(This is the first in a series of stories profiling the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2015.)
By Bucky Gleason
News Sports Reporter
The running joke for 25 years was directed toward Aaron Miller, the third of five boys growing up in West Seneca. He earned a Division I scholarship to Vermont and played 14 seasons in the NHL. He played for the United States in the Olympics and the world championships.
And he was the second-best player in his own family.
Older brother Marc won a national youth championship. Marc was blessed with more speed and skill than Aaron at a young age. Aaron was a forward and finding his way in hockey before evolving into a terrific stay-at-home defenseman.
He ended up getting the last laugh.
“Marc was the one that I aspired to be like,” Aaron said. “I was really skilled when I was 10 and 11, but I kind of got lost. But, yeah, for a year or two, it’s safe to say he was the best player. And I’ve never heard the end of it. If he wants to be the best player at 13, have at it. A lot of good that did him.”
Yes, Aaron was just poking fun.
Anyone who knows the Millers has heard them take endless jabs at one another when given the opportunity. They show brotherly love through laughter while keeping one another in line. Privately, Aaron knew darned well that his brothers and many others along the way contributed to his success.
Aaron switched from forward to defense on the advice of his father while he was playing for St. Francis High of Athol Springs, soared past his brothers on the growth charts and reached heights in hockey that many never expected. Now, he has a place waiting for him in the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.
Miller has been looking forward to his induction ceremony because, finally, he will have a chance to thank everyone who helped him develop into the player and person he became. In recent months, he has taken time to reflect on his own career. At age 44, he has the experience and perspective to appreciate how it all unfolded.
“I talk to buddies I played with when I was a kid,” Miller said. “I was a second-line forward when I was 12. I see these guys and they say, ‘How did you end up playing 14 years in the NHL when I went Division III?’ It’s kind of random.
“There’s some luck and development, but it’s also people pushing you in the right direction and keeping you out of trouble. There are a whole bunch of variables that come into play. I’m smart enough now to realize that. To be able to thank those people for that is awesome. It starts with family.”
Miller will certainly acknowledge his family in November. His father, Bill Miller Sr., affectionately known as “Chief,” is a lifelong hockey junkie and former coach. He coached Bill Jr., Marc, Terry, Kevin and Aaron at one level or another, sometimes coaching two travel teams in the same season.
Their mother, Joan, didn’t have a nickname, but “St. Joan” sounded about right considering the sacrifices she made for her children. She carted the boys in various directions. She gave up vacations for hockey. She settled disputes between the boys and put them back in their places when needed.
“You know moms,” Miller said. “They do all the grunt work. They do all the stuff that goes unnoticed. She did all the disciplining, which I know my mom didn’t enjoy, but I’m grateful that she did it. I guess my mom would probably be a stay-at-home defenseman to be honest with you. She’s the head of it all. She runs the show.”
Miller retired after the 2007-08 season, finishing with the Canucks. He was drafted by the Rangers and was traded to Quebec. He moved with the franchise to Colorado, played five-plus seasons there and five-plus years in Los Angeles. He scored 17 goals and 63 points in 677 games, a career never measured by numbers.
He wasn’t blessed with world-class speed and top-end skill, but who is kidding who? He was, by far, the best player in his family. There was no luck involved, as he suggested, but hard work.
No, he didn’t play like his brother. He played like his mother. He made sacrifices and did the dirty work without needing glory to justify his importance.
And that’s no joke.
His parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary during the first weekend in August, bringing their family back together. If you close your eyes, you can hear the boys badgering each other and sharing their love through laughter. Soon, they will celebrate Aaron’s hockey career but, really, they will celebrate their family.
“It’s just a great group when you get everyone together,” Miller said. “It’s pretty amazing when you get a photo with all the kids, with the grandchildren and great grandchildren, that they created. It’s pretty amazing.”
The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony is Nov. 4 at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. Tickets are $95 each, $850 for a table of 10 and includes a 25th annivesary commemorative book. RSVP by Oct. 19 at www.gbshof.com.