Matt Anderson grew up surfing. In New York.
You might not think of the Northeast as a hotbed for surfer dudes. New York is no Hawaii when it comes to the waves, but if the opportunity is there, Anderson is going to take full advantage of it.
“The winter time in New England is actually really good, we get some good surf,” he said. “It’s pretty cold but you get used to it. It’s just kind of what you do. Surfing is something you do no matter what the conditions, you just want to be out there.”
That attitude is not too different from the one with which he approaches his hockey career. Undrafted at the conclusion of his final season at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, Anderson was given the opportunity to sign an amateur tryout contract with the Chicago Wolves. Abruptly leaving school and close friends the final weeks before graduation wouldn’t thrill most college seniors, but Anderson saw his opportunity, and wanted to take full advantage of it.
At first, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
“I had a couple classes I had to finish up, and I actually had to go back and take a final at one point,” Anderson recounted. “But it was something I wanted to do. I was here for about three weeks before I even played and it was starting to wear on me a bit, but once I got the opportunity to play it made it all worthwhile.”
The team must have agreed: Anderson scored the game-winning goal in Game 2 of the 2007 West Division Semifinal - his first professional game. Three days later, he assisted on the series-clinching, overtime goal to send the Wolves to the West Division Final.
“I think that you’re kind of like the neglected child a little bit in a sense,” he smiled of being an undrafted player on an AHL deal. “But I think it’s made me work that much harder. In life you play with the hand you’re dealt. You don’t worry about what you don’t have, you worry about the things you do have. My strength is my work ethic and that’s what’s gotten me this far.”
That work ethic has enabled him to distinguish himself as a reliable player for the Wolves, and earned him a spot on the roster for 11 games of the 2008 playoff run. In fact, he was on the ice June 10th when the Wolves clinched their fourth championship.
“I attribute my success now to a few things, and one is the opportunity the Chicago Wolves gave me by just letting me play,” Anderson said. “In professional sports sometimes you might not get an opportunity to play. Fortunately, I’ve been able to get in there and make the most ofit and I’m really thankful for the opportunity the Wolves have given me.”
Wolves Senior Advisor and Director of Hockey Operations Gene Ubraico thinks Anderson has earned every opportunity the team has given him.
“He’s a guy who came out of college and made up his mind to be a pro, and is set on doing that,” Ubriaco said. “He has worked his way up from the fourth line, to the third line to now the second line. He is a hard worker and he does whatever you ask him to do. He wants to be the best he can be all the time and it shows.”
Anderson agrees that hard work is one of the keys to his success.
“I think I’m a pretty blue-collar guy. That’s something that was kind of instilled in me through my family,” he said. “Through my hockey career and my life I’ve had a couple setbacks and the thing that’s really helped me to excel is to keep working, keep my head down and keep going.” The setbacks he is referring to actually came prior to his pro career. But rather than letting those relegate him to an after-work men’s league, Anderson pushed on to crack the pro ranks.
“I had a shoulder surgery that was challenging after my freshman year (of college). Then, after I sat out a whole season, I came back and played about 20 games before I broke my ankle,” he recounted. “I was off my feet for about six months and that was a really big setback. So, I learned how to work hard and pursue what I wanted to do. I knew that I didn’t want to give up on hockey.”
Anderson wisely used his rehab time to hit the books.
“During that time I was able to work hard on my academics, which gave me the opportunity to major in math, which I don’t think I would have been able to do if I hadn’t had my injuries because the work load would have been too much. I guess everything happens for a reason.”
This season, injuries and shuffling of lines led Wolves Head Coach Don Lever to pair Anderson with forwards Joey Crabb and Tim Stapleton. The line exploded offensively, with Anderson and Crabb already surpassing their previous career bests in every offensive category, and Stapleton nearing his career mark in goals. As Anderson said, everything happens for a reason.
“I think the chemistry that we’ve got together keeps getting stronger and we’re beginning to get difficult to defend,” he said of the Crabb-Stapleton line. “With Joey’s ability to protect the puck and Tim’s speed and scoring ability, we all just complement each other really well. It’s really been a pleasure playing with those guys.
“I’ve learned a lot over the past few years,” he continued. “Being around some of these guys – the Jason Krogs, Darren Haydars and Cory Laroses – has given me a little bit of confidence, which helps too. I am slowing the game down for myself and it is allowing my offensive ability to come out. I always knew I had it in me, but the last few years it’s slowly starting to come out.”
As the team heads down the home stretch with 12 games remaining in the regular season, the erstwhile Anderson has made himself an indispensable component of the team’s playoff push, all because of his ability to capitalize on the right opportunities. And when planning for a long playoff run, when injuries, hardship and less than ideal conditions are inevitable, what better character to have on your side than a surfer from New York, whose description of his favorite pastime mirrors his pro hockey career perfectly:
“It’s something you do no matter what the conditions. You just want to be out there.”