about some famous families and certain things come to mind: the Kennedy clan, of course, is famous for politics; the Jacksons and Osmonds, strangely opposite, are both known for their affinity for music; the name of
Barrymore bestows a birthright into acting, from Lionel, Ethel and John to Drew.
And so it is that the Miller family of East Lansing is known for hockey — specifically Michigan State University hockey.
Ryan Miller, 22, a rookie goaltender who has split this season between the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the AHL’s Rochester Americans, is a third-generation MSU hockey player.
His grandfather (Butch), father (Dean), uncle (Lyle) and five cousins (Kip, Kevin & Kelly Miller and Curtis & Taylor Gemmel) all played hockey for the Spartans.
Believe it or not, Ryan says it was not a foregone conclusion that he would play at MSU — not any more than it was apparent that his future would rest on his ability to play between the pipes.
“I wasn’t going to be disowned if I didn’t go (to State). My parents have always backed everything their children have done,” he says, before adding with a chuckle, “as long as it’s legal, of course.” In fact, it was only with some reluctance that his father gave into his wishes to become a goaltender at the age of 8.
“He wanted me to learn to skate a little better first, but he made a deal with me,” Miller says. “Playing goalie is an expensive position, so he said, ‘If this is what you want to do and you’re going to do it to the best of your ability, we’ll support you.’ When he saw that I really liked it, he let me go with it.” As things have panned out, it looks like his father made a pretty good investment.
A fifth-round pick of the Sabres in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, Miller had an unprecedented career at MSU. In less than two seasons, he broke an NCAA record for career shutouts that had endured for 69 years.
Miller posted a record 26 shutouts in his three years at State, where he went 73-19-12 with a 1.54 goals-against average. He won the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore, becoming only the second goalie to take home the prestigious honor.
Last August, Miller decided to forego his senior year in order to sign a two-year deal with Buffalo. “I talked it over with my dad, but it was basically my decision,” he says. “I felt it was best for my career.” Even so, Miller wasn’t in a rush to leave MSU.
“As a business major at Michigan State, I understand the concept of leverage and negotiation,” he says with a grin. “By all indications, Buffalo wanted me to come out. At the same time, I still had a lot of ties to the school and it was a place where I could have a lot of fun and finish off my collegiate career.” Miller has long had a soft spot in his heart for the Spartans. He has been going to MSU games as long as he can remember, especially once his family returned to Lansing after spending a couple of years in California.
“My grandparents have had MSU season tickets — right behind the bench, eight or nine rows up — for the longest time,” Miller says. “I remember sneaking around the locker room as a kid, being in awe, thinking this is great. This is what I want to do.” Miller remembers watching State in the days when cousins Kip and Kevin were playing at the school. He can recall going to Madison Square Garden to see their brother Kelly play against Wayne Gretzky. “My goal was to go to Michigan State for the longest time, but all of a sudden I realized that you could make a living playing hockey,” Miller says. “It was an inspiration, seeing them all have NHL careers.” Miller seems to have come to his position quite naturally. Certainly his tall and lanky frame (6-foot-2, 160 lbs.) suggests that if he was going to make a mark in hockey, it was going to be as a goaltender. It didn’t hurt that he also had the right mindset.
“I was always really defensive-minded, even as a forward,” he says. “I hated to get scored upon.” He developed his game while playing for the Soo Indians in the North American Junior Hockey League, where he began working with Terry Barbeau, a goalie coach with whom he still consults occasionally.
“I was able to learn my trade with his help,” Miller says. “I worked with him through juniors and college, and he helped me a lot — mainly with positioning and technique.” Countless hours on the ice provided Miller with the fundamentals that would allow him to excel at MSU and, finally, this season at the pro level.
“Everything we did was along the theory of muscle memory, where we’d repeat something until I got right and got it right consistently,” Miller says. “We did drills for months straight, working on them twice a week for a half-hour to an hour each time.
