’s where the goaltender coach comes in handy and says, “Well alright, here’s what you’re doing.” And you fix it and the next day you’re fine. So I think just learning your own game and seeing yourself. Figuring out why things are happening and that just comes with time. I mean, having Steve Passmore around was a great help because he’s been around 10 years, 11 years in the pros and he knows his body and his game like that and then he kind of helped and shared with me with that stuff too.

HF: What do you do to prepare on game day?
CA: We all have pre-game skates in the morning. You go there, you do the same routine of getting there, getting a stretch on, and doing the same thing. Obviously the coach is going to do different drills during the pre-game skate sometimes so you have to adjust to that but at the end of the pre-game skate you get into a routine of doing some movement drills, just getting a good feel for your body on the ice. Take a pre-game nap and lunch. Get to the rink two and a half hours before the game and get your sticks prepared. And then mentally just sit yourself down and see yourself out on the ice for the game. And in between periods, sitting down five, ten minutes, seeing yourself out there next period and seeing everything you want to accomplish.

HF: Do you have any of the superstitious behaviors like the left skate first, then right, that type of thing?
CA: Usually everything is left side first. Left skate, left pad, left arm.

HF: That seems pretty common.
CA: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that I have to do something every time. I mean if I don’t do it it’s not that big of a deal. It’s all going on the same spot.

HF: When a goal gets by you, what types of mental exercises or do you have things you tell yourself to get back in the game and not be distracted?
CA: Yeah, anytime you make a big save, or a regular save for that matter, or whatever, or a goal, all that matters is the next shot. Making sure if it is 1-0, make sure it doesn’t get to 2-0. If you’re winning 1-0, making sure it doesn’t get to 1-1. Always worrying about the next shot. You can’t worry about what happened in the past. So you’re always telling yourself, “Next shot, next shot.” Or next play, or next save. Something to keep your mind focussed on the next minute of play that you have to worry about.

HF: I’d imagine that’s tough in the NHL when you have 20,000 people screaming about a save.
CA: Yeah, sometimes. But when you’re in the zone you kind of start blocking that stuff out. You’re out there, just with a bunch of guys, feeling like you’re playing on a pond.

HF: You said about the AHL level once that after you’d proven yourself you started believing you would do well every game and that confidence made you an even better player. And in the AHL this season your numbers were very good (2.11 GAA, good enough for 11th in the league, and a .914 save percentage). Do you feel like you’ve done as much as you want at the AHL level or do you feel you still have more to learn there?
CA: You know in any league you have a lot to learn. You’re always growing and maturing whether it’s the American League or National League. The American League is a really, really good league. Your top line could play in the National Hockey League if given the opportunity. Your top ten goalies in that league could play in the National Hockey League given the opportunity. I think the way the league is going you can learn a lot from either league and the more you learn at that level, the more mistakes you can have in the American League without getting a whole bunch of heat down your neck. So I think the more time you can spend in the American League to make sure you’re really ready to step up and play in the National Hockey League is very beneficial.

HF: Did you have moments in the last two seasons with the Hawks where you felt that same confidence that you feel in the AHL?
CA: Yeah, I think it’s a learning curve. After you get a few wins under your belt and you start playing well the confidence keeps growing and then when you have a bad game you’ve got to make sure that your confidence doesn’t drop because you may not have done something differently that game or you may have, but the guys in the National Hockey League are there for a reason and they can score at will if given the time and opportunities. So really, it’s the mental side of the game of not changing your style or not changing anything. You got to stick with what works, because it worked before. It’s a strange game. It goes round and round in circles believe it or not.

HF: Your first NHL win came 17 games into your career in January of this year and you went all out, getting a 7-0 shutout win against Columbus. And then in February you had a 4-1 victory over the Maple Leafs and you said at the time that that was the best game you’d ever played. Looking back on the season, were those your two best highlights?
CA: I think so. Your first win and shutout in the National Hockey League is going to be a huge one for anybody. You think about all the kids that dream of playing in the National Hockey League and think of all the goalies that dream of getting a win. I can say that I’ve done that and what a great opportunity to have it both, a shutout and a win, that makes it even better. I think that the 4-1 game against Toronto, everything was clicking. The team was playing awesome and I was on my game. When everything comes together it’s really a sweet feeling. And to repeat that feeling, that’s what the good teams do, they get a consistent basis of doing that every night they play.

HF: Do you feel better about having a great result like the 7-0 win, or one where you’ve faced almost 50 shots and you played really well in a close game?
CA: I think anytime that you know you step off the ice and played well. Obviously it makes it better when you win and obviously it’s a team game, so you’re going to feel better when the team wins than when you lose. I mean if you stop 50 shots and you lose 4-1 you can’t exactly be too happy. You kind of ride the waves of the team with ups and downs and when you play well you know you played well, you don’t need to be walking around the locker room with your head up in the air, you need to stay even keel and know that it took all 18 guys on the ice for you to get that win, it’s not an individual thing.

HF: You were originally drafted by the Stanley Cup runner-up this year (Calgary, 1999). Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you had been in the Flames system these past few years?
CA: No, I think what’s done is done. I can’t change what happened in the past. I have no idea where I’d be today if I would have signed with Calgary. For all I know I could be done with hockey, you never know. Or I could have been the backup. You could sit there all day long and make scenarios up, but…

HF: You just worry about what you can control I guess.
CA: Yeah, like right now. This is where I am and I’m happy to be where I am and there’s nothing I would do to change it.

