ANAHEIM, Calif. – There are now flecks of gray in his beard, yet Ryan Miller still possesses the wry sense of humor that has endeared him to teammates, fans and the media throughout his 17 years in the National Hockey League.
Miller let out a slight chuckle at the mention of him playing at a "high level" in goal for the Anaheim Ducks at 39 years old and gave a typical humble response when told his coach, Dallas Eakins, called him a "secondary coach" on the ice during practices.
"That's generous," Miller joked Wednesday morning in Honda Center, where the Ducks would face his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, hours later. Though he's no longer an unquestioned starter in goal, Miller is using his wealth of experience to impart wisdom on younger teammates during a time of transition in Anaheim.
Miller treasures every day he comes to the rink, although the commute isn't as stress-free as it was during his 11 years in Buffalo. Anaheim has become home to him and his family. However, Buffalo occupies a significant place in his heart. The Sabres gave Miller an opportunity to start his career, and he uses those experiences to help guide the Ducks on and off the ice.
"I had a great time in Buffalo," Miller said. "It’s a huge part of my life. People in Buffalo had a huge impact on my life, from the people I saw at the grocery store to people at the rink every single day. I felt fully a part of the community and fully a part of the organization for a long time. It was and still is a sad day that it wasn’t quite working out to where I was going to be in the plans for Buffalo. Accepting that people change and situations change and you move forward in life. I still look back and think about how great it was to be a Buffalo Sabre and I still have a big piece of my heart that feels that way."
The Sabres' golden season celebration has conjured memories of the franchise's memorable runs, some of which occurred with Miller in goal. He remains among the most beloved figures in Buffalo sports history, despite his departure occurring in February 2014.
In 50 years of Sabres hockey, Miller remains the franchise's leader in games played (540) – 49 more than Dominik Hasek, whose number is hanging in the rafters of KeyBank Center – and wins (284). If Miller wins 21 more games, he'll become one of only 13 goalies in NHL history with at least 400. He is already the winningest U.S.-born goalie. His 758 games played rank 22nd all-time.
Miller, a fifth-round draft pick in 1999, led the Sabres to the Eastern Conference Finals in each of his first two seasons as the starter. He was named an All-Star in 2006-07, the season in which Buffalo won the Presidents' Trophy. In 2007-08, he set the franchise's single-season record for games played by a goalie (76), and he won the Vezina Trophy in 2009-10.
Additionally, Miller was the United States' starting goalie at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he earned a silver medal and was named most valuable player of the tournament. He has not started more than 21 games since 2016-17 and has served as the backup to John Gibson since signing with Anaheim as a free agent in July 2017.
While many of his teammates were preparing off-ice Wednesday, Miller was in the net working with the Ducks' healthy scratches. He has made a tangible impact on the team's younger players, according to Eakins.
"He’s an asset everywhere for me," Eakins, who is amid his first season as the Ducks' coach, said Wednesday morning. "Number one, he’s an excellent goaltender. He’s already given us an amazing game. In practice he’s great for all of our players. He’s almost like a secondary coach out there a lot of the times. He’s really free with information to the coaching staff. He doesn’t just sit there and wonder if we’ve seen it or not seen it. Then having a guy with that amount of experience to be your teammate, I think is a great privilege for all of our other guys because I’m not sure there’s anything in the game that can happen that he hasn’t seen before."
Entering Wednesday, Miller had played one of the Ducks' six games, stopping 26 of 27 shots during a 2-1 win over Columbus on Oct. 11. He started 38 of the 48 games in which he appeared during his first two seasons with Anaheim, recording a .921 save percentage.
Miller enjoys his role on a team going through a transition. The Ducks are trying to become younger and faster but success on the ice will require the leadership of veterans such as him. Prior to the game against Buffalo, Miller said the Ducks have a "little spark in this team" that could help them surprise this season. He also downplayed his role as a prominent leader, saying he simply makes himself available to whomever needs advice or guidance.
Miller wants to continue to play at a high level and intends to remain in the NHL as long as he can accomplish that goal. He said he's a "better goalie than I was at a certain age," and credited the Sabres for providing him with the opportunity to accomplish all he has on and off the ice in his career.
"I’ve learned to be a part of other communities," Miller said. "Vancouver was a great stop for me and this time in Southern California with Anaheim has been great. A real blessing for my family and where my son can watch me play. My wife can be active with things that interest her and do her job. I can still be doing my job at a high level. It’s really been quite a journey from Buffalo, but Buffalo is definitely where it started. Looking back on it, I was blessed to get drafted by Buffalo and be with an organization that really put time into the players and a city that really respected the type of work you did on the ice."