The Hockey Gods smile on Craig Anderson in Detroit

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“Nope,” said Craig Anderson. “No idea.”

After playing in his 693rd NHL game and picking up his 313th win, and spending another 15 minutes or so on the trainer’s table stretching his 41-year-old body, the goaltender for the Sabres and the oldest player in the NHL had been asked if he was aware of the significance of the occasion. Anderson shook his head. He smiled and shook it some more upon learning that Wednesday night in Detroit marked the 20th anniversary of his NHL debut.

“Wow,” he said. “Is it really?”

On the final day of November in 2002, Anderson's unlikely journey began. He relieved Blackhawks starter Jocelyn Thibault and made a handful of saves in Chicago’s loss to the Kings. Asked what he would have said had you told him that night in Los Angeles that he’d still be doing it 20 years later, Anderson said, “No chance.”

“No chance. I had a tough go my first few years. Just trying to get to the NHL was a struggle, I had to go through a lot. First year pro was not a good one for me. My mind was all over the place as a 20-year-old kid playing pro hockey,” he said. “To be this far just shows, I guess, perseverance and dedication to the craft.”

On the final day of November in 2022, Anderson started for the Sabres in Detroit, a place where he played frequently growing up. The 41-year-old, wearing No. 41, made his 41st and final save of the night when he denied Lucas Raymond, who’s young enough to be his son, in a shootout to lift the Sabres to a 5-4 victory over the Red Wings. How fitting: win No. 313 for Anderson came in the 313.

Another shake of the head.

“Sometimes you can’t explain stuff,” he said. “It’s supposed to happen the way it happens and you just go for the ride and enjoy the moments. Like I said, things happen for funny reasons, and it’s more a coincidence than anything else.”

Fine, but coincidentally poetic. That Anderson is even still playing is a marvel. That he’s playing as well as he is, with a .918 save percentage through 10 games, is almost impossible. To put his stamina into perspective, Anderson entered the NHL three years before soon-to-be Hall-of-Famer Henrik Lundqvist and is still manning the crease three years after him. The season in which Anderson debuted, Peter Forsberg won MVP, Henrik Zetterberg finished second for Rookie of the Year and Joe Thornton was a Boston Bruin.

Head, shake.

“Gosh, I mean, who woulda thunk it, right? It’s just the nature of the game," Anderson said. "I think I was kinda waiting for (Zdeno) Chara and Joe to leave. I actually texted Joe this summer, I’m like, ‘Hey, you playing one more? Don’t let me be the oldest guy.’ He’s like, ‘Ahh, you’ll be fine.’”

The NHL’s oldest player last season was Chara, who beat Thornton by a couple years. Then both retired and left the mantle to Anderson. Thornton and Anderson, whose families have settled down in Florida following their stints with the Panthers, send their kids to the same school and watch them play on the same youth hockey team. Well, Thornton watches. Anderson is still busy playing, at least for a few more months. His kids are ages 8 and 11 and the tug of family life is growing stronger.

Then he glances toward the Sabres’ locker room.

“But this a family, too,” he said. “It’s tough, I’m torn. At the same time, I can’t be selfish for too much longer.”

On nights like Wednesday, his urge to keep playing is understood. The 41-year-old looked 21. He stopped puck after puck, sometimes on his feet, other times sprawled on his side. Like the great goalies of yesteryear, Anderson still improvises. He lets himself have fun. He plays, now and then, like he’s tending goal for the Chicago Young Americans in the Michigan National Hockey League against Little Caesars or Compuware or Fraser. “This was in the ‘90s,” he said. “We came through Detroit a lot.”

As if he didn’t already feel old, Anderson also happens to play on one of the NHL’s youngest teams. Well more than half the players on the Sabres' roster are 25 or younger. Defenseman Owen Power, who led all skaters in ice time Wednesday night, and forward Jack Quinn, who won the game with a dazzling move in the shootout, are Anderson’s age combined. Anderson laughed and said his teammates both keep him young and remind him that he’s old. They laugh at him in practice, he said, when he plays like “an old-school goalie."

“And then I go and use it in the game sometimes, so you can’t get mad,” he said. “They don’t get mad because they see it in games, versus guys that mess around in practice and then in the game look completely different. I play the way I practice, and that’s something I’m trying to pass onto the guys.”

In the first period alone Wednesday night, Anderson made a couple of saves standing up. That is, without dropping to his knees at the first sign of trouble. He made the save of the game in the second by sliding across his crease, stacking his pads and robbing Dominik Kubalik with his glove. “Ohh, that is a thing of beauty,” former goaltender Darren Pang said on the TNT broadcast. “A lot of goalies can’t make that move right there.” Most wouldn’t even try it. Which is precisely the reason Anderson does: unorthodox is unpredictable.

“Read and react,” he said. “So much of the game now is butterfly, butterfly, butterfly and it becomes monotonous. And there’s so much video out there, but if I don’t know what I’m doing, how can someone scout me? That’s kind of the way I look at it. I was dead in the water in that play and I wasn’t going to be able to push over there in butterfly except for maybe falling forward with a glove up. He had the whole net, so I kind of rotate and roll, cover a little bit more net, force him to make a better shot and you never know what can happen.”

Shades of Dominik Hasek, for the team where he became The Dominator, in the city where he finally won a Cup.

“No one knew what he was going to do next and he found a way to stop the puck,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t pretty, but he stopped it and he was arguably the best to ever do it. Those saves make it fun. You kind of giggle a little bit and then it’s right back to business.”

Down the road, Anderson has ideas of getting into coaching. He already considers himself something of a “player-coach” for the Sabres. First, he said, he wants to “pass my sports lessons onto” his kids. He re-learned an old lesson Wednesday, that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. After Anderson denied Raymond to start the shootout, Detroit's next two shooters hit the post. Of course they did. On the 20th anniversary of Anderson’s NHL debut, it’s no coincidence the Hockey Gods were on his side.

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Featured Image Photo Credit: © Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports