Philosophical and ever-vigilant in staying grounded, Ryan Miller has found it difficult to grasp what's happening this week.
The Buffalo Sabres goalie will be the Eastern Conference starter for tonight's All-Star Game in American Airlines Center, and that might not end up being the highlight of a whirlwind experience that clearly is having a profound impact on him.
"This whole situation is so very surreal to me," Miller said. "I definitely feel very blessed and have a lot of things going well. It's hard to explain in words. I just keep coming back to 'surreal' because it's very wild to me."
These are the moments derived from greatness, something for which Miller has been striving for virtually his entire life. True, his ultimate goal is to backstop the Sabres to a Stanley Cup, but an All-Star appearance in only his second full NHL season is validation for a competitor who left no stone unturned in his quest to become elite.
His relentless search was so thorough it led him to seek counsel from unorthodox sources. While a blue-chip prospect at Michigan State, he often popped into basketball coach Tom Izzo's office to discuss what it takes to be a champion. Izzo compared Miller's inner drive to that of another famous Spartan.
"He reminded me of Magic Johnson," Izzo said from East Lansing, Mich. "Ryan had such a passion for the game and such a passion to be successful. He probably would have gone to the tennis coach or the janitor if he thought it would help him get an edge.
"Those are qualities that make good players great and great players elite. It looks like he's getting into that stratosphere now."
Two weeks ago, Miller seemed to take his All-Star selection in stride, but now that he's in Dallas he can hardly believe it.
He and Sabres defenseman Brian Campbell on Monday helped country music idol Garth Brooks dedicate a new playroom at Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth. Miller clearly was touched Tuesday morning at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, where he welcomed U.S. troops from Iraq.
Many of the troops briskly passed through the gantlet of supporters, Miller and New Jersey Devils defenseman Brian Rafalski included, on their way to other flights that would take them home. But upon seeing Miller, Army Spc. Cody Anderson dropped his dusty duffel bag to pose for pictures. Anderson, of Alpena, Mich., remembered Miller from his Michigan State days.
"With all the controversy about what's going on in the world today," Anderson said, "it's good to see that some people still appreciate us, especially somebody of that caliber."
A soldier named William Miller, who declined to provide his rank or hometown because he was rushing to get home, tore the 1st Cavalry Division patch from his fatigues and handed it to his famous namesake. Miller the All-Star was "blown away" by the All-World Miller.
"It just keeps getting a little more crazy to me that we can make such a difference," Miller said.
The path to All-Stardom has involved many devices that wrap Miller in his intricately woven security blanket.
He has an array of rituals and superstitions to help keep him in line. His enviable support group includes NHL cousins Kelly, Kevin and Kip Miller, legendary former Michigan State coach Ron Mason, Sabres goaltending coach Jim Corsi and a sports psychologist among others.
On the ice, however, Miller has nobody to rely upon but himself.
"Ryan has dealt with demons," Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. "He's a very intense guy that doesn't like not performing at that elite level. That's just drive. It's probably what's allowed him to come from where he's come from to get to where he's at, which is on an All-Star team in the best league in the world."
The pursuit of perfection is what led Miller to knock on Izzo's door while walking through the Michigan State athletics department offices.
Miller was a sophomore trying to cope with the expectations of backstopping the nation's No. 1 team in 2000-01. Izzo knew a thing or two about winning a championship, having guided the Spartans to an NCAA basketball title the previous spring.
"I would stop in and we would talk about being a pro and handling hype as a top college player," Miller said. "It was a lot about expectations and how to handle it and when things didn't go my way how to handle adversity. I think those years helped me a lot."
Although Miller went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey's best player that winter, top-seeded Michigan State lost in the Frozen Four semifinals.
"He went through a little bit of a tough time and maybe was losing a little bit of confidence," Izzo recalled. "It was amazing that a kid had the foresight to see what other people are doing and ask for help.
"I just knew the kid was special. He was looking for any edge. He had the winningest coach in college history and a family full of NHL guys, and he was looking for more. How many guys do that? That impressed me."
Perhaps the delicate nature of what transpires inside a goalie's head is why Ruff said he'll take a hands-off approach with Miller tonight.
The All-Star Game isn't conducive to bolstering a goalie's confidence. Premier offensive players skate at them in ruthless waves, while defense is minimal in the fan-friendly snipe-a-thon.
Chances are, Miller the perfectionist will get scored upon many times over. In Tuesday's SuperSkills competition, however, he did stare down Teemu Selanne to sew up victory for the East.
"I'm just going to let him go and do what he does," Ruff said. "The competitive fire to keep the best players off the scoresheet, you can't take that away from him. Having fun for him is not allowing any goals. When I say 'Have fun,' to him that means 'Don't let any in.' "
Miller laughed when asked how much he'll worry about his stat line.
"Everybody's going to try and score. I'm going to try and stop it," Miller said. "You just take it for what it is: an opportunity to showcase some skill and have some fun."