Story and photos by Mark Newman
Kevin Miller has been around the block and back.
The hockey veteran's itinerant career has made him the virtual embodiment of a world traveler. The Lansing native has appeared 616 NHL games for nine different teams, represented his country in numerous international tournaments during his career and spent the past three years playing in Europe.
Miller is his sport's answer to Marco Polo or Lewis and Clark, the seasoned old-timer who has come to learn the value of exploring new challenges in new cities: that it's really the journey not the destination that matters.
Miller, 38, now finds himself in familiar territory. He signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings in August but will likely play the entire season in Grand Rapids.
It is a road that he's been down before. He captained the Griffins to the 2000 IHL Turner Cup finals before leaving to play in the Swiss National League. He went from DeVos to Davos, going from essentially playing in his backyard to the back roads of Switzerland.
Three years in the toothpaste-fresh air of Switzerland breathed new life into his career. His career wasn't exactly going downhill, but being able to be with his family and enjoy plenty of skiing during his off-days while playing for the Davos hockey club definitely provided a lift to his mental attitude.
Of course, the rejuvenating effects of Davos have been documented by the generations who have come to the mountainside town for its refreshing high altitude and long hours of sunshine. Robert Louis Stevenson finished Treasure Island while a resident at a Davos sanitarium in 1882. Three decades later, a visit to Davos inspired German novelist Thomas Mann to write his classic tome, The Magic Mountain.
For Miller, it was an opportunity to add another chapter to a career that, while not exactly storybook, has been interesting in its many twists and turns during the 16 years since his days at Michigan State University.
The three years (in Switzerland) were great, Miller says. The hockey was very good, the money was good, there were fewer games and I was around my family the whole time.
When you know the phone number of the moving company almost better than your own number, you learn to appreciate the comforts of home. Miller, who played with 14 different teams (including the minors) in the span of 12 seasons, found respite in the snowy landscape of Switzerland.
We were hardly ever on the road, so my family loved it, he says. They had me around all the time and we were able to travel all over and see the country.
In Davos, Miller lived on a ski hill with his wife and four children the oldest is 7, their twins are 2-1/2. It was similar to playing in Vail, he says, referring to the celebrated Colorado resort.
I probably liked the skiing the most. I've always wanted to ski and during my career over here, I never really got the chance. On off-days, pretty much half of the team went up to ski. It was a lot of fun.
But it was hockey that brought Miller to Switzerland in the first place, and he took the same serious approach to playing on the bigger ice surfaces in the Swiss National League as he had always done wherever he played.
Hockey there is not as physical, he says. If you do play physical, they're going to put you in the penalty box, so you have to tone it down. With the bigger rinks, you have to do more skill-wise.
Miller was apparently successful. He led the league with 29 goals during his first season in Switzerland. Davos won the league championship in 2002, thanks in large measure to the contributions of Miller and Canadian Lonny Bohonos.
Other Swiss highlights included two Spengler Cups for Davos. The Spengler Cup, which traces its history back to 1923, is the oldest European tournament for club teams. The tournament is traditionally won by a Russian, Czech or Canadian team, but Davos was victorious in 2000 and 2001, keeping the Cup in Switzerland for the first time since 1957-58 when the Swiss also won in back-to-back years.
Meanwhile, his family was enjoying the experience of living overseas. If there's any place for an American to feel safe in the post-9/11 world, it may be Switzerland, a country that has publicly adopted a policy of neutrality since 1674.
Miller was in Switzerland and scheduled to play on the day that the planes crashed into the World Trade Center's twin towers. I left it up to my teammates to decide (whether to play), he says. I was in their country, so I did what they wished.
He admits that his family was a little more cautious after the al-Qaeda attack. Suddenly trips to places like Paris and Austria seemed a little ill-advised. We did go to Italy afterwards, but we stayed out of the big cities, he says.
Being in Switzerland, he agrees, was rather fortuitous not that playing hockey in Iraq or Afghanistan had ever been an option. It was one of the better places to be, but you still look at people a little differently.
