Soldotna brothers put plans on ice to help in Olympics

Posted: Tuesday, December 04, 2001

"Who would have thought a couple of kids from Soldotna would end up being involved in the Olympics?" asked Valerie Popper-Anderson, a 1987 graduate of Soldotna High School who now lives in Salt Lake City.

Certainly not Valerie, who will take a turn carrying the Olympic torch as it makes its way to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games.

Neither did her husband, Matt Anderson, or his brothers Nate and Deryk Anderson -- all three of whom are heavily involved in the production of the ice hockey portion of the Winter Olympics.

Matt, Nate and Deryk Anderson are three of five sons of Dr. Nels and Carla Anderson of Soldotna. All three brothers played hockey for SoHi and set various records during their years on the team.

After graduating from SoHi, they attended Utah State University in Logan, Utah, set even more hockey records and became captains for the team. Now the brothers have vital roles in producing one of the biggest sporting events in history.

"Through this whole thing I've learned to smile and keep going ahead," Nate said. "The thing is the world is open and ready for someone ready to take a chance. Don't be afraid to take a chance, and great things will happen."

Matt's job is to oversee all the results and statistics for the ice hockey events. His department is in charge of tracking and recording all the reams of numbers that come from a hockey game, like shots taken, assists, penalties, face-offs, etc. That information is recorded by his teams into a computer program and is relayed to everything from the scoreboards at the hockey arenas to worldwide radio and television broadcasts.

"Anywhere that information gets seen, it's my job to get it there," Matt said.

Deryk volunteers as a statistician for ice hockey, so he works in Matt's department. Specifically, Deryk will record face-offs and shots taken during the Olympic hockey games. He is scheduled to work at 25 men's and women's games.

Nate is the ice hockey coordinator for the Olympics, which entails many different responsibilities. He is the key liaison for all men's ice hockey teams, so he is responsible for coordinating training and competition schedules. He oversees the fields of play at the two training and two competition arenas.

As part of that responsibility, he schedules maintenance and repairs to the rinks and is in charge of the maintenance crews.

His other responsibility is to train and develop the timing and scoring team that will run the clocks and record points during the games. This aspect of his job is similar to Matt's, except Matt works more with computer systems, Nate said.

Valerie has been an active Olympic volunteer for more than five years, and her involvement paid off with a chance to carry the torch.

She first got involved in 1996 when she volunteered to help out when the torch was carried through Utah for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ga.

When some preliminary Olympic events were held in Salt Lake City in 1998, Valerie jumped at the chance to volunteer again. Since then, she's been promoting the Olympics in the community and schools, Matt said.

Valerie participates in an education program in Salt Lake City schools where each school studies a country that is sending a team to the Winter Olympics. The school she volunteers in is studying China. Valerie has a friend in Beijing she visited in May to get the ball rolling for the program.

Several companies sponsored nomination campaigns over the past year to choose people to carry the torch to Salt Lake. Since her husband worked for the Olympics, Valerie was ineligible to be nominated.

The Salt Lake City Organizing Committee made 25 torch-bearer spots available to people ineligible for the other campaigns. Matt nominated Valerie for a position and she was given one in September. She will carry the torch sometime in January, although she doesn't know the exact date or location yet.

"I nominated her because I thought she needed an opportunity to be recognized for all the stuff she'd done in the community and schools to build momentum for the Olympics," Matt said.

Valerie was the one who got everyone else involved in the Olympics, he said. She got Matt to volunteer with her in 1996 and 1998 to pick up garbage at a preliminary hockey event. No one organizing the event knew how to play hockey, so Matt went from being a garbage collector to running the event, he said.

At that time, Matt was coaching the hockey team at Utah State, which both Nate and Deryk played on during their years at the school. Through his coaching involvement, he met the commissioner of the Rocky Mountain Collegiate Hockey Association, became his assistant running statistics and the Web site for the league and eventually became the commissioner himself.

Through those connections, he met the director of ice hockey for the Olympics, Dan Moro, and was asked to supervise the teams of volunteer statisticians during the Winter Games. The position was basically what he does now, except it started as a volunteer position.

The job developed into a full-time paid position after a year, but two other people were hired to do it. So Matt was offered another position tracking results for short track speed skating and figure skating for the Olympics.

After eight months, one of the people hired to oversee ice hockey results was reassigned, so Matt jumped at the opportunity to transfer back to ice hockey and was hired for the position.

"I found it a cruel twist of fate that I was doing figure skating," Matt said. "Now I'm very happy to be back doing ice hockey."

Nate and Deryk both got involved through Matt as statisticians for the 2000 Sledge Hockey Championships for the Paralym-pics. Nate was a senior at Utah State when he started volunteering.

During that year, Matt traveled with Moro to the 2000 World Ice Hockey Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia. Moro mentioned he was looking for someone to be the hockey coordinator. Matt was not interested in the position but mentioned Nate's name and helped line up an interview for him. Nate was hired for the job in June 2000, one month after graduating from the university.

"I was actually really surprised that I got offered the job," Nate said. "From the beginning I was told that there were over 300 applicants. Some had National Hockey League and other experience. It was something for a kid from Soldotna who went to Utah State and played club hockey, but I loved the game and apparently did OK on the interview."

Deryk has been training for his position as an ice hockey statistician for a year and a half. The position had to start training earlier and put in more time than other volunteers because hockey, next to figure skating, is the most high-profile event at the games, he said. So far he's worked at the 2000 Paralym-pics Sledge Hockey Champion-ships and Junior Ice Hockey Championships that happened last November. Both events were run like the Olympics will be to catch any kinks in the system and to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Deryk is a senior at Utah State this year and has to balance his volunteer statistician position with his schoolwork.

