Story and photos by Mark Newman
Nobody will ever confuse Kip Miller for a standup comedian, but over the years he has known his share of good lines.
Jokes? No, we're talking hockey lines, the sort that riddle the opposition with scoring opportunities. More often than not, Miller has been fortunate enough to be teamed with players who have enjoyed getting the last laugh.
"When you have a good line, all three guys get a feel of what each other is going to do and where they're going to be" Miller says. "You're not waiting around for the puck. You're feeding off each other. You're reacting."
Miller has been on a roll this year, centering the Griffins' No. 1 line with Petr Schastlivy and either Josh Langfeld or Joe Murphy. Apparently, good chemistry and good timing work as well in hockey as they do in comedy. Schastlivy alone had 16 goals in the Griffins' first 16 games.
"Petr is a good player" Miller says. "He skates hard and he pushes the defense back and that creates more room for me to make the play. Josh or Murphy are willing to go to the net and that takes another guy with them and that creates another space. It's been clicking for us."
It's not the first time Miller has been on a good line. He spent a half-season on a line with Jaromir Jagr when they were both playing in Pittsburgh. The result? Miller scored 10 goals in one 11-game stretch that included 10 consecutive victories, the second-longest winning streak in Penguins history.
"It was the best" Miller recalls. "I had to pinch myself every day. It seemed like everything was going into the net. I got lucky. With Jagr, he'd beat three guys and you'd find yourself standing there with an open net."
Miller had actually started the 1998-99 season in Grand Rapids, but he signed a contract with Pittsburgh during the exhibition season. The Pens started him on a line with Rob Brown and Jan Hrdina.
"We were actually a checking line" Miller chuckles. "We were expected to hit and block shots, stuff I don't really do. Finally, one game we were getting beat badly and the coach bumped the lines around. I found myself on a line with Jagr and Hrdina and good things happened."
It comes as no surprise to learn that Jagr ran the show. "He's more or less concerned about how he's going to perform game in and game out because that's how he's going to best help the team."
Miller finished the year with 19 goals, his highest total in the NHL, but a coaching change and a slow start by the Penguins broke up the successful line early into the 1999-2000 season. "It's part of the game" Miller shrugs. "You adjust."
Ad-libbing was nothing new for the former Hobey Baker winner, who took college hockey's top honors in 1990 as a senior at Michigan State University when he scored 48 goals in 45 games.
Before last season, Miller had played professionally for 13 different teams in nine years. Certainly, he's seen his share of different line combinations. He's had more wings than a hive full of bees.
Asked to name his best line, he answers faster than a Rodney Dangerfield retort. "To me, the perfect line was when I played with Andy Brickley and Niklas Andersson in Denver."
That was the 1994-95 season when Miller registered 106 points in 71 regular season games before leading the Grizzlies to the IHL's Turner Cup championship, personally scoring 15 goals in 17 playoff games.
"We'd all think the same, plus we could all pass" Miller recalls. "Brickley could go into the corners and dig out the puck and make the soft passes. Andersson could really skate up and down and play both ends of the rink, My job was to be the finisher."
Miller ended up in Indianapolis the following season, where he played with current Griffins winger James Black. Both scored 32 goals playing together that year, but they struggled when paired earlier this season.
"You definitely know when things aren't clicking" Miller says. "Sometimes you play with guys who are too much alike. Plus we were a little younger and a little faster when we were in Indy."
Hockey is a funny business. One line can make you look like scoring whiz; another line can make you look like a bum. Good players do their best to even things out.
"The fact is you're not always going to score" Miller says. "On those days, you've got to make sure the other team doesn't score on you."
But when things are clicking and the team is winning, it's pure jocularity. "It's always fun when you're winning and things are going well" Miller says. "It's fun coming to the rink every day."
Miller has had fun at the rink ever since he was little. With his father running a rink and two older brothers already playing hockey -- Kelly and Kevin, both former Griffins -- he was practically born to play the game.
"Having two older brothers made me want to play even more" he says. "I was always hanging around the rink, wanting to be a hockey player as long as I can remember."
Kelly is six years older and Kevin is four years older, so Kip was just starting college when his brothers were already playing in the NHL. "I got to watch a lot and learn a lot from them" he says.
From the start, the sibling rivalry among the brothers proved healthy for the development of the youngest brother's skills. "I had to work to be able to play at their level, or at least compete against them" he recalls.
His father always had plenty of advice, it seems. "He had tons" Miller says, his father's lines still echoing in his head. "He always made a point of telling us to skate through the neutral zone.
"He'd say: ÔMake sure you're not standing around, watching the play. Make sure your feet are always moving.' Unfortunately, (my feet) don't do that as much anymore. I'm getting old."
That, of course, is only a line, as Miller's opponents know too well. But what else would you expect from a Number One-Liner.