Not long before the Chicago Wolves began preparing for the 2014-15 season in earnest — training camp opened Monday – head coach John Anderson was asked to provide three words that best describe him.
But Johnny being Johnny, the loquacious 57-year-old couldn’t quite limit himself to three.
“Probably patient,” he said. “Fun, because I love to laugh. And serious, because I like to win.”
Considering Anderson has captured four league championships in his 12 years with the Wolves and has 702 regular-season and 119 postseason wins to show for his 16 years as a head coach — yet his words put as much emphasis on laughing as winning — shows how much he prizes fun and enjoying what he does.
Anderson’s priorities help to explain why he returned to the Wolves last season after a five-year absence. He departed for his first National Hockey League coaching opportunity after directing the Wolves to the 2008 Calder Cup championship. He spent two years as the Atlanta Thrashers head coach and two years as a Phoenix Coyotes assistant (with a one-year break between).
In essence, Anderson’s NHL run from 2008-13 wasn’t much different than a high school senior going off to college and returning to the family home with a diploma in hand. Both the young adult and the family evolve during those valuable years, but the person who went away changes more.
When Anderson rejoined the Wolves in July 2013, he wasn’t quite the same guy. Not at first, anyway.
“As an organization, it’s way more stoic (in the NHL),” Anderson said. “It’s way more business-like. And the reality is, I don’t care how much you pay a player or whether it’s just kids hockey. It’s still fun. It’s a game. That’s why we do it. When you take that stoicism…I think it ruins it for me, quite honestly. I hate it.
“And you have to give and take a little. They call it a job for a reason. But if you’re really doing it the way you want to do it and you’re having fun, then the job becomes way, way, way more fun.”
The Wolves didn’t get off to a blistering start last season as Anderson, two new assistant coaches, and a roster full of new players became acquainted on and off the ice. Anderson always has been known as a players’ coach, but he wasn’t always communicating like he did in seasons past. Wolves director of hockey operations Gene Ubriaco, who has been one of Anderson’s confidants and closest friends since he joined the franchise in 1997, wasn’t afraid to call him out.
“I had to break some stoic habits,” Anderson said. “In December, Gene said to me, ‘What is wrong with you? You’ve changed.’ And I knew what he was talking about right away. I thought, ‘We won doing it the way I did it before, so let’s try to loosen up a little bit.’ ”
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but the Wolves owned a 12-12-0-2 record on Dec. 14 and were out of the playoff picture. By season’s end, the Wolves boasted a 45-21-5-5 record, won the Midwest Division title, and claimed the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference.
“In the end, Johnny came back and we finished third out of 30 teams in the league,” said Wolves general manager Wendell Young. “Third out of 30 is a pretty good year. It’s evident you can still win and have fun at the same time and enjoy the game.”