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After long wait, Anderson lands coaching gig in Atlanta

by Dan Rosen

The Atlanta Thrashers kept their search for a head coach in-house when they selected John Anderson, who led the organization's AHL affiliate in Chicago on a championship run this past season.
OTTAWA, Ont. – Turns out Don Waddell had his man the entire time, but Atlanta’s general manager had to wait for John Anderson to finish another championship run with the Thrashers AHL affiliate in Chicago before hiring him.

Waddell happily watched as Anderson led the Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup championship earlier this month, and he rewarded the 51-year-old with his first head coaching job in the NHL by announcing his hiring Friday, roughly four hours before the start of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.

Waddell said he informed Anderson late Thursday night that he was offered the job and the two worked out the details of the contract and got it signed this afternoon inside Waddell’s hotel room.

The Thrashers pick third Friday night and could very well land a franchise defenseman in that spot.

With the hiring of Anderson as well on Friday, Waddell is hoping June 20, 2008 becomes one of those watershed days in franchise history – one that could rank up with the day the Thrashers selected superstar forward Ilya Kovalchuk first overall in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and the night in 2006 when they clinched their first-ever playoff berth.

“It’s a new day and a new era for our franchise,” Waddell said.

After playing a dozen seasons in the NHL with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers from 1977-89, Anderson has been a minor-league man.

He spent the last four seasons of his playing career in the minors and has coached the Wolves since 1997, when they were in the now-defunct International Hockey League. He won IHL titles in 1998 and 2000 and then secured his first Calder Cup in 2002, the Wolves’ first season in the AHL.

Anderson has 587 minor-league hockey wins on his resume, including 506 as the coach of the Wolves for the past 11 seasons. In all, he has won five titles at the minor-league level and his teams missed the playoffs only once in 13 seasons.

“I’m so excited that I would like to get down in the office and get going right now,” Anderson said. “I know it’ll be a smooth transition because I have worked with the people in Atlanta the last six years. Without their support, the Chicago Wolves wouldn’t have done so well. It’s going to be a very easy transition and we’re looking forward to putting our noses to the grindstone.”

Anderson may be new to the area behind an NHL bench, but he’s certainly acquainted with the League and some of his new competition.

In the AHL, Anderson coached against current NHL coaches John Stevens (Philadelphia), Bruce Boudreau (Washington), Mike Babcock (Detroit), Michel Therrien (Pittsburgh), Randy Carlyle (Anaheim) and Alain Vigneault (Vancouver).

“Hockey is hockey,” Anderson said. “The NHL is just a bigger and faster league and it’ll take a little time to catch up; but certainly coaching in the American Hockey League for a long time, you learn a little bit of patience.”

Anderson said he has interviewed for NHL jobs in the past, namely for assistant posts in Anaheim, Toronto and Boston. However, he now says he’s happy none of those teams came through with offers because he wouldn’t trade his 13 years in the minors.

“Sometimes you question yourself more than you doubt the process, but things happen for a reason,” Anderson said. “Me being in the minors for 13 years has made me a better coach, a stronger person, and a better person; not just in the game but outside the game. It’s not like I was in purgatory down there. It was a wonderful experience.”

Still, Anderson has been waiting for this day for a long time.

“Yesterday I was so happy that I left the room and cried,” Anderson said. “I couldn’t believe it. You can tell how excited I am to do this.”

Waddell took over behind the Thrashers bench this past season after the Thrashers got off to an 0-6 start under Bob Hartley, who the year prior led the franchise to its first playoff berth. Atlanta got swept by the New York Rangers in the first round that season.

In the dual role as GM and coach, Waddell couldn’t get the Thrashers back in the playoffs for a second-straight season. Atlanta finished 14th in the Eastern Conference with 76 points (34-40-8).

Waddell never had the urge to hire Hartley’s replacement mid-season.

“It’s a very tough situation for a first-year NHL coach to come into the League partway through the season,” Waddell said. “What I really needed to do was assess our team. I made the coaching change and talked to John about it. I told him we would stay status quo through the rest of the year, but he is a strong candidate.”

When it became apparent the Thrashers weren’t going in the right direction this season, Waddell swung the biggest deal at the trade deadline. He shipped soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh in exchange for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito, who was Pittsburgh’s first-round pick last year, and the Penguins’ first-round pick in the 2008 Draft.

As it turns out, that became the 29th pick because Hossa helped the Penguins reach the Stanley Cup Final. However, the Thrashers got younger in that deal and Anderson thinks he has a pretty clean canvas to work with in Atlanta.

Anderson won’t have much say in what the Thrashers do with their picks tonight and he will lean on Waddell’s decision making until he feels comfortable enough to give his own assessment of the Thrashers.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” Anderson said. “I don’t see hardly any junior hockey because in the American League we have an 80-game schedule and I’m lucky enough to get to watch 12 Atlanta games. For me to give my opinions of what the team needs now would be silly.”

Anderson’s minor-league coaching resume certainly resonated with Waddell.

During his 13 seasons coaching in the minors, including one year in the Southern Hockey League and another in the Colonial Hockey League, Anderson’s teams won 50 or more games four times and 40 or more 10 times.

He is the Wolves all-time leader with 506 wins and has another 105 in the playoffs. He won 306 of those games in the AHL as the Wolves joined the league in 2001, when they became Atlanta’s top minor-league affiliate.

Waddell and Anderson also worked together with the San Diego Gulls of the IHL from 1992-94 when Anderson was a player/assistant coach and Waddell was the vice president and general manager of the fledgling franchise.

“John’s strategies and technology of the game is very strong,” Waddell said. “He’s a players’ coach. Players love to play for him. We talked to a lot of players in the process and they all said the same thing. He has an up-tempo style and that’s something we’re looking forward to watching in Atlanta.”

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