Here’s a riddle for you, a variation on a popular theme:
How many opposing players does it take to score on Ryan Miller?
None, but having a Spartan defender’s skate somewhere in the vicinity of the net doesn’t hurt.
By now, the college hockey world — the world of sport, for that matter — should know that Michigan State’s Ryan Miller is in a groove. For the past 207:12 that Miller has paced the pipes, no one has been able to get anything past him. The last goal he surrendered was against Lake Superior State on Jan. 14, and that went in off of teammate Brad Fast’s skate.
Miller has eight shutouts this season, and 16 in his 51-game career, matching the NCAA record held by Wally Easton (Clarkson, 1927-31), two more shutouts than modern record holder Marty Turco. It took Turco, the former Wolverine and current Dallas Star, 109 games and four seasons to earn 14 shutouts.
Miller is a sophomore.
You could fill a room with his awards. Five-time CCHA Defensive Player of the Week. Three-time CCHA Rookie of the Week. Twice named the USCHO.com Defensive Player of the Week. CCHA Best Goaltender, 1999-2000. CCHA Championship Tournament MVP, 2000. Great Lakes Invitational Tournament MVP, 2000.
Miller holds four CCHA records, seven Michigan State records, and looks to be breaking a few more this season, with his goals-against average of 1.12 and .956 save percentage.
And he plays a mean Dave Matthews.
“I try to step away from the rink a little bit. During the week, I try to step away from the books sometimes, too,” says Miller. “I play guitar. It’s something I picked up in juniors. I had a lot of time on my hands in Sault Ste. Marie.”
Given his phenomenal play, it’s easy to forget that Miller is also a 20-year-old kid in college. One look at his picture reminds you; he could pass for 14, a family “curse” he says he’s learning to live with.
“The other night someone thought my mother was my sister. She got a kick out of that when I told her. People tell me I’ll appreciate this some day.”
Miller is a native of East Lansing, Mich., and the latest Spartan to emerge from a gene pool that includes cousins Kip, Kelly, and Kevin Miller. Kip and Kelly were All-Americans, and Kip won the Hobey Baker Memorial Award in 1990.
Miller’s father, Dean, his grandfather, Butch, and his uncle, Lyle, all played hockey for Michigan State, as did cousins Curtis and Taylor Gemmel. Miller spent a good portion of his childhood in the Spartan locker room.
“It was definitely something different,” says Miller. “Not every kid gets that advantage. I was bouncing around the locker room a lot.
“It’s pretty funny looking back. The kids who are hanging out now are like I was then. All I remember is that the Spartans took time to talk to you, to ask you how your hockey was doing. They didn’t have to do that. I think that’s something special you see with hockey players. Throughout the rinks, hockey players tend to take the time. I know I make time for kids because of what the Spartans did for me when I was young.”
Miller’s coach, the legendary Ron Mason, says that the time Miller spent around athletes as a child gives him perspective that many other players may lack.
“I like to look at him as the kind of player who has a good family background in terms of sports and hockey, and has seen the ups and downs, and knows that it’s not just a rosy state you’re in,” says Mason. “This is given him a healthy approach to the game. He respects the sport.”
Miller’s firm grasp on reality is evident when he talks about his decision to attend Michigan State — not that there was much doubt. “I always wanted to go to Michigan State. If it wasn’t going to work out, though, I was being realistic about it. Michigan State was one goal, but playing pro hockey was another. If Michigan State wasn’t available to me, I had to seriously consider somewhere else.”
Miller considered Clarkson, but the Spartans “played their hand,” he says, and he returned home to East Lansing.
Because of his exposure to professional athletics, when Miller discusses his future pro options, he sounds much older than his 20 years. Drafted by the Buffalo Sabres in 1999 (fifth round, 138 overall), Miller says, “There’s no guarantees with professional sports.”
Miller, who plans on playing through his senior season at Michigan State, thinks the timing of his graduation may work to his advantage. “Right now it looks like it will be a good situation.”
He also looks to the Sabres with the eye of a businessman. “What’s nice is that I see them [the Sabres organization] developing players. In professional sports, it’s usually, ‘Do it for me now or move on.’ Players stay with them a while.”
In the more immediate future, Miller is focusing on Michigan State’s season, not the records he seems to be breaking by the game. Although satisfied with his own contribution to the Spartans’ success this season, Miller doesn’t boast, and he credits his teammates for the scoreless games.
“Some people say [our success comes from] goaltending, some say team defense, some say other stuff. Right now I’m saying as a team, as a whole, we’re playing with great character. There are guys stepping up. Every night it’s somebody different. That’s amazing. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Michigan State. I don’t think people knew about our character kids.
“I think that’s why we’ve seen a couple of shutouts in a row. I think early in the season there were a couple of times when maybe I kept the team in, but they always scored. It was always someone else putting the puck in the net.”
Mason acknowledges that in the post-Shawn Horcoff, post-Mike York Spartan era there was some question about how Michigan State would fare. “I felt that early in the year, Ryan gave us a chance to win in a number of games. He helped us develop our personality, and the rest of the team just got going.”
But Miller isn’t one to reminisce, even in a month where he’s allowed just one goal. “The month’s not over, the season’s not over.” He adds, like a true Spartan, “We have to play Michigan still.”
Miller, a self-described “fan of East Lansing,” is focused on the remainder of the season, and happy to be playing in his hometown. “Even though I’m playing good hockey right now, hockey’s up and down. If you’re not staying on top of it, you’ll lose it.”
Having graduated from the Sault Area High School while playing junior hockey, Miller says he’s enjoying spending time in East Lansing. “I never got the chance to when I was in high school, and it’s nice to be near my family.”
And where better to earn shutout No. 17 than in front of Mom, Dad, the coach who’s known you since birth and the fans who watched your father play, steps away from the locker room you haunted as a child, the very place that, for Miller, dreams have come true? There really is no place like home.