HF: Did it come down to a contract thing (with Calgary)? You were an OHL goaltender of the year at the time, and then you went back into the draft.
CA: Yeah, I’m not sure. It was, what, three and a half years ago now. Whether it was contract or what not, I don’t recall.

HF: When you were drafted by the Hawks in 2001 (round 3, #73 overall), where did you expect to be in the summer 2004?
CA: It’s hard to say. Obviously you hope high and you think big. Obviously it would have been to be playing for the Chicago Blackhawks as a full-time guy. When you get drafted you have high hopes and you maybe overshoot them a little bit. I think, realistically, to be right where I am is probably the perfect situation. If I could have said that I’d have played 30 games already in the National Hockey League and had 60-some games in the minors I think I’d be pretty happy.

HF: How old were you when you started playing hockey?
CA: I think I was about seven.

HF: And were you a goalie right from the start or no?
CA: No, I skated forward for a couple years. I think the second or third year I rotated between goaltender and defense and maybe when I was 9 or 10, I think, I went to goaltender full-time in the winter, and in spring and summer I skated out just to keep my skating.

HF: How old were you, or what stage were you at when you first realized you had a chance to play in the NHL?
CA: I think when I was probably 12 or 13. You know you’re playing all the travel hockey, you’re going to all the tournaments and what not, and you know that this is what you want to do. Whether you know if you’re going to make it or not, that probably comes a little later when you’re 17 or 18, when you get up to the junior level and you start dominating that. I think when you’re 12 or 13 you realize that this is what you want to do for life, then when you get a little older you realize, “Oh, I can really do something big with this.”

HF: Was there a coach or family member who believed it before you did?
CA: I might have been 11 when I played for Steve Richmond, who played a little bit in the National Hockey League for some years, and he and my Dad talked all of the time and he thought that I had a chance. My Dad has always believed in me which has been great. A good support factor.

HF: I guess being from Illinois, playing for the Hawks at first must have been a sweet feeling as well.
CA: Yeah, it’s really nice. Your family is all really close. You’ve got your old friends from high school that you grew up with who can come watch the games anytime they want to. It’s kind of neat because you can almost live at home and do what you do, play the game that you love, and not have to go very far for it. I’d say that the only thing I probably dislike about it is all the tickets I have to get. That’s about the only thing.

HF: What’s your overall proudest hockey achievement so far?
CA: I’d say getting to where I am and still giving back to the kids. Going to different hockey practices when I have a chance to, and goalie coaching in the summer time. I think a lot of guys when they get to the National Hockey League they sometimes forget about the times when they were kids, and how great it was for a guy like Darren Pang to come out and skate with you for a practice once a month or what not, and kind of give back to the little guys.

HF: Do you play at all during the course of the summer? What do you do to get ready for next year?
CA: I usually take a good month off after the season, just kind of off the ice, not really doing anything and then once I get back into the goalie schools of skating every day, you know, start suiting up in July and August a little bit here. And then towards the end of August, hitting it really hard. My agent (Scott Norton) has got some ice and it’s all his clients that come into town. So you’re on the ice for probably two to three weeks before training camp every day, full gear, everything, going full steam.

HF: What do you hope to accomplish next year in your career?
CA: I hope to finally make it as a full-time NHL goaltender next sea—or whenever the NHL does play again, and hopefully fight for a No. 1 spot.

HF: I’ve got to ask, I’m just curious, you did change the spelling of your last name. Was this to increase the value of your rookie card, or what was the deal there?
CA: No, I went to Sweden when I was sixth grade, so I had to be about 11 or 12 years old, for a hockey tournament. And we stayed with families over there and to remember my time over there, and the good times I had, when I came back from there anytime I had a jersey I just put two S’s on the jersey. I never changed it legally or anything. It was something to remember a nice time, because you know how many times you actually pick up a photo album and look through the photos? It’s kind of a nice remembrance, every time I put on my jersey, to think back at when I was 12 years old and had a nice time over in Sweden.

HF: So it was a tribute?
CA: Pretty much, yeah. There’s no hidden message behind it all it was primarily for a self-thing and it carried on. I never changed it legally and it just stuck with me and then the NHL said I couldn’t do it, so…

HF: What do you like to do with your free time?
CA: I like to go to different car events, whether it’s car shows like the hot rod stuff, Mustang shows, Corvette shows. Go up to the race tracks and watch the races going on every once in a while.

HF: What’s your own car of choice, what do you like to drive?
CA: I own a couple Mustangs, and my Dad is into Corvettes. And I like to play some golf two, three times a week, best I can, whenever I can get out.

HF: Do you have any computer games that you play a lot? Any favorites?
CA: I haven’t actually played a computer game in probably two months.

HF: Too busy?
CA: Yeah.

HF: And finally, is there a goalie past or present that you idolize or have modeled your play after?
CA: I wouldn’t say I model my play after anybody in particular. But I think I idolized Grant Fuhr. I mean he had that great run in the 80’s when I was growing up and he was just an exciting goaltender to watch. I was fortunate enough to meet him in Calgary when he played there that last year of his career. So it was kind of nice to finally meet him. I mean, I always grew up wearing No. 31 because of him, and I still wear 31.