"Actually it's been really nice, a lot of teachers are helpful letting us out of class when need to go, since it's a once in lifetime opportunity," he said.

"At the Olympics it will be a little more stressful because it will be much more involvement than training has been. Hopefully, the professors will be nice about it. It's my last semester and it's a pretty easy one for me academically, so I kind of lucked out that way.

"So far the biggest sacrifice is the training is in Salt Lake and I'm in Logan, which is an hour-and-a-half drive."

Matt's and Nate's jobs take up a significantly larger chunk of time, especially as the games get closer. Nate works between 50 and 60 hours a week and during test events he was putting in 70 to 80 hours. During the Olympics he will be working 18 to 20 hours a day with one morning off after every five or six days.

"I hope my wife understands that I won't be home," Nate said. "But I'm really looking forward to it, to see the plans you've set out coming into place is something very exciting for me.

"NBC just released some information and their projected worldwide viewers for the gold medal game is 2 billion people. Compare that to game seven of the Stanley Cup Finals that had 7 million viewers. It has been stated by several groups now that this is going to be the largest and most publicized hockey tournament in the history of the game.

"The heart beats a little faster, and we're getting excited."

Matt's hours are equally hectic.

"After Thanksgiving he's not allowed any personal days off," Valerie said. "He's looking real fried."

Matt will get Dec. 24 and 25 off, but after that he's expected to work seven days a week until the Olympics are over, he said.

The workload may get immense at times, but the Andersons' jobs come with a fair amount of perks for such lifelong hockey enthusiasts. Matt and Nate have gotten to travel around the country and the globe to watch some of the best hockey teams in the world play the sport they love.

Matt and Nate got to meet some of their idols in the game as well, players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

"I've gotten to meet the most amazing people," Matt said. "I'm on a first-name basis with the people that run hockey. It's the types of contacts a couple small-time boys in Soldotna would never have imagined would take place.

"I get to stay in the same hotels as the athletes. Things that you would just dream about as a young hockey player. So, for us, it really is living in our own Olympic dream. We weren't good enough to make the team of players, but we get to contribute in other ways, so that's very exciting."

A big thrill for Nate was going to Germany in May and being within 100 feet of Wayne Gretzky for most of the trip, Nate said. Nate met Gretzky but said they are trained not to ogle over the players so Nate just said "hello" and "good luck in the Olympics."

"It's a dream job, I can't believe they gave it to me," Nate said. "One of the things I tell the kids on the hockey team here is that any job that sends you to the international world hockey championships and the NHL championships as part of your work is a good one as far as I can tell."

Deryk doesn't enjoy quite as many of the perks his brothers do, but he still enjoys being involved.

"It's exciting just to be a part of it while I'm here and to enjoy the experience," he said. "I get to work the gold or bronze medal game, and I get to see every team that's there at least once."

The opportunity to work together has been another benefit of the Andersons' involvement in the Olympics.

"When I'm doing my job, I see them almost all the time because we're all hockey so they're kind of my bosses in a way," Deryk said. "It makes it more fun to experience it with each other. We show up and someone will say 'Here come the Anderson brothers again.'"

"We've always had a healthy sibling rivalry, I think," Nate said. "It was a challenge to work with Matt at first, because I wasn't quite sure where I stood with him, since I took over some of the responsibilities that he had when he was a volunteer. Shortly thereafter he got hired on with figure skating and I teased him incessantly.

"In December, he got reassigned to hockey and from there we've been working together and it's been great. He has very strong computer skills and knowledge on specific rules of international game, so it's been nice to have that resource."

Working together at the Olympics has been a reunion of sorts from their days playing together on the Utah State hockey team. Matt originally started the team during his sophomore year and recruited Nate and Deryk to come to the school when they graduated from SoHi.

Matt, who is six years older than Nate, coached the team from 1994 to 1996 and had graduated by the time Nate and Deryk arrived. But once they did, he returned to the university for a year to play with his brothers.

Since they all played center, they didn't get a chance to all play together until one game where the coach put Matt and Deryk on wings so all three could play on the same line together for the fun of it. The team went to the national tournament and finished fourth that year.

The whirlwind experience the Andersons are involved in won't be over until March at the earliest, since they all have signed up to work at the Paralympics following the Winter Olympics. After it's all over all three plan to take a breather then move on to other pursuits.

"After a 36-hour nap I'm going to get a fly reel out, head up to the Green River and go catch some trout," Nate said.

Nate's wife, Allison, is a school teacher so Nate plans to take it easy until she is done with the school year before he moves on with his career. He would like to get a business degree in graduate school and start a career in developing a biotech company.

Deryk will graduate from Utah State in the spring and plans to go to medical school. But first he will take a take a year off and maybe coach a youth hockey team or even travel to Europe and play hockey in a Swedish pro league.

Matt hopes to merge his computer science degree and love of hockey into a future profession. Right now he is thinking about looking for a job in the NHL or in Canadian or U.S. hockey. He hopes to someday develop a NCAA program in western universities, as well.

As far working in the Olympics, all three believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"The Olympics, I found, is built for single people to work," Matt said. "I have two kids and have been married a little over 10 years. It's very taxing on my family. But for me it's been the chance of a lifetime, and that's the reason I'm doing it.

"I don't know how three boys from Soldotna ended up playing vital roles in producing an Olympics for the ice hockey tournament, but we're excited to be a part of it."

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