John Anderson never doubted his chance would come.
He just had to be very, very patient.
After coaching in the minors for 13 seasons – and winning five championships – Anderson finally landed a coveted NHL job when the Atlanta Thrashers announced him as the fourth coach in franchise history Friday.
Anderson was an obvious choice after leading the Thrashers’ top affiliate, the Chicago Wolves, to the American Hockey League title. In fact, general manager Don Waddell didn’t start the interview process until the Wolves had beaten Scranton-Wilkes Barre in the Calder Cup finals on June 10.
Still, Anderson wasn’t taking anything for granted after being passed over for jobs in Anaheim, Toronto and Boston. After Waddell made the offer late Thursday, the new coach returned to his hotel room and cried.
“Sometimes you question yourself,” the 51-year-old Anderson said. “But I really think things happen for a reason. Being in the minors for 13 years made me a better coach, a stronger person, a better person. I thank my lucky stars for all those years.”
Anderson and Waddell spoke on a conference call from Ottawa, where the Thrashers were preparing for another potentially watershed moment in their nine-year history: the NHL draft Friday night.
Atlanta had two picks in the opening round, including No. 3 overall. Waddell was expected to pick from two highly rated defencemen, Drew Doughty and Zach Bogosian. Los Angeles was projected to take one of them at No. 2, assuming Tampa Bay selected centre Steven Stamkos with the top overall pick.
The Thrashers have plenty of work to do after finishing far out of the playoffs with the league’s third-worst record. They have made the playoffs only once since entering the league in 1999 and have never won a post-season game.
“This is a new day, a new era for our franchise,” Waddell said. “To be able to bring John on board is very exciting, especially coming off the Calder Cup championship. We had a tough year last year, but our reward is we get to draft a very good player tonight, someone who will hopefully be with us in the very near future and with this franchise for a very long time.”
Anderson takes over for Waddell, who served as interim coach most of last season. The Thrashers dumped Bob Hartley after losing their first six games and went 34-34-8 the rest of the way to miss the playoff by 18 points.
Atlanta won the Southeast Division in 2007 but never seemed to recover from a first-round playoff sweep by the New York Rangers.
Anderson, who played in the NHL for a dozen seasons with Toronto, Quebec and Hartford, had plenty of playoff success as a minor league coach.
He won a Colonial Hockey League championship with the Quad City Mallards in 1997 and spent the last 11 years as coach of the Wolves, winning two Turner Cup titles when the team was in the International Hockey League and two more after a shift to the AHL. Anderson’s regular-season coaching record is 506-283-99, and his playoff mark is 105-60.
He guided to the Wolves to the playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons in Chicago.
“It was pretty obvious he would be our first choice,” said Waddell, who also interviewed Thrashers assistant Brad McCrimmon and was thought to have strong interest in former Tampa Bay coach John Tortorella.
Waddell said he was especially impressed with Anderson after attending about a dozen AHL playoff games.
“One thing that came from watching the games was how he adapted on the fly,” the GM said. “If something wasn’t working, John would change the system. John would react and get the team to change immediately and play that new style. You can’t do that unless you’ve got them prepared to play that way.”
After the Thrashers balked at Hartley’s harsh style, Waddell also wanted someone who could maintain more harmony in the locker room.
“One thing that kept coming back up was how much the players loved playing for John,” Waddell said. “He treats them like men. They look forward to coming to the rink. That’s a big factor for the players. You want them to have fun.”
Anderson wasn’t taking any role in Friday night’s draft, conceding he still must familiarize himself with the Thrashers roster. But he knows there’s plenty of work to do with a team that gave up more goals than any other and ranked 20th in scoring.
“I like to be aggressive on the puck,” he said. “I always want to attack the puck. If the puck is in the other team’s zone longer than it’s in yours, you have a better chance of winning.”