03/20/2005 6:50 AM - Kip Miller is back in the saddle after being out of action for several months
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Watching Kip Miller before a faceoff is like watching one of those scratchy old westerns where the hero was usually outnumbered, trouble awaited in every saloon and the villain always wore black.
Theres Miller looking over his shoulder like a sheriff worried about a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.
There he is motioning to his teammates to assume defensive positions, suggesting that hes circling the wagons when hes really going to head the bad guys off at the pass.
Hes the trail boss whos not afraid of going face-to-face with an old nemesis, the crusty veteran who may not be the quickest draw, but has been down this path so many times before that not just any buckaroo is going to beat him.
If the Griffins are going to avoid the sun setting on their season, its veteran players like Miller who are going to have to ride to the rescue.
Of course, hes not going to tell you this any more than a cowboy is going to take a bow after capturing an outlaw with a $500 bounty on his head.
As Miller is quick to point out, one guy isnt enough. Its everybody doing the same thing and doing it well, he says. Its a lot of hard work and if you look at our team, we do work hard.
Miller is no stranger to Griffins fans, having played here during the
2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons between NHL stints with Pittsburgh and the New York Islanders. He spent the last two seasons with the Washington Capitals.
I think this team is geared toward the playoffs, he says. Weve got more of a grind team than weve had in the past when I was here. It takes a lot of grunt work to win in the playoffs. Its not the pretty plays that win a series.
In other words, championship teams have to be able to win ugly. When Miller joined the Griffins right after Christmas, things were just plain ugly. Not that he helped matters much at first he might as well have been swimming in quicksand.
Coming back was harder than I expected, he says. It was everything:
conditioning, timing, the speed of play, shooting, passing, getting used to contact again everything.
It didnt help that the Griffins were playing likea bad episode of F-Troop as the organization struggled to find enough healthy bodies to fill a lineup decimated by injuries. Talk about The Gang That Couldnt Shoot Straight. . .
Weve had a lot of injuries, so there have been a lot of changes, he says. I havent played on the same line from one weekend to the next and thats huge. Its tough for everybody.
Its been especially tough on a guy like Miller whos been accustomed to playing Tonto to Jaromir Jagrs Lone Ranger in recent years, first in Pittsburgh and, later, in Washington.
Although he concedes their relationship has been overstated in the media, Miller would be the first to admit that he has welcomed the opportunity to play with a superstar of Jagrs caliber.
I like playing with him, he says. A lot of guys find it hard to play with a guy like that, who is very demanding and who can be very emotional hes up, hes down but I always found it a joy. I never worried about it.
And so hes not going to fret about whos got his back now, because hell take the proverbial bullet for the team if necessary.
There have been games where weve been flat-out terrible and didnt deserve to be in them and yet we ended up winning, he says. Other times weve taken it to teams and we just couldnt score. Thats just the way it is.
Maybe weve already gone through our little skid and now we understand things a little better.
For the second straight year, Miller has watched a former teammate lose his coaching job, first Bruce Cassidy in Washington, then Danton Cole in Grand Rapids.
The first guy to go is always the coach, he says. If that doesnt work, then you start shipping guys out and bringing in new players. Its the only other option that you really have.
Miller may not know what its like to have people yelling for your scalp, but hes played in enough places to know what its like to feel like youre constantly on the run from the law.
Over the past 15 seasons, hes seen action with eight different NHL teams, including three separate stints with the Islanders. Hes also played for minor league teams in six more cities.
In fact, his greatest thrill as a pro came in Denver a decade ago when he won the Turner Cup in the IHL. We were really good we didnt lose but two games in the playoffs, he recalls. We had a really solid team.
Miller isnt about to draw comparisons between that team and the Griffins, although there is one thing that he thinks could bode well for his current teammates. It was a lockout year, so theres one similarity, he says. It would be nice (to win again).
Although currently without an NHL contract since Washington has chosen to go with a younger lineup, Miller is not ready to ride off into the sunset just yet, even as he approaches his 36th birthday.
Its always worked out all right when Ive come here to play, he says. Bob (McNamara, the Griffins GM) has always been nice to me that way. Ive never been pressured to sign with the parent club.
If that makes Miller a hired gun, he cherishes the opportunity. Being a wanted man has its advantages people notice. Im happy to be able to play here well see what happens, he says.
Like others, he has no idea what the future holds.
I think the NHL is going to change, no matter what. Its going to get younger. If the owners get a salary cap like theyre talking, why wouldnt they play all their draft picks and get rid of all the old guys?
Miller knows its possible that he might find himself without a job come fall. I still think I can play at the NHL level, he says, dismissing any thoughts of going to Europe to play. This is the type of hockey I know.
Besides, hes not sure how much longer he wants to be away from his family. Its been tough the last five years, he says. Ive been basically living by myself. My son (Skylar) grew up when I wasnt around, so when I get home now, its time to play.
Still, he admits that its hard to give up the dream. I would like to play a couple more years, although my wife might not, he says. If (the
lockout) goes on too long, obviously Im going to be too old.
If anything, the time away from the game taught Miller that returning to the ice after an extended layoff isnt as simple as it sounds. I think those guys who went to the Motor City Mechanics realize its not that easy, he says.
Even playing at a level below this is hard. You can workout all summer, but it doesnt matter. Skating is skating, but playing in a game requires another level of intensity.
And so, for the near future, Miller is perfectly content to stay in Grand Rapids. I love it here, he says. Ill keep playing here as long as I can.
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