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Anderson's long NHL journey leads to Colorado

by Larry Wigge
Craig Anderson could have a chip on his shoulder over never really being given an opportunity to be a No. 1 goaltender until now. Instead, he whimsically talks about the twists and turns in his life.

"If I wasn't a goalie, I'd probably be a race car driver. They only have to make left turns," Anderson laughed before stopping 38 of 40 shots in leading the Colorado Avalanche to a 5-2 season-opening victory over the San Jose Sharks Oct. 1. He followed that up with a 3-0 triumph over the Vancouver Canucks two days later, flawlessly stopping 33 shots before suffering a setback in a 3-2 loss to Nashville Thursday.

Anderson, a 28-year-old netminder from the Chicago suburb of Park Ridge, Ill., had some pretty good seasons in junior hockey at Guelph before the Blackhawks made him their third-round pick, No. 73, in the 2001 Entry Draft. In his second season in the Chicago organization, Anderson posted a 15-11-5 record and a microscopic 1.94 goals-against average for AHL Norfolk.

But as all goaltenders discover quickly, stopping speeding pucks is more than just being a target in a shooting gallery. At just 24, Anderson was still waiting for a chance to play in the NHL midway through the 2005-06 season.

"People talk about obstacles you have to overcome in your life to get to the NHL," Anderson said. "Mine was like playing tic-tac-toe with a travel agent for 16 days in January and early February of 2006. I went from Chicago to Boston to St. Louis and then back to Chicago.

"It started when the Hawks put me on waivers to send me to Norfolk and I got a call at the airport telling me I should instead get on a plane to Boston. Twelve days later, I was with St. Louis -- for one day -- and then back to Chicago. It was easily the craziest few days of my career."

In June of that year, more twists and turns ensued as the Blackhawks traded Craig to Florida for a sixth-round draft choice. Anderson admitted that some folks might feel like picking up a newspaper and answer a want ad, but it doesn't work that way in sports.

"I admit there were a lot of times when I was playing behind Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago and Tomas Vokoun in Florida where my career seemed like it was on hold, but I never lost confidence that I could play at the NHL level," Anderson said.

Craig took the lessons he learned in watching Khabibulin and Vokoun prepare to do their best and something began to click for him. In 2007-08, he had an 8-6-1 record in his minimal opportunities behind Vokoun. But that included a .935 save percentage and two shutouts. More light began to shine on Anderson's career last season, when at times he played ahead of Vokoun in Florida and had a 15-7-5 record with three more shutouts. His .928 save percentage over the last two seasons ranked as the best in the NHL, ahead of Boston's Tim Thomas at .927.

"(Avs Assistant GM and former NHL goalie) Craig Billington is convinced this is Craig's time to get a chance at being a No. 1 goalie in the NHL," Avalanche GM Greg Sherman said of Anderson. "Craig pointed out how Andy stepped up big-time for Florida last year when Vokoun got hurt, playing well while facing a lot of shots each night. He showed a lot of consistency in his game."

That was a scouting report that made a 28-year-old puckstopper a pretty happy fella when the Avs called on just the second day of free agency.

"I had looked around the League to see what kind of opportunities I might have, and just about the time that I had targeted Colorado, I got a call from the GM telling me I was their first choice, too," Anderson recalled. "You'll never know how good it felt to hear that."

It is often said that goaltenders mature a little later than other positions in hockey, but 28 wasn't close to being too late for Craig.

"The best advice I ever got was from my dad," Anderson recalled. "He always told me, 'Never say never.' And he lived his life to those words. He was the CFO of a company that was in the business of wire and he was still racing cars in his late 30s."

Like most hockey players, the hard-working values of Richard and Holly Anderson (she was in real estate sales) and the encouragement to follow their dreams led to sports for their sons, John and Craig.

"I was your typical kid brother tagging along with my brother, who was five years older than me," Anderson said. "My brother was five years older than me and I would do anything to be involved with him and his friends ... even if it meant standing in front of our garage being the goalie and taking shots off my head."

And this wasn't just some pickup by average athletes. John Anderson was drafted as a middle infielder by the Boston Red Sox and played a number of years in Class A ball.
"I admit there were a lot of times when I was playing behind Nikolai Khabibulin in Chicago and Tomas Vokoun in Florida where my career seemed like it was on hold, but I never lost confidence that I could play at the NHL level." - Craig Anderson
While looks may be deceiving sometimes, goaltenders are a strange breed. And off the ice, Anderson hardly looks like Colorado's latest, best chance to find a solid puckstopper since Patrick Roy retired after the 2002-03 season. That led to a series of goalies that has included David Aebischer, Philip Sauve, Peter Budaj, Jose Theodore and Andrew Raycroft. Now, it's the 28-year-old, follically-impaired Anderson and, at first glance, he looks like a tall (at 6-2) and skinny man incapable of replacing a Patrick Roy.

"I learned a long time ago that you can't try to be someone else or replace a legend like Patrick," Anderson said. "You have to prove yourself everyday at this level. There are no free passes."

Anderson would never presume to put himself in the same light as  Roy, when, in fact, he grew up watching and idolizing the kick saves of Grant Fuhr and Roy.

"Watching those two great goaltenders gave me the itch to be a goaltender," Anderson said. "And fighting to keep my dream of getting a chance to show I could be an NHL goalie made me stronger mentally."

And auto racing?

"I've still got the itch for that, too," he said. "But it's not as strong as proving to everyone that I can be consistent as a No. 1 goaltender in the NHL and keep the Avs in every game this season."

More twists and turns can wait for Craig Anderson's auto racing career long after he's finished with hockey.

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