Pucks and hoops. What an unlikely pair they seem at first glance.
Miller, now the Buffalo Sabres’ all-star goalie, was a budding hockey star at the time at Michigan State. Izzo was the established Spartans basketball coach. They shared the same campus, but knew each other only by reputation and the occasional wave as Miller passed by Izzo’s office on his way to hockey practice.
Then one day in the autumn of 2001, Miller found himself knocking at Izzo’s door.
It prompted the first of many conversations the two would have, and a reason Miller, in the days leading up to making his NHL all-star game debut at Dallas this past week, credited Izzo as having had a significant influence on his career.
“It was big,” Miller said. “It was my first real step in the right direction.”
Miller was 21 and entering his junior year when he was drawn to Izzo. The goalie was searching for ways to deal with the pressures that came after he was named college hockey’s MVP, and the expectations of fans wondering why he couldn’t get a shutout every game.
Who better to turn to than Izzo, who had just led the Spartans to their third straight Final Four appearance, including 2000, when they won the national title.
Izzo didn’t tell Miller anything different than what he had heard before: Something about not worrying about what other people think.
But this time, it stuck.
“I probably heard it a million times from my dad or mom. But it seemed to sound different,” Miller said. “Sometimes it’s good to step out of the box. It just seemed like there was more to that approach than I was getting by obsessing over it.”
Izzo chuckles at the memory.
“I said to him, ‘Why would you come to a dumb basketball coach when you’re a hockey guy?”‘ Izzo said.
That didn’t mean Izzo wasn’t impressed.
“I really respected that he had enough courage to just do that,” Izzo said. “It was so intriguing to me. I said to myself, ‘He’s just trying to find any avenue to be the best.’ If someone told him John the janitor had the answers, he would’ve been over sitting with John the janitor. He was ahead of where I was at 20.”
Miller has been ahead of the curve for most of his life, growing up in East Lansing as a member of Michigan’s first hockey family. His grandfather and father played hockey at Michigan State, and his cousins, Kip, Kelly and Kevin Miller, all have played in the NHL.
Miller has had to face his fair share of tests. After his 18th NHL start, he emotionally broke down after allowing seven goals on 23 shots in a 7-2 loss against Detroit in December 2003. Sent down to the minors soon after, Miller wouldn’t return to Buffalo until after the NHL lockout ended in the summer of 2005.
He arrived with a newfound confidence and a much improved style.
Miller immediately claimed the starting job in a three-way battle and became a key member of a young and talented Sabres team that surprised the league by reaching the Eastern Conference finals last season.
After opening his NHL career with a 6-11-1 record, Miller has gone 54-22-7 over the past two years.
Miller’s mental makeup and steady approach has impressed his coach, Lindy Ruff.
“Ryan had to deal with demons,” Ruff said. “But he’s got a tremendous passion and work ethic to become a top-quality goaltender. And you have to endure some pain before you can ever get there. And I think he has. And I think he’s learned along the way.”
Miller has learned plenty. Drawing upon his talks with Izzo, Miller hasn’t been afraid to seek out advice, a reason why he’s worked with a sports psychologist for the past three years.
“You can’t do everything on your own. It doesn’t mean you’re a weak person,” Miller said. “I think all these situations have led me down a good path. And hopefully, the path leads to somewhere pretty big.”
Izzo was sure Miller was on the right track after that first meeting. And the coach now relates the conversations he’s had with Miller with his own players when they are slumping or questioning themselves.
“I tell them, ‘Hey, you know what, Ryan Miller questioned himself or questioned what he was doing. It’s not illegal,”‘ Izzo said. “In a way, he helped me probably more than I helped him.”