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03/20/2005 6:50 AM - Kip Miller is back in the saddle after being out of action for several months

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Watching Kip Miller before a faceoff is like watching one of those scratchy old westerns where the hero was usually outnumbered, trouble awaited in every saloon and the villain always wore black.

There’s Miller looking over his shoulder like a sheriff worried about a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.

There he is motioning to his teammates to assume defensive positions, suggesting that he’s circling the wagons when he’s really going to head the bad guys off at the pass.

He’s the trail boss who’s not afraid of going face-to-face with an old nemesis, the crusty veteran who may not be the quickest draw, but has been down this path so many times before that not just any buckaroo is going to beat him.

If the Griffins are going to avoid the sun setting on their season, it’s veteran players like Miller who are going to have to ride to the rescue.

Of course, he’s not going to tell you this any more than a cowboy is going to take a bow after capturing an outlaw with a $500 bounty on his head.

As Miller is quick to point out, one guy isn’t enough. “It’s everybody doing the same thing and doing it well,” he says. “It’s a lot of hard work and if you look at our team, we do work hard.”

Miller is no stranger to Griffins fans, having played here during the
2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons between NHL stints with Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. He spent the last two seasons with the Washington Capitals.

“I think this team is geared toward the playoffs,” he says. “We’ve got more of a grind team than we’ve had in the past when I was here. It takes a lot of grunt work to win in the playoffs. It’s not the pretty plays that win a series.”

In other words, championship teams have to be able to win ugly. When Miller joined the Griffins right after Christmas, things were just plain ugly. Not that he helped matters much at first – he might as well have been swimming in quicksand.

“Coming back was harder than I expected,” he says. “It was everything:
conditioning, timing, the speed of play, shooting, passing, getting used to contact again – everything.”

It didn’t help that the Griffins were playing likea bad episode of F-Troop as the organization struggled to find enough healthy bodies to fill a lineup decimated by injuries. Talk about The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. . .

“We’ve had a lot of injuries, so there have been a lot of changes,” he says. “I haven’t played on the same line from one weekend to the next and that’s huge. It’s tough for everybody.”

It’s been especially tough on a guy like Miller who’s been accustomed to playing Tonto to Jaromir Jagr’s Lone Ranger in recent years, first in Pittsburgh and, later, in Washington.

Although he concedes their relationship has been overstated in the media, Miller would be the first to admit that he has welcomed the opportunity to play with a superstar of Jagr’s caliber.

“I like playing with him,” he says. “A lot of guys find it hard to play with a guy like that, who is very demanding and who can be very emotional – he’s up, he’s down – but I always found it a joy. I never worried about it.”

And so he’s not going to fret about who’s got his back now, because he’ll take the proverbial bullet for the team if necessary.

“There have been games where we’ve been flat-out terrible and didn’t deserve to be in them and yet we ended up winning,” he says. “Other times we’ve taken it to teams and we just couldn’t score. That’s just the way it is.

“Maybe we’ve already gone through our little skid and now we understand things a little better.”

For the second straight year, Miller has watched a former teammate lose his coaching job, first Bruce Cassidy in Washington, then Danton Cole in Grand Rapids.

“The first guy to go is always the coach,” he says. “If that doesn’t work, then you start shipping guys out and bringing in new players. It’s the only other option that you really have.”

Miller may not know what it’s like to have people yelling for your scalp, but he’s played in enough places to know what it’s like to feel like you’re constantly on the run from the law.

Over the past 15 seasons, he’s seen action with eight different NHL teams, including three separate stints with the Islanders. He’s also played for minor league teams in six more cities.

In fact, his greatest thrill as a pro came in Denver a decade ago when he won the Turner Cup in the IHL. “We were really good – we didn’t lose but two games in the playoffs,” he recalls. “We had a really solid team.”

Miller isn’t about to draw comparisons between that team and the Griffins, although there is one thing that he thinks could bode well for his current teammates. “It was a lockout year, so there’s one similarity,” he says. “It would be nice (to win again).”

Although currently without an NHL contract since Washington has chosen to go with a younger lineup, Miller is not ready to ride off into the sunset just yet, even as he approaches his 36th birthday.

“It’s always worked out all right when I’ve come here to play,” he says. “Bob (McNamara, the Griffins’ GM) has always been nice to me that way. I’ve never been pressured to sign with the parent club.”

If that makes Miller a hired gun, he cherishes the opportunity. Being a wanted man has its advantages – people notice. “I’m happy to be able to play here – we’ll see what happens,” he says.

Like others, he has no idea what the future holds.

“I think the NHL is going to change, no matter what. It’s going to get younger. If the owners get a salary cap like they’re talking, why wouldn’t they play all their draft picks and get rid of all the old guys?”

Miller knows it’s possible that he might find himself without a job come fall. “I still think I can play at the NHL level,” he says, dismissing any thoughts of going to Europe to play. “This is the type of hockey I know.”

Besides, he’s not sure how much longer he wants to be away from his family. “It’s been tough the last five years,” he says. “I’ve been basically living by myself. My son (Skylar) grew up when I wasn’t around, so when I get home now, it’s time to play.”

Still, he admits that it’s hard to give up the dream. “I would like to play a couple more years, although my wife might not,” he says. “If (the
lockout) goes on too long, obviously I’m going to be too old.”

If anything, the time away from the game taught Miller that returning to the ice after an extended layoff isn’t as simple as it sounds. “I think those guys who went to the Motor City Mechanics realize it’s not that easy,” he says.

“Even playing at a level below this is hard. You can workout all summer, but it doesn’t matter. Skating is skating, but playing in a game requires another level of intensity.”

And so, for the near future, Miller is perfectly content to stay in Grand Rapids. “I love it here,” he says. “I’ll keep playing here as long as I can.”

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