As Craig Anderson managed his morning curl after his 309th NHL win, his two sons, Jake and Levi, rushed across a row of benches inside KeyBank Center to get a better view of the Buffalo Sabers practice.
Jake, 11, and Levi, 8, stand near the glass at its icy end, watching their father try to stop each of his teammates from scoring. And when Anderson returned to the dressing room to wrap up the work day, his biggest fan was waiting for him in the hall.
It’s fun,” Anderson said with a smile. “They kind of see an inside look at what professional hockey is all about. They’re the number one fans, so getting them to be able to see me do my job and compete, it’s a special moment for myself and them.”
As Anderson continues to pursue his NHL dream at the age of 41, his boys are old enough to hold lasting memories of their father stopping high-speed shots from the best players in the world. Jake has used Bauer’s position to design two sets of pads Craig will wear this season — one royal and gold, the other red and black — and criticizes his dad’s post-game play. Levi was astonished a few years ago when he learned that his father was playing online video games with Alex Ovechkin, who was then a teammate of the Washington Capitals.
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“They are always so excited to go to the games,” said Nicole Anderson, Craig’s wife.
A life of hockey is the norm for the Anderson family, but his decision to return for a 20th season in the NHL required sacrifice. Nicole and their two sons still live in the family home in Parkland, Florida, an arrangement that requires imaginative travel planning, regular video calls, and the dedication of a loving husband willing to do anything to help her husband continue his unlikely journey.
“I don’t think I would be where I am now were it not for her influence, you know, for what she brings to the table for the family,” said Craig. “At the end of the day, she is at home, raising the kids allowing me to be kind of selfish and chasing my dream of continuing to play. So I think I owe it for a very long time. I will work on that within the next couple of years.”
No matter what Craig said after his first season at Buffalo, Nicole saw all signs that he would continue playing. His strict exercise regime began shortly after the family returned from vacation in Costa Rica. He chooses swimming as a form of cardio, waking up before dawn every morning to jump in the pool at 6:30 a.m.
Once Anderson had some work on the ice and felt the physical strength, he expressed to Nicole a desire to continue playing. Shortly thereafter, he signed a one-year contract to return to Buffalo.
She hadn’t considered the possibility of his retirement since the Covid-19 pandemic shut down professional sports in March 2020, which ended a brilliant 10-year career with the senators in Ottawa that included a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and a three-month span where he took time off to be with Nicole while Treated for a rare type of throat cancer.
“I don’t ask about retirement anymore, because I don’t think he ever wants to stop unless his body tells him to stop,” said Nicole, who was declared cancer-free in May 2017. When this summer came, I saw him exercising every day, and I watched him from the sidelines, and I thought, “Yeah, he’s not going to stop.”
“And for me, I just can’t make him stop. This is the lifestyle I’ve subscribed to for years and that’s all he’s used to. So, I’m glad he can carry on like he does. I tell him, ‘I don’t know how you do this every day.'” I know that My body can’t do that.”
Anderson spent the 2020-21 season among the Taxi Capitals and a 23-player roster, eventually climbing to the Stanley Cup playoffs. However, rumors circulated around the league that he was ready to retire until he signed his contract with Sabers during the eleventh hour of free agency on July 28, 2011.
At Buffalo, Anderson has proven that he can still play at a high level and has emerged as an important leader in a dressing room full of young players learning how to succeed in the NHL. He was the voice of reason during the hiatus when everyone needed guidance and involvement from his experience in the league.
Wisdom gained through victories and upheavals taught him how to apply his knowledge and ironic sense of humor to help his teammates. But his season was paused in November when a collision in San Jose resulted in a severe neck injury that kept him out of the squad until late January.
“I was a little nervous last December because personally, I didn’t want to see him come down with an injury and that’s what it ended up with,” said Nicole. “I mean, I never told him that, but I was kind of nervous. But then when he recovered and I saw the chemistry with the players, I realized it was something special. … We were in a lot of teams, but this is a very special group.”
