August 21, 2003 at 9:45 a.m.

Northern Exposure

Northern Exposure
Northern Exposure

His plane is scheduled to arrive in Anchorage Alaska at 12:30 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Don’t be surprised if it’s late. As a matter of fact, everything about Chad Anderson’s hockey career has arrived later than expected, from growth spurts to scholarships, nobody understands the meaning of patience more than he does. Still, as the saying goes, better late than never.

Anderson looks at life in that way. He will be the first one to admit that it bothered him when all of his teammates were getting talked to by college coaches while playing with the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League (USHL). However, he’ll also share with you that he believes it was happening for a reason and his time was approaching fast.

Last September, Anderson’s time and patience finally paid off when he signed a tender to play college hockey with the University of Alaska-Anchorage (WCHA), becoming the first Chisago Lakes boys hockey player to crack Division One hockey, in the toughest conference in the nation no less.

Yes, his time had definitely come, but you would never know it by sitting down with the 6’2, 215 pound defenseman. Anderson shrugs his shoulders when young kids come up to talk hockey or get an autograph. To him the magnitude of the situation still hasn’t even begun to sink in. Once you learn about his journey to the top, you’ll know why.

Getting Started

Right from the beginning, it was obvious to everyone that Anderson had a gift on the ice. Growing up on Chisago Lake in Chisago City, he had ample time to sharpen his skills.

“We lived on the lake and we skated,” remembers Shelley Anderson, Chad’s mom and biggest supporter. “We shoveled the rink and we skated every day. We watched the Peltier boys. They skated at St. Paul Johnson and they got us interested. Everyone wanted to be like them.”

Chad offers a more humbling account of how he got started.

“I was a figure skater! I remember pushing a rocking chair on the ice,” smiled Chad. “I remember watching Mike Chrun skate on the lake with my parents and it looked like so much fun. That’s when we went out and got my first pair of skates. I honestly never thought about being a professional or playing college hockey when I started. I just played to play. I had fun playing with all of my friends, that was the reason I did it.”

Dressed with hand-me-down equipment, Anderson spent night after night on the lake, sometimes skating well into the morning. The extra hours showed. Once he got involved in school hockey, Anderson was a step ahead of the rest.

“He was the best player I’ve ever coached,” commented Ken Orwoll, one of Anderson’s youth hockey coaches. “His speed, size and his ability to see the ice was amazing. He had all of the tools you look for.”

Darren Blue agreed. Blue, former head boys hockey coach at Chisago Lakes had his eye on the prodigy ever since he took over in 1996. Blue, a former college defenseman with Mankato State, was convinced that Anderson had the ability to make it the next level. He just had to do one thing first.

“When I was a freshman in high school, I remember sitting on the bench and coach Blue told me he was going to move me back to defense. He told me that if I play defense, I have a shot at playing this game for a long time. I was like whatever,” remarked Anderson. “Growing up, I played forward and defense and I liked playing “D” because you get more ice time. If it meant me having a shot at playing hockey for a long time, I was all for it.”

Although nobody knew it at the time, the gamble was about to turn to gold.

Anderson thrived at the blue-line. By the time he was a sophomore, Anderson had become one the best all-around players in the Rum River Conference. Still, thoughts of college hockey were a long way off. After all, how many college scouts do you see in the stands every Tuesday night in the Rum River? Chad’s mom Shelley summed it up best. “We knew he was good but we didn’t know if anyone else did.”

Then, for a second time in Chad Anderson’s career, Darren Blue stepped in.

Blue sent Anderson’s name into the Minnesota Model Hockey Camp. The program was a collection of the best players from around the state, and where the talent went, the college coaches followed. One of the coaches in attendance was John Hill, current head coach at Alaska-Anchorage University. Anderson was selected, springing another chain of events into action.

“I first noticed Chad when I was an assistant at the University of Minnesota three years ago,” remembered Hill. “He came to the model camp and I made a mental note to watch this kid’s career- he really was a mature hockey player.”

“When he was selected, that’s when he first started catching people’s eyes,” said Shelley Anderson.

“You see all of these college coaches there and each team is coached by one,” added Chad. “I remember one guy coming up to me and introducing himself. He told me to keep working hard. I think that’s when I first started to realize that I have a shot at playing at a higher level.”

Decision Time

Like a freight train, Anderson’s career was continuing to pick up momentum and he knew it. In 2000, Anderson cruised through his junior season, posting 15 goals and 16 assists in 23 games played. The effort earned him an All-Conference selection as the Wildcats finished second in the conference.

With every point and award that came his way, thoughts of college hockey got stronger and stronger. All of a sudden, he began to think the unthinkable, leaving high school to play junior hockey.

In the summer of 2000, Anderson went back to the Model Hockey Camp before traveling to Bozeman Montana to catch up with Darren Blue again, then head coach for the Bozeman Ice Dogs, a Junior- A program out of the America West Hockey League. Everywhere he went, the writing was plastered on the wall.

“I didn’t get any letters from anyone. The Green Bay coach (USHL) called and wanted me to sign a tender with the team but I never heard from him after that. Then Blue asked me to tryout with Bozeman. I made the team and they really wanted me. About a week later, Blue called again and said that Jim Hillman from Tri-City was going to call.”

