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Miller’s career growth came in fits and starts

Ryan Miller forced a smile when talking Wednesday about the game, but at the time he was none too thrilled. He was being hailed as the Sabres’ future franchise goalie and was desperate to prove the praise was warranted. He had waited three months in Rochester before getting the chance of a lifetime.

Miller could see his dream dying in a hail of bullets in the third period, six goals on eight shots over the final 20 minutes in an embarrassing 7-2 loss to Detroit. The Red Wings were the team he adored as an emerging prodigy in Michigan, a team that included his cousin, Kevin, an NHL veteran 15 years older and one of his boyhood heroes.

And he was inconsolable.

Miller attempted to carry himself like a professional and show a brave face, but he failed miserably after the game. He was practically in tears. He made a terse statement, fielded no questions, grabbed a ball of tape, threw a 90 mph heater across the dressing room and stormed off. He was petrified that his career was over.

It would have been a shame.

“I probably handled it poorly,” Miller said. “It was a situation where you feel like this might be your only opportunity. It’s your dream, and you come up short. … Anyone who makes it here, you don’t have too many tastes of failure. My career has had some smaller road blocks. I guess I didn’t realize they were road blocks.”

Ten-plus years and 540 NHL games later, with a few speed bumps along the way, Miller’s career with the Sabres is all but over. He’s almost certain to land elsewhere before the NHL trade deadline next week, which means his start tonight against the Sharks will likely be his final game for the Sabres in First Niagara Center.

No matter how much you prepare, the end always seems abrupt. Miller’s future has been a source of discussion all season. He’s 33 years old and set to become an unrestricted free agent. He had a terrific year on a terrible team. His career and the Sabres’ rebuilding plans have veered in different directions.

It’s time to say goodbye.

Miller never won a Stanley Cup, but he became one of the better goaltenders in the NHL and backstopped the Sabres through some of the best days in franchise history. He helped the Sabres reach the conference finals in back-to-back years. He won the Vezina Trophy after carrying them to the playoffs in 2009-10 – before it all came apart.

He left his mark on Buffalo, and Buffalo left an impression on him. Strange, but he lived in our city longer than anywhere else. He became part of the community. He recalled Wednesday how elderly women felt compelled to hug him, and men felt the need to give him goaltending advice, when he was grocery shopping.

That’s so Buffalo.

“It’s one of the good things about Buffalo,” he said. “It never left me that this is a place that appreciates hard work and appreciates people who care. You get the energy back from the people.

“You need that. You need support, and you need friends.

“I always felt like there was a good connection between me and the city, the people here and the way we carry ourselves. It really was a goal of mine. I needed to fit in here. You don’t find too many teams that are ingrained in the community as you do here. Part of being a Sabre is being part of Buffalo. It was always important to me.”

One of the best parts of my job is having a front-row seat when athletes evolve on personal and professional levels. You see them arrive as nervous rookies and watch them leave as established veterans. You catch them at their best and their worst as players and come to appreciate them as men.

Ryan Miller is a good man.

I had my doubts about him early in his career. He had the talent needed to succeed, but he was his own worst enemy. His father once stopped playing golf with him because he couldn’t deal with him becoming so upset after a bad shot. At times in his hockey career, Miller looked like he wanted to shoot himself.

He had trouble grasping the fact that Patrick Roy, who won 551 games during his career, lost 315 times. Miller was so accustomed to winning at Michigan State that he couldn’t handle losing. Dominik Hasek was the best practice player I’ve been around, but Miller was the most introspective. It helped drive him to succeed, but it threatened to drive him mad.

“I needed to make this goal of mine happen,” he said. “As you get older, you reflect and see how you made too much of something. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not the center of the universe. Not everybody was looking at that moment like you were when it felt big to you.”

It took him years to understand as much. The best thing that happened to his career after the meltdown against Detroit was the 2004-05 lockout. If you remember, Miller spent the season in Rochester with other prospects that included Thomas Vanek, Jason Pominville, Derek Roy and Paul Gaustad.

They matured into a good nucleus that complemented a veteran core and helped the Sabres reach the conference finals a year later. They were together in 2009-10, when Miller carried the U.S. in the Olympics and the Sabres to the postseason en route to the Vezina Trophy. One by one, each was traded away. Now, it’s Miller’s turn.

All season, through all the losing and uncertainty about his future, the same man who was devastated by one loss 10 years ago has remained a calm voice of reason. He’s had plenty of practice explaining away failure. Buffalo can no longer give him the opportunities he needs. Separately, they’ll plow forward.

“Nostalgia makes you feel good, but nothing ever happens unless the world turns and things move forward,” Miller said. “I’m trying to grasp onto the fact that you can’t always be comfortable. Life is full of different twists and turns. It’s always an adventure. With all the change, people will live their lives.”


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