About the only thing that Miller didn't do very well in Switzerland was learn the language. Depending upon the locale, German, French and Italian are spoken there. Most people speak English, but I tried to pick up as much German as I could, he says. It was pretty hard but my kids learned it.
When Miller left Grand Rapids for Switzerland, his intention was to play there for five years. If I had the same offer that I had last year, I might have gone back, he says. But my kids are in school now and I really didn't want to move my family back to Europe.
He instructed his agent to contact the one team in North America that made sense for his family. I asked my agent to check with Detroit because I knew Grand Rapids was the minor league team, he says.
He knows he is an insurance policy for the Wings and that, in all likelihood, he will spend the entire year in Grand Rapids. I know the signing wasn't really for Detroit, he says. If they run into an injury problem, maybe I get the call. But if not, I'm fine with it. I know I'm at the end of my career.
Being in training camp with the Red Wings brought back memories for Miller, who spent the entire 1991-92 season in Detroit after being traded there in a five-player deal that included current Wings assistant coach Joey Kocur.
Other than Steve Yzerman, the only other player still with the team was Nicklas Lidstrom, who was a rookie during the 1991-92 season. I used to drive to the rink with him, Miller says. But I felt comfortable because I had played with most of those guys before.
The well-traveled Miller had been a teammate with Brett Hull and Brendan Shanahan in St. Louis. He played with Ray Whitney in San Jose and Jason Woolley in Washington. His other NHL stops have been in New York (both the Rangers and Islanders), Pittsburgh, Chicago and Ottawa.
Miller admits that he felt pretty good in Traverse City, where he promptly took a goaltender's stick in the mouth on the first shift of the second scrimmage. Welcome home, eh? That was pretty nice, he says with a smirk.
He feels that he has unfinished business in Grand Rapids after leading the Griffins team that lost to Chicago in six games during the 2000 IHL Turner Cup finals.
We were so close that a couple of bounces either way and we could have won it, Miller says. It would be great to win a championship here. There are some guys who have been here a long time and still haven't won one.
Miller has always been a team player, even though it's frequently been a different team each year. He has a long track record of representing his country in international play.
He is one of only 14 players to earn a spot on three U.S. National Junior Teams (1981-83). During his senior season at Michigan State, he joined the U.S. National team and played at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary.
Last season Miller played for the U.S. National Team in two tournaments: the Deutschland Cup in Germany last November and the 2003 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships in Finland this past spring.
Although the U.S. team was upset by Denmark in the IIHF World Championships, the tournament gave him an opportunity to play with cousin Ryan Miller, who won the Hobey Baker Award in 2000-01 before joining the Buffalo Sabres.
For now, Miller's focus is squarely on Michigan. If it's in Detroit, I hope I'm playing for the Stanley Cup and if it's in Grand Rapids, I hope I'm part of a championship here. Either way, I'm here to win.
Griffins head coach Danton Cole already thinks Miller is a winner.
Kevin's obviously a very skilled and experienced player, and we'll look for him to contribute with his on-ice abilities, Cole says. We'll look for him to be a leader in terms of his attitude and professionalism.
Working with the younger players is a role that Miller says he's willing to accept. I'll spend the time and work with anybody, but I let them come to me, he says. If it's a small thing, I might say something but I know I'm not the coach.
Cole believes Miller's contributions in game situations speak for themselves. He's a winner who's got a good edge to him and he's able to turn things up for big occasions, Cole says.
There are certain guys who like crunch time and who somehow seem to come through, and he's one of those guys. We'll be looking for him to make big plays and score some big goals for us.
Miller wouldn't have it any other way. He doesn't look at this season as a last hurrah. I feel good out there, so we'll see, he says. If I'm one of the top players and one of the leaders, I'll play another year. If I'm not doing a whole lot, I'll pack it in.
As far as he's concerned, Miller has only one destination this season: a spot in the final series of the playoffs on the way to a championship.
The Red Wings and Griffins will gladly provide the ticket.