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Aaron Miller's career beyond his expectations

Aaron Miller opened hockey season in grand style, playing with two people who were his greatest teammates from the very beginning. He spent Thursday afternoon with his parents on a golf course near his home in Vermont, enjoying the sport that is synonymous with the end of hockey.

Miller retired from the game he played since the days of double-runners. He was the youngest of five boys from a true hockey family in West Seneca, the only one who lived the dream they all shared. The defenseman can leave the game peacefully knowing he siphoned every ounce from his 14-year career and a little more.

"To look back when I was at St. Francis High School and even imagine I would have had this kind of career, never in a million years," Miller said by telephone last week.

"It exceeded my wildest dreams. I have no regrets. I don't know if it ever ends the way you want it to unless you lift the Cup and retire. It happens for very few guys. I have zero complaints. It's been a great ride."

After all, he played forward for St. Francis in the mid-1980s. He played for the Niagara Scenics, currently known as the Buffalo Junior Sabres. He earned a scholarship to the University of Vermont and played four years there. He spent three years in AHL Cornwall after the Rangers, who made him a fifth-round pick, traded him to Colorado (nee Quebec Nordiques).

"I told my agent that I would play forever as long as I could make $40,000," he said. "I wrote that on a jersey and gave it to him my first year. That goes to show you what my expectations were at the time."

At 37, his body finally caught up with his age. He suffered from back problems for a few seasons, which were relieved by hip surgery. He broke his foot last season before shoulder problems led to another surgery. The kids were getting older, the game was getting faster, his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame a half-step behind his instincts.

Miller was one of the lucky ones. He left the game under his own terms without any regrets. He had his cracks at the Stanley Cup only to find his time with Colorado was sandwiched by a pair of titles. He's financially set for life, knowing he made more money than he ever would have imagined. He won a silver in the 2002 Olympics.

"It was the best part of my career, no doubt," he said. "A lot of NHL guys take that for granted, but it was awesome. Being that it was in Salt Lake, I had my whole family in a house. It was perfect."

And he made some $18 million in his career.

"My first three years in the minors, I made $32,500 Canadian and thought I was rich," he said. "I had a $100,000 signing bonus in Canadian money. After they took taxes, it came to about $25,000 U.S. I was just coming out of college and thought, 'What's going on here with all this money?' It just kept getting better and better."

Miller spent parts of eight seasons with Quebec-Colorado but never won a Stanley Cup. He was with the Avalanche in 1995-96 but didn't play enough games during the regular season to qualify and did not appear in the playoffs. The Avs won it again in 2000-01, but he was traded after playing 56 games to Los Angeles.

Still, he played 80 postseason games in his career, which is 80 more than Olli Jokinen. He played with some of the best players in NHL history in Ray Bourque, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. He was hoping to spend one season with his hometown Sabres but ended his career after playing 57 games for Vancouver.

He beat the odds and had a great career.

"I'm figuring out what the next step is, but I'm enjoying myself," said Miller, a part-time radio analyst for Vermont. "Life doesn't end at 37. I'm going to have to find something to do now that I've turned the page on hockey and stay involved with something. I'm in two beer leagues, so I'm still on the ice."

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Habs seek Gaborik

Here's a scary thought if you're a Sabres' fan: Minnesota winger Marian Gaborik is on the trading block, and there's a chance he could land in Montreal.

Gaborik has one year remaining on his contract, and all signs point to him leaving before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He has played in Jacques Lemaire's defense-first style throughout his career and wants to play for a team that puts more emphasis on offense. He'll command more than $8 million in the open market, perhaps much more.

Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough has a good relationship with Habs GM Bob Gainey going back to their playing days in Montreal. The word around the league is that the Canadiens are interested in Gaborik, who had 42 goals and 83 points last season and who fits into their speedy, skilled lineup and understands defense.

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Adams walled off

Chautauqua Lake's own Kevyn Adams, who was born in Washington, raised in Clarence and played his youth hockey in Wheatfield, became a casualty last week when the Blackhawks failed to dump overpaid goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin.

Adams moved his family back to Chicago, enrolled two of his three kids in school and showed up for training camp without a contract. All indications were that he would sign a one-year deal and resume his leadership role while killing penalties and playing on the fourth line, which worked last season before he blew out his knee.

The trick was GM Dale Tallon getting his team under the salary cap, a chore after signing Brian Campbell to an eight-year contract worth $57.1 million. He shopped Khabibulin and his hefty $6.7 million around the world, even trying to strike a deal with a team in the Russia-based KHL. One rumor had the Bulin Wall going to Los Angeles, but only if the deal included defenseman Cam Barker.

Tallon now has $12.3 million invested in his goaltenders, which is forcing him to showcase Khabibulin early in the season. Barker was sent to the minors even though he's more prepared for the NHL than Niklas Hjalmarsson, who makes less money.

What does Adams, who was not available for comment, get for his faith in the Blackhawks? For now, it looks like a spot in an out-of-town unemployment line. If this is the end of his career, and it could be, he deserved better.

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Briere patch

Look for the Flyers to spend the first part of the season experimenting with old friend Daniel Briere playing on the right side with Mike Richards in the middle and Simon Gagne on the left of their top line.

Briere is better at center, but he's always been very good in close quarters and effective along the half-wall. If anything, though, he was more efficient coming off the left boards and working the middle as a right-handed shot.

"I really don't care where I play," Briere said. "Whether I take faceoffs or not, you still have to play the game and think the game. Hopefully, we can stay together and get some chemistry."

Coach John Stevens' setup best takes advantage of Richards, who evolved last year into one of the better two-way centers in the league. To say defense has never been among Gagne's and Briere's strengths would be a gross understatement. They were a combined minus-30 last season, including Briere's minus-22.

Still, it has the potential to become one of the NHL's premier lines.

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Rocky retreat

The Oilers held a three-day retreat in the Rocky Mountains that was designed to encourage male bonding and better chemistry. Dustin Penner used part of the time to frighten the daylights out of his teammates.

Penner wore a mask and sneaked from cabin to cabin. His victims included forwards Ethan Moreau, who was sleeping, and Kyle Brodziak, who was emerging from the bathroom when Penner scared him.

"Ethan Moreau ended up with a two-handed Homer Simpson choke hold on me, he was so scared," Penner said. "[Brodziak] had the flying crane from the Karate Kid movie. He almost lost $1,500 worth of electronics equipment because he was fumbling his computer at the time."

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Around the boards

You might not have heard the last of billionaire Jim Balsillie, the Hamilton-based founder of Blackberry who failed in his attempt to buy the Predators. Their new ownership group didn't even get into its first full season before defaulting on a loan. The outstanding debt is $40 million, which is pocket change for Balsillie.

Nine players selected in the NHL draft in June, including the first five choices overall, made opening-day rosters. Five were defensemen. The reason? Money. Teams would rather take their chances with rookies and develop them in the NHL than pay hefty salaries for experience. Most would be better off starting in the minors.

Pest Sean Avery, in an interview with ESPN, moaned about the NHL's marketing strategy and somehow rationalized they should listen to him. "They haven't figured out that villains and heroes are what sells," said Avery, an intern this summer at Vogue. "I don't think that's ever going to change unless they hire me to run their marketing stuff."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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