“I remember thinking, ‘What’s going on? Are we going to do anything different?’ He didn’t explain the theory behind things until later. All the time, he was just drilling it into me.” Miller says his reactions in goal were soon based on reflex. “I don’t have to think about things, they come naturally,” he says. “All I have to worry about is reading plays and making sure my hands catch up with the shots.” His rookie season has been a bit of a roller coaster. After opening the season with a 0-7-2 record in Rochester, he won three of his next four starts to earn a recall to Buffalo.
He made his NHL debut on Nov. 19 against the New Jersey Devils, dropping a 3-2 decision. “I was a little anxious,” Miller recalls. “We were winning 2-0 going into the third period when they started picking up their game. I think I figured out where I was — nerves definitely played a part.” Miller earned his first NHL win three days later against the Columbus Blue Jackets. “It was an odd game — we won 5-4,” he says. “But it was a validation that I could play at that level.” Sent back to Rochester, Miller reeled off a 7-1-2 stretch with a 1.97 goals-against average in December when he was named AHL Rookie of the Month.
He was recalled again by Buffalo on Dec. 31.
A 1-0 overtime loss to the New York Islanders was a big confidence builder, especially after going head-to-head with Chris Osgood for 60 minutes. Miller made five straight starts in net for the Sabres. “I started to see some strides after a little bit of a struggle,” he says.
Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff alternated Miller and Martin Biron in goal for several weeks before Miller was reassigned once again to Rochester just prior to the Americans’ trip to Grand Rapids at the beginning of March.
“I think my mindset is still of a starting goalie — I don’t want to be a backup or the guy who wants to share the crease,” he says. “I think that’s why they sent me back to Rochester. They want me to play.” For a kid out of a college, Miller shows remarkable maturity. It’s clear that he’s kept a good attitude. He knows how to relax, whether it’s listening to music or playing the guitar.
Miller, it seems, is a bit of a music junkie. He jokes that he could get busted for all the songs that he’s downloaded from Kazaa, one of the internet’s most popular music file-sharing sites.
“I like to make my own mixes and burn CDs,” says Miller, who enjoys a diverse blend of rock. He rattles off names such as Incubus, Our Lady Peace,
The Tragically Hip and Matthew Good Band. “I like stuff I can relax to, but I also like obscure Canadian punk rock as well.” A budding guitarist himself, Miller enjoys bending the strings to the songs of Dave Matthews, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson and John Mayer, among others. He owns an Eric Clapton model Fender Strat electric (“Great to wail on,” he crows) and a Takamine acoustic with a Sante Fe body (“It’s really nice, but acoustic is for the girls,” he muses).
Miller started playing the guitar about six years ago. Music is an interest that he shared with Steve Jackson, his former teammate and roommate at State. Jackson, in fact, quit the hockey team with the intention of becoming a singer-songwriter in the Dave Matthews tradition.
“He’s got about two albums worth of demos sitting in a notebook,” Miller says. “He’s moving to California where he’ll hopefully go into the studio.
He’s invited me to sit in with him this summer.” Miller has no real music aspirations himself, but he sees music as a great release. Fooling around by himself on the guitar, he can make all the mistakes in the world and they don’t end up on the scoreboard.
Even so, he’s interested in improving himself, just like in hockey.
“I want to make my mistakes now instead of five years (from now) when we’re making a (Stanley) Cup run in Buffalo,” he says, knowing that six Vezina Trophies weren’t enough to keep Dominik Hasek with the Sabres.
“Every player is defined by the Stanley Cup, no matter how many personal awards you might win,” he says. “It defines everything.” Winning the Cup is an honor that has eluded his cousins. It’s one case where Miller wouldn’t mind breaking family tradition.
Getting through his introduction to the NHL is the first step toward reaching that goal.
“Overall, I think I’ll be able to look back and say that it’s been a pretty successful rookie campaign,” Miller says. “My original understanding was that I was going to be in the minors, so the fact that I got to play in the NHL as long as I did is a bonus.” Miller refuses to look at his time in Rochester as a demotion.
“I wasn’t going to take (being sent down) as an insult,” he says. “This is a great league to play in and learn. I just wanted to do the best I could this season. I think I’ve learned a lot.”