Upon his return, he gave Anderson the opportunity to win each of his last 25 games, scoring 13-10-2 with victories over Toronto, Vegas, Minnesota, Vancouver, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Carolina. His consistent play in curling, combined with his leadership on and off the ice, helped Buffalo score 0.625 points over the final two months of the season. Once again, he defied the odds and helped his teammates exceed expectations.
Along the way, Anderson achieved a long-awaited feat. On March 10, by stopping 30 of 31 shots against the Golden Knights, Anderson became the sixth American-born goalkeeper to score 300 wins. His family was present and many of the people who helped him along the way recorded the video messages that were played on the KeyBank Center scoreboard after the match.
For Anderson, a native of Park Ridge, Illinois, the achievement was another peak reached in a professional career that was thought to have ended at the end of the junior season in 2001-02. Four years later, he made concessions and was claimed three times. At 25 and with 56-game experience in the NHL, he was sent back to the Palace. But his 300th win had a different meaning for Nicole.
“I have a lot of feelings about it,” she explained. “I was so happy he made it to 300. I knew this was a personal goal for him. And in the back of my mind, I knew he took this leave to be with me during his cancer treatment. Oh my God, I’m in tears right now.”
“I know how special it was to get there. Knowing that he took those three months to be with me, watching him achieve the goal he was pushing for, it meant the world to me. He wasn’t selfish. He gave up on what he loves to do to support me and to reach this achievement.” It’s kind of like good things come to those who wait.”
With consecutive Sundays leading into the season, Anderson boarded a plane in Buffalo on two weekends to fly home for 24 hours to spend as much time with the family as possible. Anything to be around the kids and help Nicole.
Jake and Levi play baseball and flag football, along with a long list of other after-school activities, and while Craig keeps stopping pucks, Nicholle shuttles the kids back and forth.
His family gave him a point of view. Years ago, he would come home from a bad game and play video games for hours to try and distract him. Those fears are gone. No matter what happens on the ice, he knows that Nicole and the boys at home are waiting for him.
“You learned a lot in your freshman year, and obviously trading, there’s a lot of adjustment as well,” Krebs said. “For me, this year, I wanted to feel calm.”
Every offseason, and whenever he’s at home, Anderson indulges in fatherhood. He and the boys shoot basketballs down the lane, ride bikes, spend hours playing small sticks, and skate together at the local rink, and he runs the Levi’s baseball team. If Anderson doesn’t coach his boy teams, he’s offering to help whoever he can in any way he can. He’ll run the throwing machine for batting practice, ignite the floor and cheer the kids up in the lair between bats or turns.
“I was told a long time ago that you can never give back to hockey for what the game has given you,” Anderson said. “And all you can do is try. And that goes for any sport, whether it’s baseball or football. Just being involved in cultivating a love for the sport. I think that’s the most important thing whether it’s baseball or football, are you involved? Are you Able to help kids? I know a lot about baseball, but I think it has more to do with loving the game and seeing kids smile.”
Anderson acknowledged that the distance has been “difficult” over the past two years. And FaceTimes calls his family four or five times a day. He uses an app to watch his kids’ baseball games if he can’t attend. And when Nicole had her first tennis match after picking up on the sport during the pandemic, he was on the sidelines cheering her on.
“Oh my God, I was so nervous,” she said with a laugh. “I never get nervous. It was cute.”
Nicole gave up her career as an elementary school teacher to support Craig and raise their children for a life of hockey. When this chapter is over, he plans to do everything possible to “let her chase her dreams and her emotions, whatever they may be.” Until then, they are dedicated to doing whatever is necessary to balance hockey and family.
“I’m so happy for it, and I’m so glad it’s still going on,” Nicole said. “And yes, we have two active kids, but we make it work and I don’t know life without it anyway. So, if he’s happy, the family will be happy. We support each other.”