The Tri-City Storm was a new organization in the USHL. Formally the St. Paul Vulcans, head coach Jim Hillman had developed a reputation of recruiting Minnesota talent. Chad was on his list. After a quick visit to Chisago City, Anderson found himself trying out for the Storm in Omaha, Nebraska.

He made it.

“I wasn’t even thinking about making it. With all of the camps I went to, I just wanted to see if I could play with them. I wasn’t even thinking about leaving high school until I made Tri-City,” said Anderson.

“I had about a week to decide. I think it took me about three days to make my decision. I thought it was the best thing for me to do. I was told by a lot of people to look out for myself. I figured my family was always going to be there either way. I would miss my friends but it was something I had to do.”

It had become increasingly clear that if Anderson wanted to make the jump to college hockey, playing juniors was the only way.

“We knew he had to go and if it didn’t work, he could come back,” remarked Shelly Anderson. “At least if he went, we could never look back and say we didn’t try, we would’ve regretted it. He had to make a move. He needed to get with coaches and kids that would push him and develop his talents.”

Rude Awakening

Junior hockey was a entirely different world compared to high school. Darren Blue summed it up as, “Sixty minutes of intense, no let down play. The speed of the game is a major adjustment. There is never a let down.”

The new life style was more than a little overwhelming for the 17 year-old.

“The first year was definitely a maturing year. You learn to live with a whole new family, learn how to handle yourself differently,” commented Anderson. “I had to learn how to manage my time and be responsible for my actions. I realized who I was because I had to look out more for myself.”

While finishing his high school credits in Kearney, Nebraska, Anderson’s day started at 7:30 a.m. every morning. From school, to the rink, to the library, his days did not end until late into the night. Sometimes even into the next morning. To make matters worse, the Storm were struggling on the ice, giving Chad little room for error.

““He was disappointed. When he first came, he had to sit the bench a lot,” said Shelley Anderson. “It became a game of mental toughness. The way the coaching staff coached, if he made a mistake he would sit. He never talked about leaving, he knew he had to go through with it.”

“My expectations were just to play and be a impact player, that’s what I tried to do. I just wanted to help the team,” commented Chad. “But, no, I never regretted making the move. Hockey wise, I didn’t regret a thing. I think people have to push themselves and not be content with where they’re at sometimes. I pushed myself because I wanted more.”

By the end of the year, while the team continued to struggle, Anderson had worked his way up the depth charts, playing in every game but three. Offensively, Anderson finished the 2000-01 campaign with two points, both coming on assists. However, besides an offer from Air Force University, major Division One hockey was still at least a year away.

“I remember growing up and watching the Gophers and other teams play on television. I never saw Air Force play on T.V., they’re all supposed to be fighter pilots,” smiled Anderson.

“When I left (high school) to go down there, I said I was only going to play one year, that’s all I thought it would take to impress somebody,” continued Anderson. “Towards the end of the year, I said I wasn’t coming back but I didn’t talk to any college coaches. Everybody said it takes at least two years to make an impression so I changed my mind and went back.”

Patience, patience, patience.

Leading the way

Going into his second season with the Storm, Anderson was excited about a brand new year, but by the time try-outs started, he was given a rude awakening. His team’s already turbulent relationship with Tri-City head man Jim Hillman reached a whole new level.

“He was an intimidator and the team didn’t respond well to that. His two biggest role models were Bobby Knight and Larry Bird,” remarked Anderson. “I just decided to keep working hard. It was difficult because when try-outs started, Hillman said that only two defensemen were guaranteed spots and I wasn’t one of them. It kind of made me mad so I wanted to prove myself out on the ice.”

He did just that, playing in all 60 games for the Storm that season, scoring three goals and adding nine assists. However, it’s what Anderson did outside of the scoresheet that made the biggest difference to his game. Challenged by Hillman to become more of a leader, Anderson accepted the call. He was later voted team captain for the 2002-03 season, putting college hockey on hold for another season.

“The problem with the team my second year was that the team wasn’t having fun. Once I realized that, I decided to come back and try and make it better. It had to be better,” said Anderson. “I never thought I would be the team captain for a junior team. It was a great opportunity. That’s when I realized how far I had come. To me it was all about having fun.”

“Once he had that “C’ on his jersey, he took it to a whole new level,” said Reggie Simon, Storm assistant and former Alaska-Anchorage defenseman. “He knew he was coming back for his third year. Being voted by his teammates made his realize that he had their respect and that meant a lot to him.”

“Going into my final year, I knew it was going to be my last so I trained a lot harder and came into camp in great shape. I made my presence known right away,” continued Anderson. “I think having that pressure, knowing that the team is counting on you made me a better player. It made me work even harder.”

Taking it to another level

Chad Anderson had put all of his pucks in one basket. Anderson’s third year in the USHL was going to be his last, and still, the phone was silent.

Determined to make his own destiny, Anderson trained harder than ever before, hitting training camp in the best shape of his life. Now standing 6’2”, 210 pounds, the third year defenseman had taken his game to another level, again. Just in time for the Buc-Bowl.

