I remember when Ryan Miller was a mess.
December 10, 2003. After starting the first two games of the season and being sent down, Miller gets recalled from Rochester and plays against the Detroit Red Wings. By then he had played 17 games in his NHL career, but this was his chance. Against the Red Wings, Miller would get the chance to prove himself ready to take over as the team’s starting goaltender and live up to the “Goaltender of the Future” tag so many had given him. He failed in October but this time would be different.
That night Ryan Miller failed again. Miserably.
Seven goals on 23 shots against a Red Wings team missing ten regular players. After the game, Miller was crushed:
“I’m disappointed, obviously,” Miller said. “I just have to come back to practice tomorrow, if I’m still here.”
If I’m still here. Reading that quote today can only break your heart. Here’s our young franchise goaltender on the brink of tears in the locker room after the game. Where is the confident, well-spoken athlete who breaks down the game with such ease? Where was the best quote on the team? The player unafraid to be blunt, unafraid to let honestly get in the way of the postgame cliches?
But Miller knew that was it. He didn’t see another second of action with the Sabres in 2003-04, and the lockout robbed him of the chance to make the team the next season. Ryan Miller was stuck in Rochester for another season and a half, playing lights-out hockey while the lockout kept NHL arenas dark in another way altogether.
But when the lights at HSBC Arena came back on, everything was different.
After Sunday night’s game everyone wanted to talk about Ryan Miller. The problem with that is every Sabres fan I know has been talking about him for years. We know exactly what Miller is all about, and he was everything we thought he would be on Sunday night.
So after Miller this and Miller that, there was Chris Drury. He played a huge role in the victory, and everyone knows the history Drury and Sabres fans have. After all the drama and second-guessing Drury came through, and seeing him hugging Miller after the final horn sounded brought back a lot of good memories.
I’ll admit it, I was there too. There’s a good three years of my admiration of Chris Drury archived here, and I’m not beyond saying I still wish he was on the team. We can talk intangibles and cap hits until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is that there are times I look at photos from Game Five or read that article from Sports Illustrated that’s still bookmarked on this computer.
Still, I miss the idea of Chris Drury much more than I miss the actual player. Over time I’ve realized that, and that’s why the feeling is fleeting. I respect what Drury did for the Sabres and I respect what he’s currently doing for Team USA, but Chris Drury is not the story. Ryan Miller is the story and he absolutely deserves to be.
On Sunday night the rest of the world got the chance to see what we’ve known for years: Ryan Miller is a special, special hockey player. On the ice he made the improbable happen, and off the ice he handled things with spectacular poise. This wasn’t a brief brush with fame like an energy drink commercial, this was Ryan Miller becoming the new face of USA Hockey.
Before the Olympics started I was lukewarm about the tournament and Team USA as a whole. Sure it was a good chance for Miller and the games would be interesting, but I was more worried about Miller’s health than any medal count flashed on a leaderboard. After Sunday night, however, I’m all in. Of course I wanted to see Team USA win, but as of right now I feel like it’s possible this team can go all the way.
More than anything I want to see them do it for Ryan Miller, if only because he will be the biggest reason they medal at all. As of Sunday night it’s the Ryan Miller Show, just like this Sabres season has been and the two prior were as well. Ryan Miller is the story, and I want to see that story all over the place from now until Sunday.
Ryan Miller, the kid crying in the locker room before the bus ride back to Rochester, is now the most important hockey player wearing red, white and blue. Miller, the goaltender who picked Buffalo, who says all the right things and makes this team look good night in and night out, is leading this country’s hockey team towards something special. Something as special as he is.
Buffalo sure is paying attention, and it’s about time the rest of the world took notice.