Man on a Mission

With His Playing Days Behind Him, Ryan Miller Looks Forward To Giving Back to Help Strengthen American Hockey

Ryan Miller was a man on a mission. After playing his last game as an NHL goaltender on May 8, 2021, making 21 stops for the Anaheim Ducks in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Minnesota Wild, he was ready to take on his next challenge-helping bring home a gold medal for Team USA at the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing in February.

In his 18-year NHL career, the Michigan native had won 391 games in an 18-year NHL career, the most ever by an American-born goaltender. He had posted 44 shutouts and played 795 games, both the second most by an American goalie. He won the Vezina Trophy in 2010 as the league's best goalie, and played spectacularly in two of the most iconic hockey games of the last 20 years-one in the 2010 Olympics, and one outdoors in a magical scene in Buffalo.

And he was hoping to crown that list of accomplishments by serving as the goalie coach for the USA team in a quest for the first American gold medal since the Miracle on Ice of 1980. 

"It's always exciting representing the country in any way possible. I experienced it as a player and I wanted to stay involved and see if I could help USA Hockey this time at the management level," he said.

But what's that they say about the best laid plans? Something about mice and men.

In December, the NHL, in coordination with its players union, decided not to send its players to China for the 2022 Games, out of concern for the worsening coronavirus pandemic. The move came as the NHL was forced to suspend games across the league and amid worries about whether the league will be able to complete its own season on schedule.

"For me, it's certainly disappointing. I feel bad for the guys. There are a lot of players who would have been going to the Olympics for the first time," Miller lamented from southern California, where he's made his home with his wife, actress Noureen DeWulf, and their 6-year old son, Bodhi.

Miller, a rail of a man at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds, has some unfinished business as far as the Olympics are concerned. Truth be told, the quest to win gold had been on Miller's mind for months before he pulled off his Ducks sweater for the last time. During his last season, knowing retirement was looming, Miller placed a call to John Vanbiesbrouck-another Michigan native, and the guy who had held the record for NHL wins by an American-born netminder until Miller came along.

These days Vanbiesbrouck serves as assistant executive director for hockey operations at USA Hockey. 

"I called John and said, 'Hey, I got some ideas that might help us win gold. I'd love to be in the room when decisions are being made,'" Miller recalled.

The two grizzled netminders chewed the fat about what it takes to win a short tournament like the Olympic Games. 

"He said he wanted to get involved, and when guys reach out to you, you know they're serious," Vanbiesbrouck recalled. "Then I thought, 'This would be a great fit.'"

A week later Beezer called Millsy back. "Congratulations, you're the team's goalie coach." Vanbiesbrouck also pointed out-joking, kind of-that if the team was ever hit by a rash of goalie injuries, Miller could always throw on the pads.

The United States was pegged to be among the top contenders for the gold medal, with the wealth of high-end talent skating in the NHL these days-Auston Matthews, Charlie McAvoy, Kyle Connor, Adam Fox, Troy Terry, Alex DeBrincat, and oh yeah a guy named Patrick Kane, too. Literally, the list goes on and on.

There was no shortage of top-notch netminders, either. You had Toronto's Jack Campbell, who set an NHL record with 11 consecutive wins from the start of last season, plus veterans like Vancouver's Thatcher Demko, Anaheim's John Gibson and Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets.

"Thirty years ago, we had great American players but today we have great American players and tremendous depth," Vanbiesbrouck said. 

Plan B for USA Hockey is to likely draw players from the American Hockey League, European leagues, and the NCAA-similar to what USA Hockey did in 2018 when the NHL did not participate in the Seoul Winter Games.

Miller was psyched to be part of it, and had hoped his eye would help the USA find just the one 'tender who would be in the zone in Beijing. It's no secret that a red-hot goalie can make all the difference in the Olympics. I mean, does the name Jim Craig ring a bell?

Miller starred for three seasons at Michigan State, which was sort of a thing in his hockey-mad family. His grandfather, father, brother Drew, three cousins, Kip, Kelly, and Kevin Miller, also played for the Spartans. In 2001, he was awarded the Hobey Baker Trophy as the NCAA's top player, only the second goalie to win it.

Drafted in the fifth round in 1999 by the Sabres, he helped make Buffalo a contender and twice backstopped the Sabres to the conference finals. In 2010, his Vezina season, Miller won 41 games, and posted a GAA of 2.22 and save percentage of .929.
He played 11 seasons in Buffalo, followed by stints with St. Louis, Vancouver and Anaheim.

Miller knows firsthand about the hot goalie thing in the Olympics. Miller, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a simmering internal intensity and competitiveness, was in goal for the 2010 Games in Vancouver. When the Americans faced Canada in a preliminary game, Miller stopped 46 shots in a stunning 5-3 victory that suddenly made the U.S. the top seed in the tournament. In seven games in those Olympics, he stopped 139 shots and only allowed nine goals, for an unreal save percentage of .944.

In the gold-medal game, against Canada, he stopped 36 shots and kept the U.S. within striking distance. With Miller pulled for an extra skater, the U.S. tied it 2-2 with 25 seconds remaining. Sadly, frustratingly, one of the shots that eluded Miller that night came in overtime off the stick of Sidney Crosby to give the hosts the gold. But the skinny kid from Michigan's performance so outshined all others that he was named the Olympic tournament's MVP.

"Initially there was disappointment of losing at overtime in 2010, but I feel pride in our group," he said. "But it is bittersweet. You want that gold medal. It's tough to get that close and not quite have it work out."

It's bittersweet this time, too. 

"The Olympics is the biggest short tournament for a hockey player. I was hoping to get some experience, help USA Hockey and be competitive, not as a player but in a different way," he said. 

With the change in the player pool and Miller's lack of familiarity with those athletes, he will step aside this time and let others who do lead the way.

What about four years down the road? 

"That's a long way off so we'll have to see what happens," Miller sighed. "I'd like to be involved. There's always other tournaments, U18, World Juniors, World Championships. I'd just like to represent the country and give back." 

Neal Boudette is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.



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