““In the USHL, the Buc-Bowl is what its all about. It took me two years to realize that you have to make a presence right away. I trained harder and it paid off. I had a great tournament.”

The Buc-Bowl is the premiere Junior-A preseason hockey tournament. The event runs three days giving coaches and scouts from around the world a first hand look. During the 2002 Buc-Bowl, one of the coaches in attendance was Alaska-Anchorage head coach John Hill.

“I remember seeing him play in the Buc-Bowl last year, playing three games in a row and I really noticed a jump in his step,” said Hill. “We decided to throw a line in the water and see if he’d bite.”

It was the call Anderson had been expecting for three years.

““I got home and John Hill called me. I knew who he was right away. He said that he was calling from the Tampa Bay Lightning training camp in Florida,” remembers Anderson. “I thought if he’s calling me from there, this guys means business. It was an awesome feeling to talk to a guy like that. I let him know right up front what I was all about and things progressed from there.”

Still, Alaska- Anchorage? The dream had always been playing for a Minnesota school, close to home, for a winning program. Nonetheless, putting his reservations aside, Anderson decided to go on an official visit, but even John Hill himself didn’t like his chances of hooking the hometown product.

““In the WCHA, I understood that he wanted to play in Minnesota with the U of M, St. Cloud, Mankato, Duluth,” remarked Hill, in his third season as head coach of the Seawolves. “Like I said before, I wouldn't have been surprised if he would’ve turned us down. When you’re in your third year of the USHL, you start to worry about your future. When other schools decided to wait, we didn’t. We told him right away, we didn’t need to wait. I think he appreciated that.”

“I remember saying, maybe this is something for me. You experience something for a couple of days like I did and you begin to think that maybe it’s not such a bad idea. I really started to like the idea of going there the more I thought about it,”said Anderson.”

“You can go to any school you want whether or not you’re going to play and they want you makes a difference. You want to go to a team that wants you.”

In the end, that’s all it took, just being wanted. Anderson made the marriage official in September, signing onto play with the Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves for the next four years. Back in Tri-City, the excitement of a new beginning led to his best year yet with the Storm, striking for eight goals and 20 assists, finishing second on the team in scoring among defenseman. Almost more important than that, Anderson played in all 60 games, making him the all-time leader in games played for the Tri-City Storm.

““I starting having more fun after I signed,” remarked Anderson. “A lot of pressure was lifted off me. Hockey always comes easier when you’re relaxed. I started to make more plays and started to see things coming more. I couldn’t relax at all on the ice before. Once I signed, I was a totally different player.”

“Tremendous weight off his shoulders,” added Shelley Anderson. “He just worked through it. He knows he is going in the right direction. He’s more relaxed, especially on the ice.”

For now. His next challenge is a little more than a month away.

What’s next

On October third, Chad Anderson will take to the ice for his first Division One college hockey game.

“I just want to go up there and be an impact player,” commented Anderson. “I’ve realized that I’m not a goal scorer, that’s not my job. My job is to get the puck to the goal scorers. I want to make those plays and be consistent.”

Consistency is something the Seawolves need desperately. Last season, after winning their first game of the season, Anchorage went winless the rest of the way, finishing the season with a record of 1-28-7, including a 16 game losing streak to finish the season.

“We expect him to play right away,” said Hill. “I’m not worried about how he’ll adjust at all. This is a kid who made a commitment when he was a senior in high school to go to a better training ground in the USHL. Lucky enough, we start out with an exhibition game and then two with Alaska-Fairbanks on the road and then we play in the Frontier Classic, so by the team we play our first WCHA game, he’ll already have five college games under his belt.

“He’s a very mature kid,” Hill continued. “Yah know, some of the things you go through in the life, you grow up a little faster. Chad’s been through some things and he’s very mature for his age and a level headed kid. He’s pretty focused so adjusting shouldn’t be a problem.”

Letting it all sink in

Still, now nine months after Anderson signed with Alaska-Anchorage, he smiles every time someone mentions the Seawolves, good or bad.

“You watch the Gophers play on television and I’m going to be playing against them,” smiled Anderson. “When you’re a little kid, you’re awestruck when you see one game in Mariucci or whatever, I have four years. Still, I’m never really satisfied with myself and I don’t see how big of a deal it is right now. Maybe when I’m older it will all sink in.”

If it hasn’t for him, it has for everyone else. From Mites to Squirts, he has shown the younger generation the door.

“It’s something for those kids to look at,” remarked Darren Blue, now assistant coach for Minnesota State-Mankato (WCHA). Everyone knows where he has gone and where he’s going, but everyone also knows that he’s the hardest worker out there. If you work hard, you have a chance to make it and reach your goal.”

“That’s awesome but I don’t like being the center of attention. It’s cool that the kids look up to you and see that it can be done,” remarked Anderson. “Someone told me that everyone who plays in the WCHA gets a chance to play pro hockey whether its in the NHL, ECHL, AHL, or somewhere in Europe. Playing professional hockey has always been my dream. If I can do it, anyone can.”


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