It was the morning after perhaps Ryan Miller’s most defining moment on the world’s most visible sheet of ice.
On Sunday, Miller made 42 saves, many of the spectacular variety, in the USA’s 5-3 win over Canada in what is called the greatest upset since the Miracle on Ice 30 years previous.
If Miller, a Hobey Baker Award winner at Michigan State and an NHL All-Star with the Buffalo Sabres, wasn’t a household hockey name before, he has now been cast upon a vivid red, white and blue spotlight worldwide.
Yet Monday, when a call came into the Sault Area (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.) High School that Miller graduated from in 1998, the school’s then-athletic director and now-middle school principal, Tim Hall, barely could recollect the reserved, wiry lad who on this day donned the cover of virtually every major Metro newspaper in the land.
“I can’t say I even had an interaction with him,” Hall said.
“He did his business and I did mine.”
Wow, we knew the eastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and border of Canada was chilly, but c’mon.
Turns out, no one wanted to be particularly chummy with Hall in those days. He was the head of discipline, both for students and especially athletes who couldn’t stay out of the school’s penalty box. And, since Miller didn’t even play hockey or sports at Sault Area, and he kept his nose un-bloodied, there was no need for Hall and Miller to cross paths.
Translation: That was a good thing.
“Of course I knew who he was,” Hall said. “Everyone did. He was a hockey star and this is a hockey town, but beyond that he was just by all accounts a top-notch kid and an excellent student. He did his business in the classroom and then headed to the rink.”
Indeed, Miller was a Sault Ste. Marie newbie, a player and student for rent. He moved from his home in East Lansing, a five-hour jaunt south, to play for the Soo Indians, a Junior Hockey team in town of the North American Hockey League, a feeder program into college hockey.
Miller, housed by Don and Nancy Sawruk, whose son also played for the Indians, transferred to Sault Area as a junior, not an easy transition for any teen. But with an uncanny calm, focus and confidence, Miller fit in seamlessly in all phases of youth.
Much like his goalkeeping skills — skates planted, shoulders squared to the puck, keen vision and rink awareness — Miller applied all to his social skills, which helped him flourish in his first long and early venture from home.
“He was just a terrific kid,” said Patti Gonyeau, a Sault Area secretary who had Miller as a teacher’s aid. “He was pretty quiet, but very disciplined and focused. He was also very creative. He loved music and was very good with computers. We were very lucky to have him here.”
Said Hall: “Even though he didn’t grow up here, we definitely have adopted Ryan as one of our own. He graduated from our school. We feel a sense of pride. We’re all rooting for him.”
Soo Indians coach Joe Shawhan rooted for Miller way back then. He and his staff spotted Miller at a USA Hockey Select Festival and made an invitation to join the squad. Shawhan was quite aware of the famed Miller hockey lineage – that his father Dean, grandfather Butch, uncle Lyle along with five cousins, all played for Michigan State. So later would his younger brother Drew, now a winger for the Detroit Red Wings.
But Miller definitely didn’t show a shred of entitlement when he met Shawhan for the first time.
“Just a great kid,” Shawhan said. “Polite. 'Yes sir. No sir.' He was obviously raised right. His parents (Dean and Theresa) were just so appreciative. So supportive.”
Shawhan found it curious that there weren’t more opportunities for Miller in the Detroit area. Then again, goalkeeping positions and opportunity are sparse, especially at the elite levels.
“In the hockey political structure, evidently other families were more connected,” Shawhan said. “For whatever reason, he had limited opportunities in Detroit. We saw the passion in Ryan. The focus. We knew we had something very special. Their loss was definitely our gain.”
As an 11th-grader Miller needed a lot of gain – as in size. He was all of 5-foot-7 and maybe 120 pounds. He played, appropriately enough, on the Indians’ "midget" squad and was voted the league’s Rookie of the Year.
The next season he grew by leaps and bounds – literally – to 6-foot and 140 pounds. He joined the team’s big squad as a senior in high school (1997-98) and earned second-team all-league and all-rookie team honors. He was also the Heaton/USA Hockey Goaltender of the Year, helping him earn a full ride to Michigan State.
“(Michigan State) wanted him to train another season and he could have gone anywhere at that point,” Shawhan said. “But he stayed in our program. He remained loyal to us. I’ll never forget that about him.”
He was not only loyal, but he set an NAHL record of eight shutouts and won 10 of 11 shootouts, while posting a 31-14 record, 2.3 goals-against average and a .924 save percentage. The numbers only told a small story of what Miller was about.
“His technique has always been tremendous,” said Shawhan, who is now the director of hockey operations at Northern Michigan University. “He had a confidence about him. An uncanny vision. He never let a bad game – not that he had any bad games – bother him. He wouldn’t get caught up if he had a good game. He knew it was just a stepping stone to greater things yet treated his teammates and coaches and the moment with great respect.
“He was creative and cerebral and quiet and calm and fun to be around all at once.
“I’ll say this: He did much more for our program than we did for him. We just had to stay out of his way.”
But Sault Ste. Marie, a city of about 15,000, was also good for Miller.
Once known as “Hockey Town USA” before Detroit took the moniker, it sits on the south side of the St. Mary’s River. Across the bridge is its Canadian twin city by the same name in Ontario, home of the legendary Greyhounds, a team that existed since the formation of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association in 1919.
Among the hockey greats who played for the Greyhounds were Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito, Tony Esposito, Ron Francis, Paul Coffey and Joe Thornton.
“I think that was very enjoyable for Ryan, that right across that bridge was great history and a major pipeline to hockey greatness,” Shawhan said.
Greatness that Shawhan saw in Miller at an early age. Numerous players from the Indians were drafted into the NHL, but Miller was the one who really stuck.
“I remember his senior year, telling a couple close friends that Ryan was going to make a lot of money playing hockey,” Shawhan said.
Miller is likely to make loads in endorsements if he continues to play like he did Sunday and the USA grabs the gold. Shawhan said watching Sunday’s game brought him right back to the NAHL days.
“I just love watching him play,” Shawhan said. “(Sunday) was no surprise, no fluke. It was typical of what he’s done at every level. Maybe around the world Ryan is suddenly a name but what I saw Sunday was exactly what I saw when he was playing for us. And by all accounts he’s exactly the same person. I don’t see a celebrity. I see little Ryan Miller.
"And that’s a good thing.”