Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Kelly Miller

Undersized Kelly Miller lived the American hockey dream.

Miller and his family grew up hockey. Born in Detroit and raised in Lansing, Michigan, his father Lyle was a former college player who became a part owner of a local hockey rink. This made it pretty easy for Kelly and his brothers to become rink rats. Kelly, Kevin, and Kip Miller all went on to become collegiate, international and NHL stars. They are also cousins of Buffalo Sabres stand out goalie Ryan Miller and his brother Drew.

Kelly played in relative anonymity until entering college. In fact he wasn't even drafted in his initial draft class of 1981 because he played in the almost unknown Great Lakes Junior Hockey League. But after one season at Michigan State, he was snatched up by the New York Rangers in 1982, 183rd overall.

The undersized speedster would amass one of the greatest careers in Michigan State history, including a Hobey Baker nomination in 1985 as the best player in US college hockey. The two time Michigan State MVP and team captain also starred with the United States junior team, representing the nation at the World Junior Championships three times.

Unlike a lot of student athletes, Miller was a great student as well. The Business major graduated with a 3.51 GPA despite his devotion to hockey and despite time missed for the World Juniors. He was twice named to the CCHA's all academic team, with an honorary mention another year. His academic quests would continue in the pros, working as a stock broker and earning his real estate license in the NHL off-seasons.

Upon graduation Miller stepped directly into the National Hockey League, playing in the final 5 regular season games and 3 playoff games with the Rangers. He finished the year by representing USA at the senior World Championships.

Miller returned for his rookie season in 1985-86, but found nagging knee and ankle injuries hampering him. An offensive leader in college, Miller found the NHL to be a much tougher place to score. He would end up 13 goals and 33 points in a respectable rookie season.

After not showing much offensive progression in half a season in 1986-87, the Rangers gave up on the youngster. Miller found himself traded with Mike Ridley and Bob Crawford to the Washington Capitals in exchange for Bobby Carpenter. The trade would go down as one of the best in Caps history.

Miller would never really find much offense in Washington either. Only once in 13 seasons in the nation's capital would he surpass the 20 goal mark. But Miller worked hard to evolve into a defensive specialist, often playing with Mike Ridley and Michal Pivonka. Miller would be a finalist for the Selke Trophy, as NHL's best defensive forward, in 1992.

Miller was a very unpredictable skater, and that was his best asset. He was lightning quick, but knew how to throw off the opposition by using his speed in multiple gears. His hand and stick skills never caught up to him at the NHL level, but as his career progressed he became a decent passer while on the break. He was strong at reading plays and great at anticipating moves, allowing him to become a top checker and penalty killer. He was a tiny little guy, but he did put what he had into an engaging physical game. He knew his limitations.

Not surprisingly, Miller was a crowd favorite in Washington. Those fans were happy for Miller as much as anyone when the Capitals made an unexpected journey to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. Despite losing the finals to Detroit, the experience was one of Miller's career highlights. He had been through good times and bad in Washington, and it must have been justifying to be a part of that team.

After finishing the year at the World Championships, Miller retired in 1999. He did sign a minor league contract in a comeback bid in 2000. He skated with the Grand Rapids Griffins, a team he was already working with as a volunteer coach. He would later coach junior hockey in the Lansing area while starting his own real estate development company.

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