Matt Anderson never lost hope of making it to the National Hockey League, even after he turned 30, which is an almost unthinkably advanced age for a rookie. "I think age is just a number," he said.
There are times when he still feels as if he is 18, as he was when he graduated from West Islip High School and went off to play junior hockey for the New England Coyotes. On Tuesday, his heart felt the same exhilaration it did when he was 4, skating on a pond in Brightwaters, or 10, when he began taking serious hockey instruction at The Rinx in Hauppauge.
It was on Tuesday that he really did make it, becoming the oldest Devil to make his NHL debut since 1989, but who's counting? Yesterday, before he earned his first assist, during a 5-4 overtime loss to the Islanders, he still felt like a kid; a happy kid -- no matter how long this call-up from the minors lasts.
As he prepared for Thursday night's game, he still felt like a kid, a happy kid -- no matter how long this call-up from the minors lasts.
"There have been a few bumps in the road, but that's what makes you appreciate this that much more," said the forward, who endured season-ending surgeries in his first two years at the University of Massachusetts, two concussions as a pro and the occasional internal question about why the heck he kept hanging on.
He had no goals or assists against the Bruins, but the game was far from pointless. "It healed a lot of wounds, that's for sure," he said. "In the second period, I started to settle down. You get back to, 'OK, I've done this before. It's my 352nd professional hockey game. At this stage, if I don't know what I'm doing, something is wrong.' "
"It was fabulous," said Rosemarie, who helped support her son's hockey by working in her husband's dry cleaning business and driving a school bus. "There's just something that comes from deep in his soul. He kept pushing and pushing to follow a dream that he has had all his life."
Said Thomas, "There were so many emotions. We had to hold back tears the whole time."
They both recalled that a neighbor had given skates to Matt and how father and son went on the pond. "We just kind of picked it up together," Matt said.
Thomas would pick him up at the bus stop after kindergarten class and they would go to Ice Time, a rink in Babylon. "We'd hope nobody was there in the public session so I could bring my stick and puck on the ice," Matt said.
His dad credits his son's hockey coaches, including former Islander Gerry Hart and Aleksey Nikiforov.
Nikiforov is a former pro in the former Soviet Union who has guided Anderson's former youth teammates, Mike Komisarek (also of West Islip), Chris Higgins and Matt Gilroy, into the NHL. "For the last 10 years," Anderson said, "he has been my right-hand man."
Now Anderson works with conditioning coach Frank Dolan in Islip.
"I'm really starting to see some gains, even at this stage of my career," the rookie said. "At 30 years old, I still feel like I'm gaining a little extra pop and a little extra jump on the ice."
Age is just a number, as Thomas Anderson can attest. His wife was waiting for him to drive to Prudential Center Thursday. The NHL rookie's dad, soon to turn 60, was on the ice in Bethpage, playing a pickup hockey game.